(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 2, 2008)
The long dirt driveway that leads to our home is lined with loquat trees. The loquat is an edible fruit tree with large leathery evergreen leaves. The fruit ripens from late February through the end of March. They are mildly sweet and even though they are also know as Japanese plums, we think they taste a little bit like apricots, a fruit my husband loves.
Our family discovered loquats shortly after moving to Florida and ever since, we've made a seasonal ritual out of picking and eating this under-appreciated fruit. Our enjoyment of these early-season edibles is partly why we chose to line our driveway with loquat trees. I also expected them to form a leafy entry tunnel to our house.
Unfortunately, that never happened.
Although the trees have been in the ground for 16 years, they are irregularly shaped and vary widely in size, productivity and taste of the fruit. None of the trees grew big or broad enough to form the leafy tunnel I'd envisioned, and although the fruit of some is sugary sweet, fruit from other trees is fairly bland.
Much of their failure is our own fault.
Ralph and I might have been young and energetic when we first bought our property, but we weren't particularly knowledgeable about proper planting techniques. We knew enough to grow loquat seeds into handsome saplings but not enough to plant the baby trees in enriched soil.
Like much of Central Florida, our land is mainly sand, but thanks to a peat mining operation here before our ownership, the ground is spotted with patches of rich peat. It is also dotted with just as many not-so-rich underground veins of red clay and kaolin, a type of very dense white clay.
Too inexperienced at the time to know the difference, we planted the trees in whatever soil was beneath our shovels -- sand, clay and peat alike. Not surprisingly, the trees in the peat patches grew much larger than those in the sandy soil and far better than the unfortunate few planted in clay.
We've learned much since those early horticultural ventures, including how important it is when planting to replace nutrient-poor dirt with soil rich in organic matter such as manure and compost.
Recently we've been rethinking the lines of trees bordering our driveway. In hopes of still creating a leafy tunnel, we've decided to remove most of the loquats and replace them with some of our favorite clumping bamboo. As owners of a bamboo nursery, we know that within just a couple of years, the bamboos will form the type of arching canopy I had hoped the loquat trees would provide. Although the bamboos won't bear fruit, they will be beautiful to look at, listen to and watch as they sway in the wind.
That brings me back to our existing plantings. In trying to decide which loquat trees to keep and which to remove, we've been paying particularly close attention to this year's crop. After daily taste tests -- it's a tough job but someone has to do it -- we've pretty much got it down to four keepers; two trees that produce particularly sweet white-fleshed fruit, one early variety that is a heavy bearer and one tree covered with unusually small-seeded flavorful orange-fleshed fruit.
Thanks to my husband and his trusty tractor -- equipment we didn't have when we first bought the property and planted the loquats -- some of the trees planned for removal will be transplanted into enriched soil somewhere else on the property. The remaining will be fortified with a top dressing of fertilizer. The clumping bamboo will be set in well-composted soil rich in peat and manure with wood chips added for drainage.
It's too bad we didn't know more about proper planting techniques and the appropriate trees to place on the property when we first moved here -- we could have saved a lot of time, energy and money.
Before settling to Florida, we lived on Cape Cod in a small hand-built house in the woods. During the 17 years we lived there, our family grew and so did the structure that surrounded us, expanding from a 20-by-24-foot space to more than double the size. The constant renovation projects prompted us to nickname the house "Afterthought Master-Plan." It was an appropriate moniker for a building that reflected our constantly changing needs and knowledge.
I suppose the same nickname could be applied to the land around our Florida homestead. We have planted and moved countless shrubs, flowers, trees and vines during the 16 years we've lived here. And soon we'll be adding loquat trees to that list.
An old adage says, "The only thing constant is change," and from personal experience I know it to be true. But another saying also applies: "Some things never change." And my love for a fresh-picked fruit is one of those things.
If you have never tasted a loquat, now is the perfect time to give one a try. You won't find loquats in the grocery, but there's probably a tree growing in your neighborhood. Pick the most orange-colored fruit. They can be peeled and pitted or eaten whole except for the seeds. It's a taste too pleasant to ignore.