Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

My Citrus Inheritance

I've never written about my own citrus trees. I find the topic of citrus a depressing one--- such a marvelous fruit ruined, not by villains but by the invisible hand's relentless preference for unsustainable practices that no one could manage to get stopped. But citrus trees have been receiving a lot of attention lately at my north Sarasota County fruit tree haven, so here goes.

We've owned this land for five years now. All of the rare fruit trees on it are my doing, but it came with a couple of dozen citrus trees. Neighbors date them back to the owner before the owner before us, Errol “Old Man” Campbell. I never met him, but one can see that he knew something about fruit trees. They were grafted, and the low-lying areas had been worked to put the trees on long mounds with shallow swales between.

I've never figured out all the varieties. Some were obvious: the Temple orange, the two Minneolas, the red navels, and a couple of Valencias. One is some kind of tangelo. The previous owner, who knew more about construction and drinking vodka than about fruit trees, said he had all the names written on a piece of paper, but couldn't find it.

Some say Campbell grafted the trees himself. Whether or not that's true, I'm sure he would not have been pleased by their condition when I first saw them. At least half were not even worth trying to save. The best one was a big Valencia orange, but try as I might, there was no place to locate our house construction that didn't require its removal. That hurt, but at least it was possible to leave the big lemon tree that is still very productive today.

The first couple of years, after major pruning, installation of irrigation, fertilizing, and some can't-hurt meditation to Ma'am Gaia, most of the dozen or so trees that survived triage produced some fine fruit. In my book there's nothing quite like a perfect Minneola, except maybe a perfect Temple. The unknown varieties also produced some tasty fruit, as did one of the three red navels--- the one that's not in too much shade.

But all of them were already battling citrus maladies. The Minneolas were the first to show a serious downward trend. I even stripped all their fruit in 2014, hoping to give them a chance, but by early 2015, they were hopeless. Along with the remaining Valencia, that never got healthy enough to produce any fruit, they were replaced by a Sweetheart lychee, a tasty black mulberry I got from Pete Ray, and an Alano sapodilla.

To try to keep the dwindling collection going, I've followed the standard recommendation of foliar fertilization and strong slow-release ground fertilizer, as well as various might-help organic products on leaves and soil. The two lemon trees seem to be holding their own, especially the big one just west of the house. It has supplied our kitchen six months of every year, plus the equally demanding annual lemon cleanse of friend Francisco, with plenty left over for the in-laws, pal Kevin, and the fellow who mows my lawn. But the grapefruit tree and the remaining seven orange trees have continued their slide.

With help from my right-hand man, MRFC Secretary Josh Starry, we've been doing the annual citrus evaluation and pruning. The tangelo's main trunks were splitting and filled with ants, and when one of them fractured with just a one-arm pull, we marked the tree for removal. And one of the unknown orange varieties didn't produce fruit last year or even any healthy leaves in its spring flush, so it will be put out of its misery.

The remaining trees have earned another year of effort, but it's obvious that they don't have enough energy coming from the roots to support their foliage. So this year we decided to be more aggressive, removing not just dead wood and bad branches, but thinning out all but the strongest-looking portions. Most of the trees are being reduced by 30 to 50%. Here are some “after” shots.

 I hope for at least a couple more years of oranges, and dream of keeping the lemon trees going for a long time. And to look for a silver lining, when the oranges do stop coming, I'll have some nice spots opening up for whatever the latest can't-live-without rare fruit trees may be.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Big Jim And The French Woman

A couple of weeks back, as I lounged with a book, Dear Wife returned home after a visit to her boyfriend, a 94-year-old gent who lives in a nearby nursing home. He's still mentally sharp, despite a body that's letting him down. They play geography word games, and hold hands on imaginary Ferris wheel rides. A joy for both of them.

My wife dislikes perfumes and the like, and I'm not fond of them myself, so when she walked in, I gave her fair warning: “If I smell like perfume, it's because I've been hugging a French woman.”

How so? A couple driving by my house saw my Big Jim loquat tree, a muscular-looking 7-foot specimen. It was showing lots of colorful fruit, even though I had thinned them out a few weeks back. Big Jim is in the very corner of the northwest grove, next to the main road, and the man and his wife, who hails from France, had seen it week-after-week on the way to the nearby farm stand.

The wife loves loquats, though she knows them by a different name, and she finally persuaded her husband to stop by. He came my door and offered to buy some. I told him I had plenty, and would be happy to give them some, and off we went to harvest some Big Jim and Bradenton loquats.

In footwear quite unsuitable for trekking through my Bahia, wedelia, fire ants, and heavy mulch, the pretty lady had remained at the car. When I returned with a big bag of ripe fruit, she was overjoyed, and rewarded me with a warm and very aromatic hug.

Fruit tree growers meet the most interesting people.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Too Young To Be a Mama

One of the points I emphasized in my recent classes for new fruit tree growers is the need to remove fruit from young trees. Most every grower learns this early on, but it's actually something that doesn't occur intuitively to most people.

And why not? My theory (based on no evidence, but that's never stopped me from theorizing) is that it's natural to assume that a tree “knows what to do”, so if it's making fruit, it must be right. And indeed, plants generally do know exactly what to do.

The catch, though, is that a grafted tree (or one propagated by cutting, or airlayering) doesn't follow a normal course of maturation. Almost the first topic we discussed in the classes was the nature of grafted trees, and the reasons it's so important to use grafted trees for most of the major fruit species. I explained that the scion “thinks it's still on top of a big, strong tree” that will be providing it with lots of energy and nutrients. So it tries to do what would then be appropriate--- make more trees--- even when there's no hope of having the wherewithal to bring the fruit to full size and ripeness. A seedling, on the other hand, must prepare to compete with other plants for sunlight, so it puts its resources into growing big and tall as fast as it can. Its best strategy is to establish itself before risking resources on reproduction.

A three-gallon Kesar mango made a good prop. It was pushing flowers in all directions. How, I asked, can this little thing come up with enough energy to make mangos and still have enough left to grow, or even keep itself healthy? And with such limited capacity, the fruit is unlikely to be of high quality anyway. Once one understands this, it really shouldn't take any will power to remove the fruit. All of this made total sense to the classes.

Of course it's far easier to give advice than to follow it, and last year I made the very mistake I warn against. A young Tropic Beauty peach tree was covered with fruit. I took scores of them off, but figured I could get away with leaving half a dozen on. They ripened fine and made a tasty spring treat, but the tree then languished well into the growing season, ending up only little larger than it started.

Suitably chastened, I'm being rigorous this year. No peaches on young trees, and just a few small plums remain on the Scarlet Beauty. Among the mangos, only those with some muscle will get to try. When it comes to avocados, Steve Cucura warns that they can kill themselves with early fruiting, so only the Brogdon and Oro Negro that sport two-inch trunks will get the green light.

But what might put me to the test is all those flowers on my young lychee trees. If they turn into little fruits...

Sunday, April 3, 2016

More On Mango Fungicides

A couple of weeks ago we examined some of the options for fighting mango fungi, especially the big two, anthracnose and powdery mildew. It's an important topic for us mango growers, and this is the critical time of year for forming and holding fruit, so let's give it another look.

The Washington State University investigated a number of organic fungicides registered for home use and compiled an informative table about their effectiveness and side effects. Most are available from makers of garden products such as Bayer Natria, Earth Tone, Garden Safe, and Worryfree. Bearing in mind that the focus was not on mango production but rather on home gardening, here are some notable items:

---Bacillus subtilis (sold as Serenade) - Low to moderate efficiency of up to 50% disease reduction. Best results are when used to treat powdery mildew at the first signs of disease.

---Canola oil - Very high (near 100%) effectiveness. Acts directly and locally. May cause damage in high concentrations.

---Neem oil - Moderate to high efficiency, from 60-90%. Not long lasting, not known to damage plant tissues. One of its components is an insecticide that should be used with caution if bees are present. (Maybe we'll find out more from our next MRFC speaker.)

---Potassium bicarbonate (sold as Bi-Carb Old Fashioned Fungicide) - Moderate to high efficiency, highest on smooth surfaces. Only effective on contact, and may damage plant tissues.

recent thread at the Tropical Fruit Forum discussed copper-based fungicides. A veteran grower in Broward County, self-described as “bio-sensible”, makes the case for copper. On a half acre of 30 mostly large mango trees, he uses a mix of copper octanoate and elemental sulfur, which he says contains about a quarter as much copper as regular liquid copper fungicide. He says that he can spray all of his trees using just two gallons of mix, making the total amount of copper “miniscule”.

In more detail, Broward calculates that the ½ cup of copper octanoate used for one spraying contains only about 1/15 of an ounce of copper, compared to a quarter-ounce in a bag of palm fertilizer. Alternatively, one gallon of concentrate--- enough for an entire year in his grove--- contains about 0.15 pounds of copper, below the recommended application rate as a soil nutrient. He also notes that according to the label, copper soap is allowed on organic vegetables up to the day of harvest.

To accomplish this efficiency in his spraying, he uses a thousand-dollar mister (pump included). I suspect that my $15 hand pump sprayer would need a lot more concentrate to do the job.

A very, um, outspoken mango professional (TFF readers will know of whom I speak), who rarely leaves Broward's comments uncontradicted, says
“Many years ago people used copper to treat powdery mildew. Like humans and taking penicillin, copper ceased to be effective for the treatment of powdery mildew. Sulfur is now the `drug of choice' for treating powdery mildew.”
And what does the Washington State Extension say?

---Copper octanoate - Potentially high efficiency of 74% in greenhouse trials. “Material may persist in soil, but potential effects are not documented.”

---Sulfur - Low efficiency by itself, but seems to boost the effectiveness of other fungicides. Some may be absorbed as a plant nutrient, strengthening the plant's natural resistance.

And now that I've made everything perfectly clear, it's your call!