When I was a boy of 8 or 9 I planted a grapefruit seed, hoping it would produce a tree that would provide us with a nice source of winter fruit. Ten years later it was three to four feet tall, with nice shiny leaves. I went off to college, leaving it in the care of my houseplant-challenged mom. Unfortunately, it pined for me and died a slow death — probably due to overwatering.
My grapefruit tree never blossomed in the 10 years I cared for it. So I was amazed to encounter a grapefruit tree loaded with fruit in the south-facing windows of my optometrist, Dr. Chris Fields in Lebanon, N.H. He told me that he had planted seeds 22 years ago when his son was born, and that this was its second year of producing fruit.
Dr. Fields said it bloomed magnificently this past spring and that he went around with a paint brush, transferring pollen from stamens to pistils. The year before he had allowed moving air to do the pollinating, and he had fewer fruits. Some of his fruit felt heavy and full of moisture, others felt light — as if they were made of green Styrofoam. Huh. He's not sure if they will fill up later.
Meanwhile, I am experimenting with my pineapple plant. I reported in this column last summer that I had bought a pineapple plant, even though I was told that after harvesting its one fruit, the plant would die. I ate the fruit in July and kept it going all summer, enjoying the large, shiny strap-like leaves.
Each fall I pick the "team" of plants that get to come inside for the winter, and competition for window space is tough. The pineapple did not make the team this fall, and after a few hard frosts I went to clean out the pot for winter storage. Much to my surprise, there were two new green shoots growing beneath the frosted leaves, and the root system appeared vigorous.
So I cut off all the old, dead leaves and re-potted the youngsters and brought them in. We shall see what happens, but my mouth is watering as I think about the fresh pineapples I (may) get next summer, or perhaps the summer after. It's always fun to experiment.
Back when I was a kid a common school project was to start an avocado plant by suspending a pit by three toothpicks in a glass of water, allowing the base to just kiss the water. But when I tried that a few years ago, I was unable to get one growing. I asked Mrs. Google, and she explained why: avocados need to be started soon after picking. And with modern refrigeration techniques, avocados can be kept edible for months — but older fruits will not start new plants from their pits. Makes sense.
In the fall of 2013 I spotted an avocado plant growing in the compost pile and rescued it, potting it up and giving it a place for the winter. These last two summers it has lived on the deck, getting sun and rain and generally enjoying life outdoors. It is now 30 inches tall, and the stem is half an inch in diameter. Of course I remember avocado trees from my time in the Peace Corps in West Africa — they were bigger than full-sized apple trees here when they were loaded with fruit, so I doubt that mine will ever be anything but a handsome houseplant.
I bought a small banana plant a dozen years or more ago, and kept it outdoors on my deck each summer, bringing it in for the winter ever since. It came with the variety name Cavendish which is what most commercial bananas are.
In a 12-inch pot the banana plant got about 3 feet tall, but never taller. And it never hinted at producing fruit — though it did create several other small banana plants that could be dug and re-potted. This year I gave it to Dr. Fields — if he can get a grapefruit tree to produce, maybe he'll get the bananas to produce, too. I told him that I want one of the bananas if it produces, though.
So Santa Claus, if you are reading this, here is my wish: I want a lemon or lime tree that will produce fruit for me here in Cornish Flat, N.H. Yes, I know, Santa, that I have apples, plums and pears that produce nice fruit outdoors. But that is not the same. I want fresh citrus in winter, and know a number of people who have succeeded in growing lemons or limes indoors. And I've been a good boy this year ... mostly.