Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

In The Trenches

Most of my fruit trees have looked happy enough--- some joyful, some only content--- but a few have languished. Notably out of sorts is this Kari carambola. With almost four years in the ground, it gives marvelous fruit--- sweet and flavorful, with half a dozen seeds or less. Even the first year there were a couple of fruit, and after two years, it was producing nicely, for a five-footer. By now, we should have starfruit coming out the ears. But years three and four were about the same as year two, and Kari's still five feet tall, just kinda' sitting there marking time.

Downright disgruntled is my Suebelle white sapote. It's hardly grown in three years. Ray Jones tells me he hasn't found Suebelle to do well here, which might explain it. But this Bonita Springs white sapote of the same vintage has done no better, topping out under three feet. A Ross sapote next to Bonnie is hardly any larger than the day I bought it more than three years ago.

Of course there are many reasons why a tree might languish. The duds often have poor root systems. Try as one might to free the roots when planting, a badly potbound tree faces an uphill climb. Living on the main raccoon thoroughfares is another challenge. Sometimes the ring-tailed bullies paw branches off my young trees even when there is no fruit.

Often, though, languishing seems related to water. Hillside shrubs and trees did much better after I terraced them. Ornamentals that were barely hanging on took off after transplanting away from nearby oak trees. I hadn't really considered water as a possible problem for Kari, Suebelle, Bonnie, and Ross, since they are irrigated. But finally it dawned on me that those four trees lagging trees are all close to large oak or pine trees. Some soil probing indicated that those titans had noticed the moist, well-fertilized soil around the upstarts, and had not been shy in inviting themselves to share the treat.

I decided to try trench warfare. The big trees have highly redundant root systems, and can easily part with a chunk of them. With help from our muscular MRFC Secretary Josh Starry, I dug trenches and cut the invading roots. They proved to be near the surface, and the slash pine seemed more aggressive than the oaks. Here's a trench with some crossing oak tree roots, actually not very many here compared to some locations. Dig, chop, and refill, to give the finished product shown below.

We'll have to wait to see whether it helps, and if so, how long it lasts. Horticulture is too complicated, with too many factors at play to carry out many controlled experiments, so much of the time we must rely on what seems to work for us and those we know. And on perseverance.  If this doesn't work, we'll try something different.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


Last week we read the story of Rosie the Rosigold mango, how I bought her for the Colorado snowbirds who won the auction, then sent her to be a prize in a Chinese raffle for Transition Sarasota, and how she was won by the Seattle snowbirds, and I swapped a loquat tree for her, and she went to live with the Colorado's after all. It was a story about how things somehow manage to work out.

This week we have another such tale. But in this one, things work out in spite of me, rather than thanks to me.

It starts with an unfortunate tumble that produced three broken ribs. The ribs belong to our friend and longtime MRFC member David Rowe. 2015 was an exceedingly bad year for him. His wife (and my best-ever tree-sale cash-counting partner) Anna Mae passed away, and as a final kick in the teeth, or rather in the ribs, the nasty accident put him in the hospital.

Everyone who's been in our club more than a minute or two knows that David renders the invaluable service of running the club's raffle table. The raffle finds good homes for deserving fruit trees and other edible plants, while the proceeds from ticket sales add a sizable contribution to our club's coffers.

By the time the January MRFC meeting rolled around, David had graduated to a rehab hospital, but they weren't going to let him out yet, not even for us. On the day before the meeting, he tried many times to call me, getting only a busy signal. We don't know why, but for whatever reason, the message couldn't get through.

Now this should have been no problem, because for years I've prepared for just such a possibility. Along with the gear I bring for my duties as treasurer, membership chair and A/V tech, I always packed a couple of rolls of raffle tickets in case we needed to pinch hit for David.

When he didn't appear at the meeting, someone asked me for raffle tickets, and I said no problem, they are right here, um, well, then they must be right here...uh oh...

Apparently in one of my reorganizations of that gear, the raffle tickets left themselves out. How careless they were! Shame on them!

Luckily, I was bailed out, by Spencer Salser and by David's regular assistant, Valerie (also known as Welch daughter #4), who despite her young age must already be well on her way to being either a fruit tree expert or a CEO, or most likely both. And by the other MRFC members who all pitched in. They improvised tickets, and made the raffle happen. Good thing, too, as in addition to the usual jackpot of interesting plants, it featured several Florida-adapted pawpaw trees and other rarities donated by speaker Charles Novak.

So, things work out, either with my help or despite my blunders. The MRFC gets it done.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Rosie And The Snowbirds

The Suncoast region from Bradenton down to Englewood has the highest percentage of baby boomers of any comparable metropolitan region in the country. These include many of Sarasota's “snowbirds”, folks who spend the cooler part of the year here and the warmer part in more temperate climes.

There are even some ultra-snowbirds, who find Sarasota winters too cold and opt for summers here and winters in the tropics. I used to consider them totally bonkers, but now that my blood's thinned out and I shiver when temperatures plunge into the 50's, they are seeming lot more reasonable. But I digress.

Recently, I was able to help two pairs of snowbirds with their fruit tree needs. The tale I'm about to narrate is an abridged version of what actually happened, but it's complicated enough as is.

It began with the annual silent auction fundraiser at my church. Members offer all manner of items and services to the highest bidder, with proceeds going to support the spiritual enterprise. Ever eager to get more fruit trees growing, I always donate the service of selecting, buying, and planting a fruit tree appropriate to the winner's needs.

Last year's highest bidder for my services was a snowbird couple who live here most of the year, but visit Colorado for the summer months. They love mangos, but don't have a lot of space for fruit trees, so an early-season semi-dwarf mango was the perfect choice. I acquired a very pretty 3-gallon Rosigold, and contacted Mrs. Colorado to arrange the transfer and planting. After an enthusiastic exchange of messages, she went silent and I didn't hear from her for a few weeks. I figured she had a good reason, perhaps health or family problems that were keeping her occupied.

Time went by. Rosie was getting along fine, soaking up sun with several papayas that I'm going to plant next spring. The annual Transition Sarasota fundraiser was coming up, featuring a multiple-prize Chinese auction. As a Transition Sarasota Board member, I was expected to come up with one of the prizes. So many things you can do with a Rosigold mango tree! I put Rosie on the prize list.

At that point, of course, Mrs. Colorado reappeared, very apologetic for not getting back to me sooner. I told her Rosie was committed to a new destination, but I would look for another Rosigold. I made a couple of unsuccessful inquiries, and put the matter aside for a while.

Rosie's big night came, and her winning raffle ticket belonged to a couple, new Transition Sarasota members from Seattle. Chatting with them, I learned that they are snowbirds in town only from December to March.

“Aha,” I said, “your Rosigold will fruit early in the mango season, but that's rarely early enough to be during your stay. How would you like to swap it for a nice loquat tree that will fruit during the winters?” The Seattle's thought that sounded fine.

The swap was made, and now a handsome Christmas loquat is growing at the Sarasota home of Mr. and Mrs. Seattle. Rosie had a reunion with her papaya friends, and stayed with them for a few days before going off to live with the Colorado's.

Sometimes things just work out.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Don't Pet It

Josh Starry and I were working on my fruit trees, and on the inside of the garage door the sharp-eyed MRFC Secretary spotted an unusual-looking spider guarding some of her eggs. The eggs looked like those of a black widow, but this spider was brown.

Josh took this picture of it on his phone and sent it to entomologist and MRFC member Dr. Craig Welch. Back came an instantaneous ID: Latrodectus geometricus, the brown widow.

Not so distinctive as the black widow Latrodectus mactans, the browns vary in coloration from light brown to almost black. The underside of the abdomen exhibits the characteristic hourglass marking, but it may be orange or yellow orange, and not so easy to see.

L. geometricus has spread throughout Florida, joining the Southern black widow, northern black widow, and red widow on our venomous spiders list. Its venom is twice as strong as the black widow's, but its bites inject less and consequently are no more dangerous than those of the better-known cousin. Like all the widow spiders, it's not aggressive and prefers to retreat when disturbed. Bites usually occur when the spider is trapped against the skin, in clothing or reaching a hand into a dark place. And I wouldn't count on a retreat when Mom is guarding her eggs.

Craig's ID message also contained the excellent advice, “Don't pet it.” According to the Mayo Clinic, most bites cause only pain and swelling, and can be treated with ice, over-the-counter pain relievers, and elevating the bite if it is on an arm or leg. But if more serious symptoms develop, such as intense pain, limb rigidity, nausea, or vomiting, or if the victim is a child, elderly person, or in poor health, medical attention is required. And some authorities recommend it for all cases. Your call.

Now I hate, just hate to kill spiders. Inside the house, I lobby on their behalf as part of our strategy against insect invaders, and they usually get to stay a while before their webs are dusted away. With a bit of luck, they can scurry off and start building again. Outdoors, I cheer them on. But venomous spiders can't be tolerated, and Craig advised us to kill the brown widow and burn the eggs.

A plastic mallet was a quick, though probably unnecessarily messy approach to the first step. The sticky eggs were well-adhered to the garage door, and these 10 and 12-inch bromeliad tweezers were handy for removing them.

We put the eggs on a flat stone and ignited them using some of the alcohol I keep for sterilizing pruning gear. As the flames burned away, it dawned on me that I should have checked the garage for more of the unacceptable inhabitants. Of course there turned out to be several, for which the disagreeable procedure had to be repeated. I'm learning.

As ever, prevention is far and away the best approach, but there's rarely a need to go toxic. The widow spiders like man-made structures, such as entryway corners, eaves, garages and sheds, mailboxes, hand grips of trash bins, undersides of outdoor furniture, and even cars. Just monitor these areas and keep them clear whenever suspect residents start to appear. Keep outdoor work areas free of clutter, and wear gloves when you grab on to something you can't fully see. And learn which are the friendlies--- that is, almost everyone--- and which need to live elsewhere.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Joyner Road

It's New Year's Resolution time. Last year, you may recall, the focus of my self-improvement was fertilization. So how's that working out?

I'm going to give myself a silver star on this one. A substantial upgrade, but short of aspirations. Things were going fairly well until I dreamed up a number of time and energy-consuming infrastructure projects, like clearing, edging, and mulching these two beds for jakfruit seedlings. And Zill Hill, about which more in a future post. But all of my plants got some attention to their nutrient needs, and most look very happy. We'll call it a success. But no gold star.

Next year I'm going for that gold star on fertilization. But that's just finishing up last year's New Year's resolution. Something bolder is needed for 2016.

The new New Year's Resolution is actually related to fertilization, in a way. It's to go all out with mulch.

Many growers have used the all-mulch approach, but there's no better illustration than Unbelievable Acres, the West Palm Beach masterpiece of Gene Joyner. He started with four acres of the paper-thin topsoil over limestone found in that region. For the next forty years he added countless loads of mulch, and built a lush paradise of tropical fruit trees and ornamentals, with topsoil more like Iowa than Florida. Nature's been using this method in her forests even longer than Gene has.

So this year, I'm going to start down Joyner Road. I certainly don't fancy myself to be in the same league as Gene, or even close to it, but who better to learn from than the masters? Due to birthday accumulation, I won't have forty years to work at it, but then I'm not starting with limestone.

The project is already underway. Here is the mulch pile area, which is saving local arborists a longer trip to drop their freshly ground wood chips. Dependably awarded twenties help the guys remember that I'm here.

These fruit trees in the northwest grove already have their first dose of heavy mulch. I've worried that for the younger trees, putting down layers this thick might prevent the lighter rainfalls from reaching their small root systems. But these trees are irrigated, and most are on mounds, so that close in the layer is not nearly as thick as it looks. They should be OK in the short run, and over the long term they will adapt and will find the water that the grass used to use. There's more mulch to come, a lot more. If the resolution goes as planned, those grassy aisles between them will someday be just a memory.

In the photo above, the tree in the top right is a Carrie mango, blooming like crazy and already sporting a couple of little fruits on New Year's Eve. Top left is a Rosigold with these 2-inch fruits. Will we be eating mangos in February?

At the end of the year, I'll report on how much grass has disappeared, and how the project seems to affect the fruit trees.