Sunday, March 19, 2017

Moving On

Today marks the end of an era, as MRFC members gather at Palma Sola Park, at 2:00 this afternoon of March 19, in remembrance of Ray Jones. More than three decades have passed since he founded this organization, and all of us who have enjoyed its benefits--- and all of those who ever will--- owe him our gratitude. I’m very glad that I’ve had five years here to learn from Ray and so many other masters.

Today marks the end of another, far less significant era: my four years as weekly blogger at the MRFC websites. At the behest of Pete Ray, and with Ray Jones’ encouragement, I took on the task as a learning experience. I resolved that every Sunday, I would post whatever I could come up with that might be of interest to someone, somewhere. And I’ve enjoyed the experience, even though at times it seemed like Sunday came around every three or four days. But the world is ever-changing, and it’s time for me to devote more of my writing energy elsewhere.

I’ll continue to post articles, when inspiration strikes, and for the time being I’ll serve as blog editor. Any submission of writing about fruit trees and related topics, from anyone, anywhere, will be duly considered. If it’s appropriate for the MRFC Articles section of our site, I’ll help with whatever editing may be needed, and post the article and any accompanying photos. Of course each article will carry its writer’s name (unless they prefer to remain anonymous, in which case credit will go to “an author who prefers to remain anonymous”). It doesn’t matter whether you use fancy-dancy, stuck-up elitist words like “behest”, or you don’t know what a dangling participle is. Just write from the heart, and leave it at the “Contact” section of the MRFC website, or email it directly to me, and we’ll see what we can do.

Our writers can share their hard-won knowledge of the unique horticultural conditions of our region. Or they can be the eyes and ears for news from the fruit tree world, or the recorders of the history of our club and of the larger fruit-tree community. They can recount the sights, sounds, and tastes from their travels. Or they can simply brighten our day with their observations, tales, or creative musings. There is much to say, if that is one’s calling.

Supporting the home growing of rare fruit in our region helps to address more different ecological, economic, health, and social challenges than, well, anything else I can think of, and its value is something that all of us, whatever our world view, ought to be able to agree on. Maybe your part in this enterprise is writing articles, or maybe it’s selling fruit and trees, or maybe just growing your own for family and friends, or maybe it’s something else. But however you choose to share this great blessing, I wish you, in one of Ray Jones’ favorite phrases, good growing!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Windy Day In March

I hadn't been to East Bradenton Park since December, and it's time for the first spring fertilization. So one afternoon this past week I headed up to the Park with a 50-pound bag of processed poultry litter, plus some Fertrell and elemental sulfur. Fortunately, as it turned out, I also brought along some bamboo poles and staking ribbon.

As spoiled rotten lucky as I am, it's not surprising that my property is surrounded by heavily treed land, including the conservation woods along the southern border, and the good neighbors to the north. So I'm not used to the wind problems that can plague an unprotected grove like East Bradenton Park. I got a quick lesson.

At least there was only one total loss, this formerly beautiful canistel. It was well-staked when planted, like most of the trees in the grove, but the stake was nowhere to be found. I don't believe anyone unstaked it; most likely the mowing crew picked it up.


A couple of other trees looked like they just barely withstood the high winds of the past few weeks. First was the one and only guava tree in the grove, a Billy Hopkins selection called Pink Barbie.

Sporting three new stakes, it's now somewhat straighter.

The fast-growing Tice mulberry was leaning heavily. I didn't try to restore it to verticality, just to sustain it without further damage.



There were a few other signs of high wind. The carambolas had lost all of last season's leaves, but were leafing out nicely.

The trees aren't as pretty as most of what we see at home, but overall the grove is in good shape. Of course the community is eager to see some fruit. This year we will need to strip the mangos, longans, and most of the other fruit from these young trees, but there should be papayas, carambola, and maybe bananas. And maybe this little bunch of loquats will ripen up.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

From The (E)mail Bag

Special Notice: The MRFC plans a remembrance event for Ray Jones, at Palma Sola Park. It is tentatively scheduled for 2:00 p. m. on Sunday, March 19. Details will be announced at this month's club meeting and also in an email to members.

From time to time, we receive plant questions at the fruit tree club email accounts. There isn't time to answer all of them, but once in a while I pitch in and help out. This is a recent one.

New Grower: I am a beginning gardener. I obtained a starfruit tree from an online nursery. The leaves looked slightly wilted so I may have overwatered it. The next day some of the leaves started to turn yellow and are slowly getting worse and falling off. I am now putting it out in the morning sun until noon. Is there anything else I should do? Thanks.

A: You should have bought your tree at one of the club sales, or else at a local nursery. Sorry to hear that you starfruit tree is having some trouble. Trees in containers need to be moist but not wet, and overwatering is a more common mistake than underwatering. Usually I use the very scientific approach of sticking my finger into the pot. If it feels moist, no water is needed.

What's tricky is that if the tree has been damaged by overwatering, then it's more vulnerable to underwatering than before. That's because it has root damage, and consequently is less able to draw enough water. So it's important not to overreact by underwatering. If there is any fruit on the tree, take it off. It's an extra demand that the tree can't handle until it regains its health.

The water needs depend of a container plant depend on the amount of foliage relative to the size of the pot, and the temperature. The more foliage and the warmer the temperature, the more water is needed. That's because the tree's main use for water is for evaporation to keep the leaves from overheating. You might consider some pruning--- a low branch or two that the tree doesn't need, or part of an overly long branch--- again to decrease the water needs.

Sometimes root-damaged trees will shed some or all of their leaves to protect themselves from evaporation, and leaf out after they have strengthened their root systems. I don't know whether this can happen with carambolas, but I've seen it in several species. So if your tree does lose all its leaves, don't give up until the wood is actually dead. However, your starfruit is almost surely a grafted tree (unless the seller robbed you). If the part above the graft dies and the tree starts growing back from below the graft, you'll need to send it to the compost and get another one. The rootstock will not make a desirable tree.

I would say that the half day of morning sun is a good idea if the tree is having problems. That will decrease the water needs. You might even give it sun only until mid-morning until the wilting diminishes.

Good luck with your tree, and don't get discouraged if things to go badly. All experienced growers have killed their fair share of plants!

NG: My star fruit tree is doing much better now. The leaves have stopped falling off and it seems to have stabilized. There are only about half the number of leaves as it started with, but they look healthy. I took your advice and am careful not to underwater it either. Thanks for your help.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Magnificent Flying Machines

Robotic technology has been a job killer in recent years, and a recent article suggests that our species may not be the only one put out of work. It reports on Japanese researchers who managed to pollinate lilies using small drones decked out in horsehair covered with a sticky gel that carries the pollen. Operating the $100 drone requires “a certain amount of practice with remote control”. The inventors concede that pollinating drones are not expected to replace bees altogether, only to help them.

As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.

A number of articles tell of a different sort of aerial approach already at work in the grape fields of our Pacific coast. Falconers train their raptors to protect the Dionysian fruit from wild birds. For those concerned about animal welfare--- and I most certainly count myself among their ranks--- the falcons are trained to intimidate, not injure, and the falcons themselves are required to be captive-bred, not captured from the wild. As for efficiency, one falconer advises that “for projects larger than 1,000 acres, you’ll probably have to add a second falcon.”

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I think I may have benefitted from a natural version of this approach. The woods adjoining my land are well populated by hawks, and though their noisy cries are not the most appealing, their aerial patrols keep the squirrels and smaller birds wary of the relatively open areas. Often as not, the birds and the bushy-tailed rats seem to pass up my fruit. Unfortunately there aren’t any fowl nasty enough to discourage the ring-tailed forest demons from their nighttime raids.

Between drones and trained falcons, my regular readers will easily guess which of the two I’m more enthusiastic about. I’m the first to admit that I’ve benefitted greatly from clever man-made tools both old and new--- indeed like many of us, I likely would not have lived as long nor nearly as comfortable a life without them. But how much better it is, in the long run, when we can use what nature provides, and just steer her natural course a bit to our benefit.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Calling All Newbies

We interrupt this ongoing blog to plug this spring’s Fruit Tree Paradise Workshop. That’s my twice-a-year, 3-hour introductory class on fruit tree horticulture, which will take place on Saturday, March 25, from 2:00 to 5:00. If you know anyone who might want to take the class, you can send them to this web page for more information and to register if they like.

The class costs $25, or $35 for a couple, but if that is a burden I’ll be happy to adjust the price appropriately. The proceeds all go to Transition Sarasota, a non-profit non-political organization that seeks to build local community by supporting local food and local business (full disclosure--- I serve on its Board of Directors).

Of course there is a long list of folks in these parts who know a heck of a lot more than I do about growing fruit trees, but none of them offer such a class. If they do, I’ll be happy to send interested parties there, and to attend it myself. But for now, it’s up to me.

This will the fourth time for the class, and it’s been fun. I’m fortunate to have a convenient classroom--- my two acres here in north Sarasota County. Actually, it’s less than two, after allowing for the house, the driveway, the shade of the oaks, and the ornamentals, but that still leaves room for plenty of fruit trees for hands-on demonstrations.

In a 3-hour class, a lot of information is dispensed. But as an experienced teacher of subjects other than fruit trees, I’ve learned to ask myself “What are the key underlying ideas?” If I can’t sum them up in a few sentences, then I don’t really have a clear understanding of what I’m trying to get across. So, in a nutshell:

1. In selecting a species and variety of fruit tree, and then in growing it, one should consider seven basic horticultural concerns: sunlight, nutrition, drought, flood, wind, cold, and (for those lucky and unlucky enough to live right on the coast) salt.

2. A fruit tree is not a machine, but rather an adaptive system with enormous embodied intelligence. And it is part of a surrounding ecology, which is an adaptive system with enormous embodied intelligence.

I try to put most of what I say in the context of these big ideas. And I also ask myself “What are are the key takeaways that I want people to remember, even if they forget everything else?”. Simply put, they are:

1. Promote healthy ecologies above and below ground.

2. Prune aggressively, fertilize conservatively, and mulch heavily.

Of course there are lots of practical tips, for example:

1. Tip-prune to force bushy structure, and don’t allow the tree to grow tall.

2. Plant on mounds, and when you plant, free the roots enough for them to start growing straight into the surrounding soil. If necessary, root-prune to correct circling roots and other bad root structure.

And of course there’s the most important takeaway of all:

Join your local fruit club(s) and become part of the fruit tree growing community. Share your knowledge with others as they share theirs with you.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Warm Day In December

Readers know of my fondness for heavy mulch in fruit tree groves. I won’t say it’s the solution to all fruit tree health problems, but throw in good root pruning when you plant a tree with a root system distorted by living in a container--- that is, any tree that has spent time in a container--- and you’re getting close. All those trees growing out in the woods, doing perfectly well without any babying from us, have at least two things going for them--- a natural root system and a rich soil ecology.

Early in the sequence of East Bradenton Park Grove project organizational meetings, I began my lobbying effort for mulching the future grove. The County people, bless their hearts, think of mulch as something that comes a cubic foot or two at a time in a plastic bag, and makes things looks pretty, while controlling weeds. We fanatics think of it as something that comes in a huge orange or white truck, costs next to nothing, and after a month of weathering makes things look pretty, while controlling weeds. And after a year of decomposition, nourishes the tree and gives rise to that marvelous explosion of soil life.

Starting this far apart, the goal was not a full meeting of minds, but only some truckloads of wood chips in the grove. The county does trim trees and chip the wood into big trucks, but it’s not used to taking the resulting “waste” anywhere except the specified dropping area. Of course bureaucracies are hard to change, and that’s to be expected--- no one wants to be responsible for something that turns out badly, and the safe thing to do is what you’ve already been doing. But in my experience, most people really do want to do what’s best, and you just have to persist until you find the right combination of authority, willingness to listen and understand, and a bit of courage, and then change can happen.

So eventually, piles of mulch started appearing next to the grove. As autumn unfolded, MRFC member and East Bradenton Park super-volunteer Josh Starry moved vast quantities of it in his double-wide orange wheelbarrow. Once in a while, I showed up to move one load to each three of his.


The grand finale, at least for this season, was on December 27, the day of the Palma Sola tour for MRFC and Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota members. After the enjoyable walk in Palma Sola, four of us gathered our armloads of black sapote and starfruit, then drove over to East Bradenton. Josh and I, along with MRFC and TFSS member Kevin Hook and Susan Jennifer Griffith of the Manatee Extension, set to work.

Even at its lowest point, the Florida sun packs some punch, and I was glad it was late in the day. Shadows were long by the time we finished, but the nineteen remaining trees now sit comfortably on their irrigated mounds, roots happy under their protective mulch layers, looking forward to spring and a vigorous 2017 growing season.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Heavy Hitters and Scouts

I wonder whether there is any place with more great local fruit tree clubs than Florida's Suncoast, with the MRFC and Sarasota's TFSS in the heart of it. I attend at least two dozen club talks every year, and the overall quality and entertainment value of the presentations is impressive. More often than not, the talks given by club members rival the big names. With the diversity of subjects--- from how to grow a good mango, to the fascinating species of annonas, to the health benefits of eating fruits and how best to cook them---- there is something for everyone.

This spring features a lineup of heavy hitters up and down the coast, and I'm not talking about baseball spring training:

This Wednesday, February 8, the Suncoast Tropical Fruit and Vegetable Club in Nokomis hosts Noris Ledesma of the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden on "Training and Pruning a Mango Orchard to Improve Blooming and Yield in South Florida". As most of us know, any talk by the effervescent Noris is a treat. If you miss the February 8 talk, you can hear Noris at the March 28 meeting of the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota. The topic is not posted, but will appear at the TFSS website in due course.

February also gives you two chances to hear the famous Chris Rollins: at the MRFC meeting on the 13th, and the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota meeting on the 28th. The topic at both is Florida's Best Fruits For Homeowners. Retired after 40 years directing the Fruit and Spice Park in South Florida, Chris is spending this month touring the state. The great fruit tree sage and raconteur is another treat not to be missed.

As if these weren't enough, May features Jonathan Crane, famed tropical fruit tree expert and Associate Director of the Tropical Research and Education Center, speaking at the Sarasota club on May 23. Dr. Crane is a fount of knowledge on pretty much every aspect of growing tropical fruit, and always gives an enjoyable and informative talk.

All of the local clubs welcome guests, and details about the meeting times and locations can be found at the websites of these organizations: MRFC, TFSS, STFVC.

It's certainly an historic spring lineup, but let's not forget the "scouts" who find these speakers, persuade them to visit, and make the arrangements. With apologies in advance to those I am failing to credit, thanks go to Jimmy and Sally Lee (along with Scott Petersen, Ray Jones, and Wayne Clifton in recent years) at the MRFC, and Bob Thinnes at the Suncoast club. In Sarasota, the entire Board pitches in, but past and current Chairman Will Wright deserves the lion's share of the credit. When we see these volunteers at our club meetings, let's remember to thank them for putting together the speaker programs that we all enjoy.