Pineapple Prince of Ortega

Pineapple Prince of Ortega
John Allen of Ortega with some of his many pineapple plants.

Sunny, warm, humid. No, it’s not a weather forecast for a typical North Florida summer.  Instead, it’s the atmospheric recipe for growing pineapples.

While people and pets are wilting in the Jacksonville heat and humidity this summer, pineapples are thriving, and one Ortega man has a bumper crop.

It all began 17 years ago when John Allen’s neighbor’s daughter took a trip to Hawaii and returned with a pineapple for her parents and one for Allen and his wife, Donna.

A friendly competition ensued. Best friends as well as neighbors, Allen and Jon Jennings could be observed counting and comparing the number of oranges and grapefruit on their numerous fruit trees until they were too plentiful to count.

Then they started comparing pineapple plants. However, with over 30 plants and an average of 10 or more bearing fruit at any given time each year, it is evident Allen is the Pineapple Prince of Ortega. 

“Growing pineapples isn’t exactly rocket science,” he said. “Remember how you used to put toothpicks in a potato and suspend it in some water to root out and grow a potato vine? It’s that easy and I don’t even put mine in water half the time. I threw some on the ground recently and they rooted out.”

Allen said he lost about 10 plants a few years back during a really hard freeze. “They do not like really cold weather. Otherwise, this is a lazy man’s fruit – hassle-free!” he said.

Allen’s largest plant, the granddaddy of his original Hawaiian starter pineapple, is over three feet in diameter. He grows the pineapples in pots or tubs, sometimes in clusters so he can move them in case of freezing weather. Covering them with just a sheet will not do, as Allen knows from experience. A tarp and heater, even a light bulb, is necessary to protect them. 

“It takes around two years to get fruit, so it has taken me about 17 years to get these many plants,” said Allen.

What happens when eight or 10 ripen at once? “Eat them!” he laughed. “The most gratifying thing is the taste. They are sweeter and better than any other ones. Sometimes if there is a cold winter they might not be as sweet but most of the time they are the sweetest fruit ever.”

Allen explained that pineapples need a lot of sun, not much water – especially since it’s been raining so much, and some fertilizer. Allen recommends fish emulsion.

When asked how often he fertilizes, he laughed, “When I remember. Pineapples are bromeliads and get a lot of water and nutrition from their leaves. When they bloom they have beautiful, brilliant purplish flowers. If you put a banana peel or half of an apple – anything that gives out ethanol gas – in the crown, that gives it a boost.”

Allen said he buys cheap potting soil and mixes it with yard dirt or just uses plain old yard dirt. “You don’t need to pay it a whole lot of attention and in a couple of years you’ll have a pineapple,” he said. “Usually they produce suckers and they can be planted, too.”

The pineapple farmer doesn’t spray with insecticide, over water, buy expensive fertilizer or potting soil. Instead, Allen takes a policy of benign neglect, fertilizing when he remembers, watering occasionally and protecting during a cold spell.

“Each year you plant from your previous year and build up your acreage,” he said. “I have never had a plant die other than during that one hard freeze a few years ago. Have them get as much sun as possible.”

The Allens’ home in Old Ortega is surrounded by large oak trees, which produce a sort of terrarium effect and helps protect his citrus and his pineapples from most cold snaps. One of the peskiest problems? Raccoons, he said.

“When the fruit starts to ripen – and I like to leave them on as long as possible so they are nice and yellow – they give off a sweet smell that the raccoons love! I had about 10 plants down one walkway but had to move them off the raccoon path. They were tearing them up.”

How to grow a pineapple plant in six easy steps

  1. Cut the top off the pineapple plant. Strip off the bottom few leaves.
  2. Place in soil and water it or soak it for a week or so in a glass of water until you see roots.
  3. Plant it in a pot or in the ground in a sunny spot.
  4. Fertilize with fish emulsion every few months. Trim off any dead leaves.
  5. Protect from severe cold and frost.
  6. The fruit will begin in the crown of the plant and turn yellow as it ripens. Cut, eat, plant the top and start all over again! It’s that simple and any pineapple should work.

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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