Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Fruit Tree Paradise

Southwest Florida is in many ways a paradise for subtropical fruit trees. Though South Florida may be safer from freezes, one look at the limestone that sits beneath its thin layer of topsoil can make our sandy soil seem like Iowa black gold. With multiple fruit tree clubs providing a full slate of speakers, tree sales, and other support, I expect to see more and more rare fruit trees in our area as the years go by.

I recently had occasion to write an article--- with intended audience the general public--- about growing rare fruit trees. It's posted here at the Transition Sarasota website, and I believe it will also appear in this season's Eat Local Guide for our four-county area, which should appear around the end of the year. Feel free to link to the article (or to the Guide), or to make and distribute copies in any way that you think might promote fruit tree horticulture in our region.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Jamaica Cherry, Panama Cherry, Strawberry Tree--- call it what you will, Muntingia calabura is one of the more interesting minor subtropical fruit trees. Actually, the name of Strawberry Tree is best avoided, since apart from being green and red, respectively, the tree and fruit are not the least bit like a strawberry, and there are other species with this moniker. The fruit is not very cherry-like, either, so the best handle just might be Muntingia.

It's a very fast-growing small-to-medium-sized tree, doing well in a wide range of soils, and drought-tolerant. On the other hand, it can withstand only a light freeze, and can't take salt exposure. Not unattractive in growth habit or bloom, it produces ample amounts of fruit through the summer and fall. The half-inch berrylike fruit is sweet, with numerous tiny seeds not noticed in eating. Its flavor strongly resembles pink cotton candy, and most people find it appealing.

Muntingia is grown from seed and fruits within a couple of years. For those short on space, or in salt environments, it can fruit readily in a container.

As with many fast-growing trees, the wood of Muntingia is not strong. My first Muntingia tree perished after climbing raccoons stripped off its branches, one-by-one in a series of nightly raids. I had bought it at a tree sale, and wasn't eager to shell out more bucks for another. But last year I took home a few fruits from the big Muntingia at Palma Sola Botanical Park, squashed three of them and dropped them into small pots, and thinned several hundred little sprouts down to three new trees.

One of them grew much better than the others, and I recently planted it in my northwest grove, the one least frequented by the masked marauders. Here it is, looking cheerful after all the recent rain. Of the remaining pair, one went to a friend, and the other will be a backup, at least until next spring's tree sale.

The gang at Tropical Fruit Forum reports widely differing experiences with Muntingia, so much so that one might suspect there are different varieties or subspecies under discussion. Commenters in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Broward County report extensive root suckering, as far away as 50 yards from the tree, while the majority have had no such problem. Some find the seeds as easy to start as mine were, others have had considerable difficulty with propagation. Some authorities recommend full sun, but Forum posters suggest part shade. That is my intuition about the plant, as well, and an oak tree shelters mine from afternoon sun.

Muntingia takes well to pruning, and a south Sarasota friend has one he's kept at eight feet that sports a hefty trunk several inches in diameter. That's my plan, as well, to get little Muntie tough enough to stand up to those ring-tailed meanies.

Unless one is intimidated by the occasional report of root suckers, Muntingia is an easy tree that will provide a sweet treat through the warm season.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Richard Campbell on Pruning

Last week I told about the long day that found me at Fairchild Farm in Homestead with three dozen other enthusiasts from the Suncoast Tropical Fruit and Vegetable Club. Still an hour before mid-day, the late summer sun was intense. But after four hours in the air-conditioned bus, we were ready to watch Richard Campbell in action.

Richard is one fast pruner, spending no more than a few minutes on any given tree. He cautions against overthinking the process, working instead from general principles and a few particular needs for each species.

One of the first points Richard emphasized was pruning to minimize damage in high winds. Homestead is on the front lines for Atlantic hurricanes, and a big one can devastate an unprepared grove. Fairchild's studies have shown that survivability starts to drop above thirteen feet. Thus, for example, Richard prunes avocados to thirteen feet, then to fifteen feet the next year, then back to thirteen and so on. Alternating the heights diminishes the buildup of branching at a single level. Of course thinning out the interior of a tree allows wind to pass through more easily, as well as admitting sunlight to the lower branches to keep them healthy and productive.

Our first stop was the native tree area. I was pleased to hear that Richard considers the American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) an excellent-tasting fruit. Regular readers will recall that I acquired a small one last year and planted it next to the woods to the south of my house. Richard said that the 13-foot rule doesn't apply to this species, as it has very flexible branches that make it hurricane-proof. He took off a few dead branches but otherwise left the 30-foot tree on its own.

For most fruit trees, however, Richard recommends very vigorous pruning, and not only to withstand high winds. He explained that modern fruit trees are adapted to pruning, which stimulates and promotes growth, rejuvenating the tree and increasing productivity. The energy the tree produces should go into its fruit rather than maintaining a lot of wood, so another general goal is to increase the “leaf-to-wood ratio.” Of course for any plant, dead wood cannot be a benefit and removing it is always correct.

Our first demo was an ultra-rare Wilson Popenoe avocado. Near the ground, the trunk was massive, having been top-worked several times. Indeed, Richard estimated that the original tree was planted around 1940. He was up the tree in a flash, sawing off the largest main branch. Its removal cut the height of the tree by nearly a third. Richard says there is little point in trying to shape an avocado, since they are vigorous growers that won't keep their shape anyway. The main goal is simply to limit its height. Clipping a few other branches to thin out the interior, the first tree of the day was finished in a couple of minutes.

The bark of avocado trees is vulnerable to sunburn, and Richard suggests protecting newly-exposed wood with white latex paint--- just dilute it with water in a spray bottle and apply.

Next we went to a small collection of fairly young jakfruit. Because of the danger of dieback, these should be pruned only during the hot, rainy season when the tree grows fastest. To promote fruiting, “bring it down and bring it up.” That is, prune the top to limit the height, and remove low branches to allow light and air to reach the trunk where the fruit will form. Always cut off the stem when harvesting the fruit.

We finished up with Richard's favorite of all fruits, the mango. He claims to have eaten more of them than any other human being. Nothing I could write here could compare to the value of watching Richard's online videos, such as tippingpruning young mango trees, and pruning vigorous mango trees.

After hearing about some of the new varieties being developed at Fairchild and at the Zill enterprise, and tasting some samples right off the trees, we made our way back to the bus. It was time for goodbyes, and taking photos of people rather than trees. Here I am next to Richard--- I'm the taller and half-as-strong one. On the other side of Richard is Larissa, a very knowledgeable grower in the Crafton-and-Berto circle a ways down the coast. At the two edges are friends Michael and Kevin, who are members of the MRFC and TFSS as well as STFVC. And behind the camera was another three-clubber, MRFC Secretary Josh Starry.

Richard was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge, spending more than two hours with us, and we were grateful and inspired. From there we were off to an excellent lunch at the Verde Community Farm and Market, and a brief tour of the community farm before the return trip home. Despite the lengthy journey and the hours in the hot sun, the day had flown by. Unforgettable.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Down On The Farm

Once in a while you wake up knowing that today is a day you will remember for the rest of your life, and that happened to me last Tuesday. I would be joining some fellow members of the Suncoast Tropical Fruit and Vegetable Club on a trip to the Fairchild Farm, to be instructed in the art of pruning fruit trees by no less a figure than Richard Campbell, Director of Horticulture of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

I'm a slow starter in the morning, and the clock said 3:00 when I staggered out of bed. After a light workout, a big breakfast, and assorted morning devotions, I felt nearly human. Picking up a couple of fruit tree pals on the way, I rolled up to the Suncoast club's meeting site in Nokomis at 6:00. A quarter hour later, a big bus appeared, and by the time the sun peeked over the horizon, three dozen of us were on our way. The back of the bus seemed to collect some of the most passionate enthusiasts, or at least the noisiest, and we talked fruit trees and other horticultural matters all the way to Homestead.

Disembarking from our air-conditioned bubble into the steamy tropical air, we were joined by Richard, sporting a canary yellow shirt and a well-worn leather sun hat. As those who have been to a Fairchild Mango Festival know, Richard has a lot to say. Carrying a folding tree saw and a pair of hand pruners, he poured out a steady stream of horticultural wisdom, historical background, entertaining stories, and general information. The first stop was the native plant area, and then into the groves, for a crash course in how to prune avocados, jakfruit, mamey, and mangos, mangos, mangos.

Remarkably, Richard does all of the pruning of the Fairchild Farm groves, before and after his full days at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, and in addition to multiple business and professional enterprises. And his own house on one acre has about 150 fruit trees. A busy man, indeed, yet generous with his time and knowledge, for a most appreciative audience.

Thanks go to MRFC Secretary Josh Starry for this panorama of us:

Next week I'll pass along some of Richard's pruning wisdom.