By Bill Mee and Krystal Folino
You do not need to have a lot of land to grow commercial quantities of lychees. Many people with only one or two mature trees can make a nice extra income by picking and selling their fruit locally or to fruit packers.
What if you have an extra acre or two of empty back yard or a spare lot that you would like to transform into a lovely income producing grove? How can you get started?
Not only can you easily grow lychees for fun and profit, but you may enjoy substantial real estate tax benefits, depending on whether your municipality allows agricultural usage exemptions.
Firstly, you need to figure out how many lychee trees your available space can accommodate. Lychee trees should be planted on at least 20 foot centers. While it is possible to grow the trees much closer in hedge rows, you will eventually encounter problems with the trees shading each other out.
The bloom which becomes the fruit only forms on new growth and trees will not grow well in the shade. Shaded trees produce little in the way of bloom or fruit.
Lychees, if given the opportunity, will develop into huge majestic evergreen trees. While this may be aesthetically beautiful, if landscaping is your objective, it nevertheless poses huge problems when it comes time to pick the fruit.
You have the option of dangling precariously atop of grove ladders or renting an expensive cherry picker.
Much of the best fruit forms at the top of the tree and will be most appreciated by the hungry flocks of fruit devouring birds unless you can get the best fruit first.
If you plant out too many trees (because you just can’t bear to see that empty space) you will end up having to spend a lot of time and money removing the excess trees in a few years. This is exactly what happened to us. Learn from our mistakes.
Twenty to twenty-five foot on center spacing will permit you to place anywhere from 70 to 100 trees to the acre. Remember that you will need to mow around the trees so that you must provide for an access lane. You may wish to provide 25 foot row spacing and 20 foot tree spacing. This is a good balance.
You will want to keep your trees relatively short (max 12 feet) so the only ladder you need to pick with is an inexpensive step or grove ladder. Sooner or later you will fall off the ladder so you should keep the distance between you and the ground as small as possible to prevent yourself from getting hurt.
You should get noticeable production from your trees beginning in the second year and this will continue to increase annually, although some not all your trees will produce fruit every year.
The trees will reach their manageable size within 5 – 10 years if you use good irrigation, nutritional and cultural practices.
If you are growing the trees in soils with a high organic content and a shallow water table you will probably not even require irrigation after the first 3 or 4 months. Such is the case in our grove in West Broward county Florida.
To take full advantage of the approximately 6 week lychee season you should plant different varieties so that the trees that will provide fruit throughout the course of the season. This can be accomplished by planting ½ Brewster and ½ Mauritius varieties. If you are planting out a ½ acre grove you can put in about 15 Brewsters, 15 Mauritius & 10 Hak ip and one of four other varieties such as Bengal, Emperor, Kaimana or Sweet Cliff.Next you are faced with the choice of where and in what form to obtain your trees. You can purchase established container trees in 3 gallon or larger containers or you can opt to plant bare root air layers directly into the ground.
Many people purchase air layers and then place them in containers themselves. When the roots begin to emerge from the bottom container drain holes the trees are ready to plant.
This approach requires that you purchase a soil mix and containers as well as a time release fertilizer such as osmacote sierra. You also must have an irrigation system to water & mist the freshly potted out lychees. This can be either a broadcast sprinkler or emitter based drip style irrigation & mist system.
All of the above can involve a lot of additional cost and time effort. For this reason one good approach is to plant the bare root air layers directly into the ground provided you can directly irrigate the fledgling trees.
The best approach is to provide a drip irrigation system with emitters on each new tree. Three times daily watering is a good practice until the trees become established. This will take anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks depending on the ambient temperature and soil conditions.
When the new trees put out flushes of new growth then you know that the root systems are beginning to spread beyond the limits of the air layer root ball.
One of the most important things you must do to insure the success of your lychees is to provide adequate wind protection in the form of natural or man made wind breaks. Fast growing plants such as bananas make a good wind break and provide some protection from the mid summer sub-tropical sun.
If you don’t want to use bananas you can string rows of shade cloth lengthwise between every other row. The new growth on lychees is very delicate and is easily damaged by winds in excess of 15 mph. The young trees do not have the capacity to continuously replace damaged leaves and this will severely stunt their growth or even lead to their death.
As a further precaution we highly recommend that you mulch the area around the trees to several feet beyond the drip line. Air layered lychees lack a tap root and instead develop shallow spreading root systems.
Mulch helps retain moisture, maintains a more uniform temperature and humidity around the developing root system, provides an organic source of nitrogen and creates a good environment for soil building flora and fauna.
You should plant your trees after the risk of a late winter freeze has diminished. This means that if you are growing your trees in South Florida you can plant them as early as March.
Do not be surprised when the following year (January – February) if some of your trees produce bloom and set fruit. If the trees are small you may want to remove the fruit so that all of the trees’ energy is focused on producing vegetative growth.
Good luck and happy growing!