Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Good Neighbors

Good neighbors may not be the best thing one can have in life, but the list of better ones is mighty short. We are fortunate to live among a mix of good citizens who welcomed us, despite our kicking up dust with noisy house construction for what seemed an interminable time.

The folks directly across our unpaved road are super neighbors, always ready with a friendly wave or a helping hand. And they are plant people, whose yard is a peaceful refuge of beautiful ornamentals. Their bougainvillea lights up the neighborhood on this Christmas Day.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


I love stories of wandering and struggle, that end with finding a home. I'm not sure why, since I was born lucky, in a stable home, and pretty much just had to follow the rules for everything to work out fine for me.

Maybe it goes back to the days even before agriculture, when the clan foraged for a while until a change of season or a stronger clan required a change of scenery, and everyone's lifelong fantasy was permanent residence in a land of plenty. Whatever the reason, tales of a harrowing journey to find a home have always been a favorite, around campfires or Smart TV's, and always will be.

The latest Odysseus in my groves was a pineapple pup. I'd decided to try growing some pineapples in pots, investing some time, effort, and potting mix in return for the ability to move them to safety on the porch when the fruit gets to the raccoon-ready stage. I pulled some pups from my in-ground plants and set them in 1-gallon pots, to be moved to their final 3-gallon homes once they had rooted out.

After setting up eight of his more fortunate cousins, I'd reached the point when the rest were going on the compost pile. For me that pile is just a big open pit surrounded by my papaya plants. Forest gods do come and feast, but I figure better there than in my fruit trees, and like as not they will leave the King of the Outdoors a blessing of natural fertilizer in return.

Little Ody was unceremoniously left for dead in the rotting pile, some time in the fall. Of course I couldn't see his intense struggle to root faster than he would die of thirst in the Florida sun. That is, not until a few weeks ago, when I noticed him showing a bit of verticality. As the days went by, he fought the rest of the way up and opened his leathery bromeliad leaves to the sky.

Of course after that I had to pot him up, in a mix with some really tasty organic amendments. After a few days in the shade to recover from the ascension to paradise, he's joined his eight had-it-easy mates. Someday he will reward my change of heart with a tasty fruit.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

L. G.

Last week I wrote about how I connected with L. G. Allen, because he brought back lychee seeds from China and grew one for twenty years before it fruited, and it was delicious and he named it Sweet Song after his lady friend in China, and how Wayne propagated it and many years later gave me three of them, and how I loved the story and the name so much that I called my hobby business SweetSong Groves after L. G.'s lychee variety.

Arriving in Florida a dozen years after L. G.'s passing, I missed the opportunity to meet him. But Wayne was kind enough to share some remembrances that L. G.'s descendants wrote in tribute to him.

L. G.'s early life taught him to be a survivor. Growing up, he worked at various jobs, including in his father's brickyard in Montrose, Colorado, but found time to develop a lifelong interest in the outdoors and the natural world. In his teen years, his mother and brother were killed in a car accident. That, and the onset of the Great Depression when he was 17, forced him to grow up in a hurry, and to develop the knack of picking up new skills very quickly.

He married in 1936 and had one daughter. To support his family, he worked very long hours at Dupont, first in the payroll department and later with the newfangled IBM machines. He developed many other interests, including a lifelong fascination in working with clay and ceramics. It was that passion that would later take him to China to study Chinese art and rare porcelains, and would someday put three lychee sisters in my grove.

The tributes to L. G. paint a picture of a loving father and grandfather, a hardworking man who never tired of learning. He continued to grow in knowledge and wisdom throughout his life--- and accepted what life gave him with wit and humor. Two of his sayings became instant favorites of mine: “It's easier to get into than to get out of,” and “A chore done good beats two done ragged.” How very true.

Everything is connected to everything else, and each of us leaves a wake that spreads out and touches the lives of many others. L. G.'s put three Sweet Song sisters in mine.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Past Is Present

“The past is not dead. It's not even past.”
---William Faulkner

I'm a member of four fruit tree clubs, and each has a different feel. With the possible exception of the Tampa Bay Rare Fruit Council, which I rarely attend due to the long trip required, it is the MRFC where I sense the greatest presence of history.

When I joined almost five years ago, there were many members who dated from the club's founding in the mid-80's, or joined in the early years. There are still quite a few, and I've really enjoyed knowing and learning from them. But there's also a perceptible presence of members who did much, but departed, one way or another, before my arrival.

I did come to know Pete Ray for the just last year or so of his life. Perhaps hoping that my loves for language and fruit trees could balance out my beginner's ignorance, he encouraged me to take on the blogger role. But I never met L. G. Allen.

Through fortunate circumstances, I recently felt L. G.'s presence.

Master frutier Wayne Clifton has a fine lychee variety called Sweet Song. As Larry Schokman says, every tree should have a story, and the Sweet Song has a good one. Long-time MRFC members know that L. G. was quite an expert on lychees, among many other subjects, and quite a traveler. During an extended sojourn to China, he ran across some wonderful lychee fruit, and managed to save and bring back some of its seeds. From them, he grew a seedling that took a couple of decades to fruit. I've not yet tasted it, but word is that it was worth the long wait.

L. G. named the new variety Sweet Song, after a Chinese lady friend he had spent time with during his journey.

Wayne propagated L. G.'s tree in the 1990's. The copy grew into this beautiful tree at Wayne's house, but not until now did he produce more Sweet Songs from it. I obtained three of the first airlayers. They are growing happily, and already have names--- Sweet Sister #1, #2, and #3.

I love the name Sweet Song and its story, so when I recently decided to form an LLC for selling some of my fresh tropical fruit, the name SweetSong Groves was as irresistible as, perhaps, its original inspiration.

When L. G. passed away, his children wrote beautiful tributes to him. Wayne has copies that he generously shared with me, and next week we'll see a bit about L. G.'s interesting life.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Inoculation Day

Last week we talked about using mycorrhizal fungi to improve the health of fruit trees. The fungi are best placed between three and twelve inches below the surface, and either in contact with the roots, or close enough that the roots will find them quickly. So how best to get them there?

When I asked Tammy Kovar how her workers accomplish this for contract jobs, she said they use an auger to bore circular holes, an inch or two in diameter, and fill them with a mix of fungi and soil. That's fine, but augering is not a low-effort pastime. And there's some damage done to the roots, perhaps inconsequential, but I'd prefer not to damage the roots at all if possible.

MRFC Secretary Josh Starry invented a simple but ingenious device to get the job done, as long as there's a good water supply available. A shaft of PVC pipe shoots a jet of water out the end, focused enough to excavate a narrow hole in the soil without actually cutting anything. A valve next to the handle controls the flow, and a bit of experimentation yields a flow rate that works without spewing excess water all over the place.

Here it is in action near one of my citrus trees.

The hole is about 1½ inches across, and as deep as one wants.

Meanwhile, I mixed Tammy's mycorrhizal product with some dry biochar, about 1 part to 4.

Here I am dropping in the mix up to about 3 inches from the surface. I filled the rest with topsoil and Josh watered it all in.

Maybe our efforts will get an extra year or two of fruit out of the struggling citrus, which would be well worth it. The process is fast and easy, and some afternoon we'll do the smaller fruit trees. 

With so many variables in play, it's mighty hard to tell which pampering of our trees has an impact and which is just a waste of time and money. But methods that enrich the ecology rank high in my book.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Going Underground

This story begins last July 11, when Tammy Kovar spoke at our MRFC meeting. I had read about the use of mycorrhizal fungi to stimulate the ecology of plant root zones and provide multiple symbiotic benefits to the host plant. And I had heard about Tammy's Sustainable Landscape Supply company here in Sarasota. But it took her informative presentation and passion for mycorrhizae to spur me into action.

So a few weeks ago I stopped by Sustainable Landscape Supply and purchased 50 pounds of mychorrhizal fungi for my fruit trees. That's a lot, but kept in controlled conditions it will stay alive for three years and that will be plenty of time for me to use it all. Thanks to heavy mulching and other ecologically oriented techniques, most of my fruit trees look very happy, but the multiply challenged citrus trees have been on a long downhill slide. So naturally I'm starting with them.

The challenge with mycorrhizal fungi is to get them growing on the roots of the tree. On healthy soil, most every other fertilizer or soil builder can just be top-dressed around the tree. Over time, the action of rain and the constant nutrient circulation in a healthy ecology will move the tasty stuff underground where the tree's roots will find it. But soil mycorrhizae can't survive exposed to this above-ground nightmare world of UV bombardment and wild temperature swings. They need to be placed on or near the roots. Once in contact with the root system, they will gradually spread and colonize it, and life will be good.

It's easy peasy with new plantings--- at the point when you are loosening the roots from their potbound condition and fluffing them out to help them start into the surrounding soil, just wet them and smear on some of the fine mycorrhizal granules.

Bu when the tree is already established in the ground, it's not so simple. Next week we'll learn about MRFC Secretary Josh Starry's ingenious method, and see photos of it in action.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Ancient Art

The Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota meets on the fourth Tuesday of each month, and in October this falls during Eat Local Week. So naturally, we (wearing now my other hat as TFSS Treasurer) have made it an Eat Local Week event and tried to put together an October program that would pique the interest of one-time attendees. This year we hit a home run.

The presenters were longtime TFSS members Nick Ostrye and TFSS Vice President Dr. Tony Hemmer. Each has cultivated the ancient art of winemaking, using tropical fruit instead of those non-local wine grapes.

Tony is a Manatee County resident (that's only turnabout since many MRFC members, including yours truly, grow our fruit down here in Sarasota). He takes a scientific approach to winemaking, and presented the technical basics in a concise powerpoint presentation.

A table displayed an impressive collection of home winemaking gear.

Tony then turned the mic over to Nick, who is more of a traditional "intuitive" winemaker. Like Tony, he's not afraid to try making wine out of almost anything that is sweet and grows on a plant.

Nick emceed the wine tasting. He had procured clear plastic egg cartons and a boatload of little plastic cups that fit perfectly into the compartments.

With their better halves and other volunteers, the speakers had filled the cups with half-ounce servings of ten homemade wines, plus crackers and cheese cubes. A printed insert told what each cup contained.

The duo described each wine in turn, describing the ingredients, sugar content, and special idiosyncrasies of each batch. We sipped exotic flavors like mulberry-jaboticaba, with many tints and levels of sweetness.

Ten rounds later we were all impressed with the variety and quality of the home brews. Ten half-ounces only add up to one glass of wine, but the crowd left in an especially cheery mood. I've stashed the leftover cartons and cups for a repeat performance down the road.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Great Banana Flower Controversy

Here at MRFC Articles we don't shy away from the great issues of the day. We're going to look at the question of when to remove the male flower--- the big red bud at the end of the fruiting stalk--- from a forming bunch of bananas.

2014 thread at the Tropical Fruit Forum discussion board delved into this question. The most common reason cited for removal of the flower was to let the plant put its energy into the fruit rather than maintaining the flower. According to several posters, this has been tested in multiple controlled studies. Some show no effect, others a slight increase in the weight of the banana bunch--- negligible in comparison with the effects of proper watering, fertilization, and so on.

A second reason given for flower removal is that stalks often break or fall over under the increasing weight of the fruit, ruining the lot of them, and the couple of pounds or so that the flower adds is a useless additional burden. An answer to this is that if the stalk is really in any danger of collapse, one should prop it up with a couple of long poles tied together in an "X", or build a support out of PVC pipe, or otherwise rig up some support to prevent it.

Yet another reason, for commercial growers, is that when the flower is removed, a fair amount of sticky sap pours out of the stem. Added to the unavoidable seepage from the stalk end, this is more than a minor annoyance when you're harvesting hundreds of bunches in a day. So better to lop off the flower ahead of time, allowing the cut to seal by harvest time.

Some posters mentioned that the banana flower is edible. Though it's not a common practice in this country, in Asia they are often eaten and considered quite tasty by those who know how to prepare and cook them properly.

Why would you not want to remove the flower? There are reports of fungus gaining a foothold at the cut and working its way into the stem. If it really doesn't make any difference otherwise, why risk this?

The bottom line is that for the home grower, at least, it doesn't much matter. If you like the look of flower buds on your banana stalks, by all means leave them there. And it may be worth looking up how to cook them and giving it a try, you might love them.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Bananas 101

For a couple of weeks we'll be talking about bananas. Next time we'll look at the question of whether to remove the banana flower once the fruit has formed. For now, let's make sure everyone has seen the basics about banana plants.

The first thing to know is that there is no such thing as a banana tree--- banana plants contain no wood. They consist of a tuberlike underground stem, called a corm, and individual stalks that emerge from it. Each stalk will flower and fruit only once, and then should be removed. Indeed, once the plant is well established, you can whack off stems without hurting it a bit. An often-recommended approach is to allow only three stems at a time: a full-sized one, a partially grown one, and a small one. This forces the plant to put all of its energy into fruiting on one stalk at a time.

Remove young stems by chopping them off the corm with a sharp-edged shovel, as cutting them at ground level just lets them keep growing. Allow a stem to grow only if it shoots up close to a big stalk and puts out just a few narrow leaves at first. These are "spears" growing directly from the corm and drawing on its stored energy. The smaller new stems that leaf out more, and are usually farther from the big stalks, are starting more-or-less from scratch, and will take much longer to grow and fruit. These should go in the compost, but spears can easily be potted up or just directly planted to make a new banana plant.

If you've never seen a banana plant forming fruit, it's like something from another planet. Each stalk puts out one large leaf at a time as it grows, keeping the last five to ten leaves as older ones wilt. After about 35 leaves, a single large deep red bud emerges on a leafless central stem. As the stem lengthens, little hands of tiny bananas are formed just behind the bud. Eventually this process stops, and the bananas grow in size until you or the squirrels decide they are ready to harvest.

The bud is generally called the banana flower, but it's really a housing for the male flowers that are exposed as leaves curl off the bud. The tiny female flowers that actually become the bananas are on the stalk itself. After the formation, the bud just sits there at the end of the stalk as the bananas grow and ripen. Many folks, including commercial growers, cut the flower off once the fruits are formed, but others leave them on. Next time, we'll look at the arguments on both sides of this grand controversy.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


I expect to make several posts about the East Bradenton Park Fruit Tree Grove project in upcoming months. A good way to start might be with the current draft of our FAQ. Amber Mills, Public Health Specialist of the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County, provided many helpful edits to my first draft. Amber has spearheaded the East Bradenton Park revitalization project, and it has been a pleasure to work with her and all of those involved in it.

Who planted the grove?

The grove is a joint project involving the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County, the Manatee County Government, the Manatee Rare Fruit Council, the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota and the UF/IFAS Extensions of Manatee and Sarasota County.

Why a fruit tree grove?

In Manatee County, survey results to assess interventions for healthy food access and consumption evaluated access to fruit trees, gardening and educational opportunities, farm stands, and lower costs. According to assessment findings, the East Bradenton community perceived fresh fruits and vegetables to be expensive, and found the time it takes to obtain and prepare them to be a barrier to consuming healthy food. The fruit tree orchard in the East Bradenton Park will provide inexpensive access to fruits as well as increase the availability of locally grown food for its community members.

How can it help the community?

There are several benefits. The East Bradenton Park neighborhood is a designated food desert, with insufficient fresh produce available. When the trees start to produce fruit, it will be freely available to area residents for their personal consumption (not for resale). When the 21 trees reach full production size, this will be a considerable amount of food. More importantly, the grove will provide both knowledge and inspiration for area residents to grow more of their own fruit in backyards and other available areas. If not just 21, but several hundred productive fruit trees can be established in the neighborhood, a tremendous amount of fruit can be produced for consumption, trade, or income. Finally, we hope that this beautiful grove will be a model for other such projects, and that the residents of the community will take pride in being the leader in this initiative.

When will there be fruit to eat?

A fruit tree planted as a seed will usually take 5 to 10 years before it begins to produce, and the resulting fruit might not be high quality. However, the trees in the East Bradenton Park grove are grafted trees, which will yield high-quality fruit as soon as they are large enough. How soon will depend on the kind of tree. Some, like the starfruit, bananas, and papaya, might produce within a year. Most will take two or three years, and a few, like the avocados, may take four years. Don't be shocked to see some of the experts who are initially maintaining the grove remove the fruit from some of the trees before it is ripe. In those cases, the tree is too small to produce good fruit, and needs another year or two of growth before fruiting. Without the burden of producing fruit, the young tree will grow much faster, and will produce far more in the long run.

How were these trees selected?

Experts from the UF/IFAS Extension Office and members of area fruit tree clubs worked together to make the selection, based on several considerations. All of these trees will grow very well in our area, and can be very productive without spraying pesticides or using expensive fertilizers. They produce fruit in different seasons, so eventually there should be at least some fruit almost any day of the year. Finally, the trees provide options for many situations: some do well in wetter soils, others in drier, some will get large and others will stay fairly small, and so on. Most any space with some sunlight and soil can be a home for at least one of these types of trees.

Who will take care of the trees?

Fruit trees like these, that are well adapted to our area, do not require much care. Initially, volunteers from the local fruit tree clubs will tend to the grove. As time goes on, local residents can take “ownership” of this responsibility. Those who are interested but do not have experience can learn through many sources: either directly from the volunteers (feel free to ask them questions, or just say hi), through self-study, by joining local fruit tree clubs that have monthly meetings to share knowledge and information, and finally through local volunteers who provide one-day classes in all the basics.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Magnificent Five and Two Halves

The rains onto saturated soil continued into early autumn, dropping another of my Sunrise papayas. It got the same makeover as its mate. New growth is already bursting forth from that first tipsy survivor.

The bigger news is that we're now eating our own papayas. Considering that the Magnificent Seven went in the ground on March 1 after starting from seed last year, this qualifies as instant gratification on the fruit-tree time scale.

The Sunrise produce very small fruits, ironic enough given the size and vigor of the plant. The Queen of the Indoors loves them, and indeed they are fine-tasting. It will be interesting to see how the topped-off plants fruit next year and how their productivity is affected.

I was more curious about the broadleaf papayas.  As you can see here, the fruit is much larger than the hand-size Sunrise's.

After the hefty fruit ripened to yellow with just a hint of green remaining, the flesh was a beautiful deep orange. But after all the hype, the taste was disappointing. There seemed to be an edge to the flavor not present in the smooth-tasting Sunrises. I found them good enough to eat, but the Queen said to call back when there were more Sunrise's. We'll see how the fruit of these two varieties evolves as the plants age, and whether dry-season product tastes different.

Meanwhile the two Costa Ricans are loaded with large fruits. I can hardly wait to see what it's like.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

ELW 2016

It's that time of year--- the sixth annual edition of Greater Sarasota Eat Local Week begins October 22. Full disclosure: I'm on the Board of Directors of Transition Sarasota, the group that puts the whole thing together.

“TS” is a non-profit organization that seeks to make America local again, or at least move the right amount in that direction. It's not a politically oriented group. Our membership ranges from greenies to Tea Partiers, all in agreement that we would rather buy fruit from southwest Florida than southwest Chile. Nothing against our Chilean friends. We just think the world has gotten too big, at the expense of local food, local business, and local community.

Once again there's an amazing variety of ELW events. The details are at the ELW web page. And of course there's a Facebook page, and a Twitter feed, etc.

Of particular interest to fruit tree enthusiasts:

Our own MRFC event, the tour of the rare fruit tree collection at Palma Sola Park, is at 10:00 a. m. on Sunday, October 23. If you haven't been to the park for a while, or if you have, this will be a great time to hang out with fellow club members, enjoy the wonderful collection of fruiting plants, and share our enthusiasm with other attendees. If we don't sign up some new members, we aren't trying hard enough!

Our sister club, the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota, has made their regular club meeting at 6:30 on Tuesday, October 25 an Eat Local Week event. It's at their new location this year, the beautiful Sarasota Garden Club, and the presentation will be Making Wine From Your Tropical Fruit. It's by two TFSS members: Tony Hemmer, who uses a very scientific approach, and Nick Ostrye, a winemaking traditionalist. I've had Dr. Hemmer's lychee wine, and it is excellent. The presentation includes samples, all adding up to about one 5 oz glass. What a great way to use all that leftover starfruit…

Finally, the closing advertisement: I'm giving my Fruit Tree Paradise Workshop again, on Saturday, October 29 from 2:00 to 5:00. There is a $25 fee that goes to Transition Sarasota. But for those for whom the fee is a burden, I'm happy to give partial or full scholarships--- no one will be turned away, as long as there is space available. Enrollment is limited to 20 or so, but if we do exceed the maximum, I'll offer a repeat a couple of weeks later for any who couldn't get into the October 29 class.

The goals of the class are to inspire, and to help people avoid the beginner mistakes that are so easy to make. The class was well-received by those who took it last spring, and I intend to continue it spring and fall, as long as there are folks wanting to attend. Needless to say, the class is not aimed at the more experienced growers who make up most of the MRFC and TFSS memberships, but please pass the word along to those who could benefit.

And here's a photo from last spring's class. Some guy who looks a lot like me, but obviously takes himself far too seriously.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Things I Wish I'd Known, Number 48,137

It's almost October, but I've still got flood tolerance on my mind, as I look out the window at another torrential downpour. The trees that haven't been damaged continue to grow like crazy, like this oh-so-happy black sapote that even fought off the Sri Lankan weevils this year. Overall, I'm on the very lucky side of the ledger with just the tipsy papayas and Geffie-by-the-swale as the ailing fruiters, and a few been-nice-knowin'-ya ornamentals gone for good.

There's actually one other case of notable fruit tree damage--- the white sapotes. Bonnie the Bonita Springs and Suebelle the Suebelle shed their leaves even before Hermine passed our way. They are leafing back now, but it's looking like non-fatal flood intolerance could be the reason they have languished for several years, while neighboring mangos and lychees found their bearings, then exploded with growth.

A couple of days ago I visited Wayne Clifton to add a couple of his newest offerings to my tree collection. The grafting guru confirmed my impression that white sapotes don't take wet soil well at all.

My newer white sapotes, the Smathers and Younghans, haven't been bothered, and the difference is that they are on mounds. When I first started planting fruit trees four years ago, I put them at ground level “so that they can get more water.” In my mind, a tree was “a thing that needs water”, not a marvelously adaptive living organism whose roots will go seek out water and whatever else they need.

The words of more experienced growers--- and a few hard life lessons--- taught me that flood-tolerant or not, it's wise to plant most any fruit tree on some kind of mound. With each wet summer, I've become more diligent about planting my trees up where they can keep at least some of their roots out of the subterranean summer lake.

At the local landscape supply store, they know me by name. Every planting starts with a lot of added topsoil, spaded into the native sand to make sure there's no sharp boundary that the tree might mistake for a barrier. A dozen bags can cost as much as the tree itself, but it's a worthwhile investment if you can possibly afford it. Top dress with compost and other tasty soil amendments, then mulch heavily everywhere except near the trunk to protect the mound from erosion and enrich the soil as the years go by.

Even better, when starting a new grove, is to enlist someone who has a Bobcat to reconfigure your terrain into long mounds with deep swales between them. This is the approach in a lot of professional groves. You can walk through a nice example in the mango production areas at Steve Cucura's Fruitscapes Nursery and Fruit Stand on Pine Island.

Now I know.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

That Was Plenty

The past couple of weeks, I've been describing the damage from tropical storm Hermine as she doused us with a dozen inches or so. I'm a consistently lucky person, and I got off easy. The tipsy Sunrise papayas and the hit to Geffie the Gefner atemoya were the only noteworthy fruit tree damage.

The southeast corner of our land is low ground, too shady and flood-prone for any significant fruit production. It's warmer than the open west side, though, so it's suitable for cold-sensitive but otherwise vigorous species, like Pink Waxie, the wax jambu that produces pink fruit, and Hogsy the hog plum. And it's a good microclimate for certain ornamentals. I've put some there, testing for flood tolerance. I don't lose any sleep over the ones that can't take it. The eyes and the soul need sustenance, as well as the belly, but for me an ornamental that can't thrive on minimal care needs to be replaced by one that can.

This Abutilon pictum, commonly called a Flowering Maple, sports nifty blooms that look like colorful Chinese lanterns, but obviously it couldn't handle the wet like its next-door neighbor, a variegated Mrs. Iceton croton. After this photo was taken, Abbie dropped all the rest of her leaves. I pruned her almost to the ground so that if she does come back, it won't be a few leaves trying to feed a bunch of bare wood. But as of now, it looks like no more Chinese lanterns in these parts.

This Clerodendrum wallichii is one of several species all named Bridal Veil, for its cascades of attractive white flowers. Unfortunately, it doesn't share the flood tolerance of its cousins Clerodendrum quadriloculare, the Shooting Stars, that are commonly used as landscape plants. It came back from a wilting in the wet summer of 2013, but Hermine was too much for it.
The shady side favors the perennial vegetables that make up half of my big daily salads. Perennial veggies are easy peasy, just throw on some fertilizer once a year, chop and drop when growth becomes too rampant, and go out and forage whenever it strikes your fancy. This Okinawa spinach shows what a difference a bit of elevation can make. The clumps up on the eight-inch high “ridge” up by the oak trees are happy as can be, while those in the “valley” were slammed.

Luckily, my favorite perennial vegetable--- katuk--- got a little tipsy but showed no damage. Equally unfazed were the cranberry hibiscus that add spicy color to a bowl of greens.

I have yet to experience a really major Florida storm--- the “h” word--- but I'm in no hurry. This year's “h”, Hermine, was plenty for this camper.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Geffie's In Trouble

About 350 days a year, I hope for a good heavy rain. Many of the other fifteen days came in the past three weeks.

The tipsy papayas got the headlines. As for the other hundred-and-some fruit trees, most all were unharmed or looked just a little out of sorts for a few days. There's one, though, that might not recover--- the Gefner atemoya.

Back in 2012 I planted Geffie in the northwest grove, in what seemed like a nice sunny spot. In the historically wet summer of 2013, I heard Adam Shafran speak at the Tampa Bay Rare Fruit Council. He said that atemoyas are not flood tolerant, a fact that I had learned a few days earlier when Geffie completely defoliated. It turns out that her nice planting spot is on the edge of the main east-west swale on the west side--- a subtlety beyond my sophistication at that time--- and the choice of an atemoya there was, shall we say, sub-optimal.

No one had had the good graces to graft Geffie onto pond apple rootstock, so she suffered mightily that summer. But she leafed out again, and eventually managed to work her way up to good health, even producing a nice little fruit this year.

It was a tad overripe when I picked it, but still good enough that the Queen of the Indoors became an instant atemoya enthusiast.

I think Geffie's going to pull through again, but as you can see, she's taken another bad hit. During winter dormancy I'll do what I should have done in 2014--- move her onto higher ground.

All the other fruit trees look happy, except for two of the white sapotes--- the Suebelle and the Bonita Springs--- that had been going great guns but suddenly went downhill even before the big rain. I haven't figured out what's wrong with them, but I'm not the only one to have trouble with this species, a topic for another day.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Little Tipsy

It was those last two inches of rain--- after the dozen or so that brought the soil to saturation--- that really hurt. But I've always been one of the luckiest people on the planet, and in the end I came out almost unscathed.

We'll look at some of the other damage in a later post, but today is about papayas. You may recall the magnificent seven, back when we first planted them on March 1, and when they were going strong in June. They didn't like the tropical storm, no not one bit.

With their tall form and small, fragile root systems, papayas are just waiting to tip over when the soil becomes saturated. Here's what the magnificent seven looked like the morning after. The two broadleaf's--- not in this photo--- stood straight and true, and the two squat Costa Ricans--- the farthest ones in this photo--- were leaning just a bit. The taller Sunrises fared much worse, the middle one almost down and its sidekicks leaning precariously.

Now there are many options when a papaya goes horizontal. One is just to leave it be. A friend, with a better soul for permaculture than mine, has one that fell over some time ago, maybe back in 2013. It just stayed there, its new growth heading upward. There's not really any problem with this, once you get used to the unconventional look. In fact, there's the benefit of fruit much closer to the ground. Maybe she went out after last week's storm and pulled down the rest of her papayas.

My sense of order is a bit too strong for that approach, though, so with help from right-hand man Josh, I went to Plan A, the next most minimal option. One pair of hands straightens it up, and the other crams additional soil next to the trunk to prop it close to vertical. We tried this on all five leaners. The idea was that if we get no strong winds for some period of weeks--- actually a possibility in this land where 99% of the wind blows in 1% of the time--- the roots of these fast growers might regenerate enough to keep them upright.

I still have hopes this will work, for the four that weren't much uprooted, but a couple of mornings later the big one was down again--- this time in the other direction. Plan A chalks up one failure, so far.

Plan B is stakes, cables, or some other engineering improvisation to hold the weakened plant up. But that's a lot of work, and I don't need to try to save the fruit, so I went straight to Plan C: saw the trunk off at 4 feet, straighten up the stub, tie something waterproof over the hollow trunk to keep water out, and wait for it to sprout new trunks.

And if Plan C doesn't work, plan D is a new papaya in that spot.

All the papayas show some water damage--- lower leaves dropping off, and upper leaves that look perky in the morning but struggle in the afternoon sun. Flood-damaged plants have lost some of their roots, and can't supply enough water to the foliage. So, counterintuitively, they need more watering until they can rebuild their root systems. The irrigation timer on my papayas apparently wasn't watertight, and it died in the storm, so afternoons found me out on the soggy ground spraying water on my papayas. No doubt it seemed to some of my neighbors that I must be bonkers. But I reckon they already thought so anyway.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Go Down Fighting

Last week we saw some photos of the grand citrus pamper project--- hand clearing all the weeds and grass from under the remaining eight citrus trees, heavy top dressing with a mix of tasty organic amendments, and a moderate layer of tree pruner mulch. It's finally finished, and the organic amendments and mulch have started breaking down to work their ecological magic. How's it going so far?

It's well-nigh impossible to separate out the effects of the project from all the other factors in play. Until the deluge of this past week, it's been ideal fruit tree weather. So we expect to see most trees looking their best. Still, one can point to signs of possible turnaround.

The Temple orange tree was the first to undergo maximal pampering, a good six or eight weeks ago. It's put out vigorous new growth of remarkably healthy-looking leaves. This is despite the fact that its trunk looks to be in the worst shape of any of this citrus, with major damage from unknown causes--- raccoons, insects, disease, or clumsy string-trimmer maneuvers by well-intentioned lawn-mowing employees. A couple of extra years of these fabulous oranges would more than justify the summer's efforts.

Next to the Temple is the unknown variety of sweet, juicy orange. It's really struggled in the past year, fruiting too heavily, as trees often do when heavily stressed, but bringing little of the fruit to edible maturity. Its slow dieback has continued, but in the past couple of weeks some decent new foliage has appeared. In a few months we'll find out whether its production has restarted.

Oddly, the large red navel tree has the thickest foliage but the most diseased leaves. It's putting out a lot of new growth, though still poorly formed. I've heard that red navels are more resistant to greening, so maybe there's something to hope for here.

The little grapefruit tree has also flushed heavily. The leaves are showing less evidence of the nutrient deficiencies brought on by poor circulation from HLB infection, but many are poorly formed. On the encouraging side, the few fruit that remain after thinning look good, and aren't pulling all the nutrients out of the nearby leaves as has happened in the past.

And the big lemon tree continues on its merry way. It has always looked fairly healthy, and always been productive--- six months a year of very good lemons is more than one has a right to demand from any tree. Perhaps this investment of effort will keep them coming.

The nicely mulched beds look pretty, at least, and we've seen some encouraging signs on the trees. Will this summer's sweat and toil save them? Except maybe for the lemon trees, I don't think so. The challenges are just too many, and they are too far down the slippery slope. But I hope it will bring some more years of good fruit from them. And there will be the satisfaction of knowing that we went down fighting.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

That Was Real Work

Last week I told about making the last stand with my citrus trees. The grand project started with hand-clearing the grass and weeds out past the canopies. It ended with a modest layer of tree pruner mulch to suppress weeds and slowly enrich the ecology. In between, we added some tasty soil amendments.

Here's the process on one of the small red navel orange trees. First, after clearing.

I'm a great believer in “feed the soil and let it feed the plant,” so we start with a layer of Fertrell organic fertilizer, a few scoops of elemental sulfur, and some crushed crab shell mixed with a bit of Azomite and greensand. Then, a couple of bags of biochar can't hurt.

A thin layer of bagged topsoil will keep the amendments moist and breaking down faster.

Finally, the mulch. Now just add rain.
The big red navel orange, the one that actually produces, was more work since I decided to lay edging around the cleared area. Here's after the amendments were added.

and finally the finished product.

Very pretty, but is it doing any good? We'll look into that next week.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Last Stand

Back in April, I wrote about my citrus inheritance, and how it's down to eight trees: the happy big lemon tree, the fairly happy small lemon tree, the hanging-in-there grapefruit, the Temple orange tree with the transcendently delicious fruit, the big red navel that hardly produced last year, and the unknown juicy orange variety that's struggling the most. That's six, if you've been counting, and the other two are small red navel trees in oak tree shade, that never really do much.

I told about the downhill slide of the citrus trees, and how Josh and I pruned them heavily this past spring. While Josh was down at TREC this past month, learning from Jonathan Crane and other tropical fruit gurus, I decided it was now or never. Time to make our last stand, with what I would have done for my citrus collection four years ago, if there hadn't always been too much else on the to do list: maximal pampering.

Everybody says to keep the area under the canopy of a citrus tree clear of grass and weeds. Grass is one tough competitor, as you can see by digging up a clump of turf after the month of rain we've just had. If it's on high ground--- meaning a foot-and-a-half above low ground--- you'll often find fairly dry sand underneath. And I reckon the grass grabs nutrients as well as water. My trees are irrigated and fertilized, but drip irrigation is no match for the effect of all of the tree's surface roots enjoying a cool drink, flavored with NPK and other goodies. The tough mangos I saw at Fairchild Farm do fine growing in a strip of pollinator-supporting native weeds, in fact Richard Campbell says mangos produce better when they are a bit stressed. But these days, it's hard enough for citrus to stay alive even if they don't need to fight for their territory.

What about clearing it using Round Up, which would probably be the only option for a grower at commercial scale? I actually use little shots of the stuff to kill weeds in my river rock driveway, rather than pulling up the underlying soil and eventually turning the whole thing into one big weed patch. And when I saw off a Brazilian pepper tree in the south woods, a drench of 41% glyphosate around the cambium sends the stump on its way to invasive pest heaven. But under the fruit trees? I just don't think Ma'am Gaia really approves.

That leaves only the old-fashioned way, so many of my mornings this past month, and some of the afternoons in that interval in the afternoon between clouding up and when the rain starts falling, I've been out there digging the weeds and grass from under the last eight citrus trees, gently so as to minimize damage to the surface feeder roots. This being August, it's not long before the sweat is pouring off my face and onto my glasses. Keep that towel nearby.

Here's the big red navel after clearing. Even us retired geezers don't have time to hand-weed all that space under eight trees, so we're going to mulch it.

There's a school of thought that says not to mulch under citrus, for fear of "root rot." The arborist who worked on my trees a few years ago, an outstanding tree man though not necessarily a fruit tree expert, believed that only an insane person would do such a thing.

On the other hand,  I've seen more than a few decent-looking citrus trees growing in mulch. And the balance of expert opinion I've been able to find says that while an eight-inch layer would be overdoing it, a few inches are perfectly OK. So we'll use some of that freshly chipped mix that my tree pruner pals drop off whenever I have space available.

Next week, we'll add our soil amendments, and see more pix.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Doc's Story

For the Queen of the Indoors, the first taste of Nam Doc Mai mango was a transcendent experience. And despite the disrespect it endures from some mango snobs, NDM is one of my favorites as well. So early on, it was on our must-have list.

Just about three years ago to the day, I found Doc at Charlie's. Short and compact, with low branching and a stout little trunk. Doc came home with me and joined Mallika, Coco(nut Cream), and Glenn in the east grove. Just a couple of months later, though, I acquired my Maha Chanok. Dazzled by all the raves I had heard about Maha, I made the dubious decision to give it Doc's spot.

Here's Maha today. It's grown well enough, but that spot is a bit shady and Maha didn't have quite enough punch to hold onto its fruit this past spring. Maybe next year…

As for Doc, he moved to a spot near the drip line of the big oak tree in our main view. It looked like there would be enough sun, and mangos are tough, so I figured Doc would be able to compete.

Mangos are tough, indeed, but big live oaks are really tough. Doc hung in there, but managed only one modest growth flush in two years. The Queen of the Indoors is patient, but this was getting ridiculous.

By last fall, I had cleared out lesser occupants from some of the prime northwest grove spots--- full sun, irrigated, mounded and surrounded by deep mulch. After years of shabby treatment, Doc had earned one, so in early December, he moved again.

I've heard that fruit trees need sun and water, and by golly, it's true! When spring came, Doc exploded with a huge growth flush that doubled his size, followed by another. He's been tipped and is still compact, but is making up for lost time.

In fact, Doc can't even wait for next spring and has bloomed here in August. I preach the stripping of fruit from young trees so that they can put all their energy into growing, but if Doc holds onto fruit from this blooming, I might have to leave one on just to see what happens.

As for that spot near the oak tree, there is something tough enough for it: this jatropha. A wonderful everblooming native plant. The spot vacated by the jatropha is now occupied by Elsie, the Lemon Zest mango tree, who also moved from the east grove. But that's a story for another day.

I think I've finally got everybody in the right place.