Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Beating the Blueberry Blues

This is my third year growing blueberries in containers. I started a few in the ground, and though I thought I was adding a lot of peat moss, the gray sand swallowed it up in an instant and I never could get the soil acidic enough for the plants to thrive. So I moved them into containers in a nice sunny spot next to my garden. For soil I mixed sphagnum peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite, and I regularly toss on coffee grounds along with a bit of balanced fertilizer. The plants are ever so much happier in their new homes.

The spring after the move was 2013, and though the scrawny plants were still recovering from their in-ground struggles, I still collected a few encouraging handfuls of the tasty fruit. I bought a couple more, bringing my collection to a half-dozen. Eagerly I awaited the blueberry season of 2014, but I was not the only one. My squirrel population had discovered them, and throughout the spring they grabbed the blueberries the instant they showed a trace of color. My harvest: zero. Worse yet, I had to stake up plants tilted in their pots from the pests climbing in them, and one plant even succumbed to the damage.

Various acquaintances told me about concoctions of strong flavors that would supposedly repel the marauders, and I toyed with buying a commercial product that supposedly intimidates them with the smell of animal blood. But I figured that anyone who had really found an effective repellent would have made enough to buy out Apple, Microsoft, Google, Walmart, and several small countries by now. So what to do?

My garage has a 10-feet wide concrete pad along the south-facing rear side, a natural spot for containers. Surrounding this is an open area, unlike the garden which is ringed with oak canopy. With all the hawks in my neighborhood, a prudent squirrel ought to be reluctant to cross that open area and hang around on the very exposed concrete pad munching blueberries. So at the start of spring, I hefted the blueberry containers onto my wagon and wheeled them two at a time to the pad.

I know I'm tempting fate bragging about it, but the voracious critters haven't figured it out yet, and every morning these days I'm picking a bowl of delicious unsprayed blueberries. My next decision will be whether to move the plants back to the garden for the rest of the year, or leave them in their new spot. I'm leaning toward moving them back, just to be more confusing. Wish me luck!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

April's Not Over

It was a real pleasure to hear Noris Ledesma speak to our club. The effervescent tropical fruit master gave us the full story on jakfruit, from their many culinary uses to insider tips for cultivation. Our thanks go to Wayne Clifton for arranging her visit, and to Chris and Celeste Welch for hosting Noris and her mother overnight.

But April's not over. Later this month the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota will host another distinguished expert, Jonathan Crane of the Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead. Dr. Crane is Professor, Tropical Fruit Crop Specialist, and Associate Director at the Center. Widely recognized for his scientific and educational contributions, he has made numerous helpful videos for the dooryard grower (see the video blog at IFAS Fruitscapes as well as Youtube).

Dr. Crane will speak on pollination of tropical fruit crops, and canistel and sapodilla growing in the home landscape. The event will be Tuesday, April 28 at the main meeting room of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. It's just a short distance south of US 41 on Palm Avenue in Sarasota--- park across the street and go through the gate in the fence, which is open from 6:30 to 7:00.

If you can't make it to the talk, some of the excellent slides from Dr. Crane's talks can be found online, for example this one. But it will be a lot more fun to share the evening with Dr. Crane in person, as well as with our fellow enthusiasts in Sarasota.

Our area clubs host many excellent speakers, but this month's doubleheader will be a tough one to beat.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Who Needs Chill Hours?

The house where I grew up in Ohio had a large apple tree out back, just a few yards behind the house. Its fruit wasn't good-tasting, and nobody ever paid much attention to the hardy tree, but it did perform a service. Many a summer evening it would shade my father and me from the early evening sun as we sat out listening to Cincinnati Reds baseball games on radio. And as darkness fell on those warm, humid nights, it cast that ineffable big-tree presence that soothes as it somehow connects us to nature's deep forces.

When I came to Florida just over three years ago and started learning about fruit trees, I spurned the idea of growing apples here. In Florida's Best Fruiting Plants, the southern half of Florida doesn't even make it into the light green region of marginal apple productivity. It says the fruit is "poorly adapted to Florida growing conditions." Worse yet, "Most cultivars require cross-pollination from other cultivars to set fruit." Even tending to one apple tree sounded like an exercise in futility, let alone a second to pollinate it.

I was quite content with my mangos, avocados, and "rare" fruits, and the fine low-chill stone-fruit varieties that do so well here. So it was much to my surprise, a year ago, when I found myself bringing home an apple tree from the establishment of a local seller, whom I'll call Charlie since that's what everybody else calls him.

What opened my wallet was a vigorous-looking double-grafted apple tree--- the very-low-chill Golden Dorsett on an unknown rootstock, plus a grafted branch of the Anna variety. I planted the complex beauty in a sunny, well-drained irrigated spot near the colder west end of my land. I oriented it with the Anna branch on the south side, where it gets first crack at the sunlight.

Sources say that Golden Dorsett requires 100 to 200 chill hours, and Anna 250 to 300. This past winter, of course, was a one-day wonder, and up to that point it seemed like we had endured all of two or three chill hours. My Florida peaches and plums made fruit, no problem. And the apple(s)? Well, miracles do happen. Branches from both varieties bloomed like crazy, and at least three little fruits are underway on the Golden Dorsett branches. It remains to be seen whether they last to maturity--- and if so, whether they are any good--- but my apple-growing project has already exceeded expectations. And maybe I'll show up with some Sarasota apples for a summer tasting table.

Sunday, April 5, 2015


Regular readers (both of you!) will recall my New Year's resolution--- to improve my fertilizing practices. If I needed any inspiration, I got plenty from Wayne Clifton's fertilizer talk in Sarasota back in February. You can find some of my notes from his talk in my post of March 8.

So how's that resolution going? So far, so good--- the great fertilizer upgrade of 2015 is in full swing.

I care for around 300 plants on my 2-acre spread. As a retired geezer I have enough time, so for me the hardest part is keeping track of what's been fertilized, with what, and when. To keep track of who is planted where, I had made a diagram on the computer showing the location of each significant plant. It's too big to print out, so I chopped it up nine printable sections. Next, I inventoried all my fertilizers, foliar sprays, and major soil amendments--- 20 or so from various times and places--- and gave them two-letter codes. Each time I apply one, I write the date and code next to the plant on the page on which it appears. I'll use the charts for two or three months, then print fresh copies, keeping the back ones handy for reference.

For some amendments, like soil acidifiers and anti-fungal sprays, the plants that receive them are scattered about. For these cases I started a table with the date, the application, and the list of plants that received it. So far it shows foliar nutrients on all the citrus, and anti-fungal spray on the mangos plus everybody else that showed any sign of problems.

The system looks promising, but the first round of fruit trees was quite a chore. After my first few plantings three years ago, when I naively planted low "so they can get more water", I learned about planting on mounds, at least a few inches above the surrounding soil. But when you are digging up sod in the hot Florida sun, you generally don't feel like clearing "a circle 10 feet in diameter" as
the IFAS people would have it, so the mounds were rather small. Each year I have enlarged the cleared and mulched zone. This year I bought bags of topsoil and enlarged the mounds as well, then applied the first spring fertilizer and a thick layer of mulch. It's also the perfect time to check that the irrigation is working properly, for those trees lucky enough to have it. All this attention for each tree makes it a slow process. But like many big jobs, breaking it up into just a few each day makes it relatively painless.

My first goal was to complete initial fertilization by March 31, and I made it, just barely. With the "spring cleaning" finished, it should be easier the rest of the year. So far I'm on course to collect that gold star on New Year's Eve.