Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

One For The Record Books

The 2016 MRFC Fruit Tree Sale is now history, and if you missed it, well, you really missed it.

This year a new tree sale committee--- the 4 D's of Diane, Donna, Dale, and Dennis--- took on the complex task of putting together the event under the tutelage of veteran organizer Betty Kearns. They showed an impressive learning curve, as well as the heart to overcome every obstacle and setback along the way.

My tree sale role is far from the publicity end, but my sense is that the effort was extraordinary. When the doors into the sale room were opened at 10:00, it looked like the news videos of Black Friday shoppers rushing into the stores on the day after Thanksgiving. The convention center was packed solid for the next three hours.

As chief bean counter, I spent much of those first three hours raking gobs of cash, checks, and tree sale chits from cashier's boxes into my blue plastic box for transport to the two counting rooms--- one for receipts, and one for the chits. The queues for the two cashier areas stretched clear across the main room, turned toward each other at the far end, and at one point even met in the middle. I heard that the waiting time for checkout reached one hour. I haven't verified that, but it sounds about right.

We managed to enlist two extra cashier-tag puller teams for a while, and that helped some. The MRFC owes a huge thanks to all the frontline heroes who transacted the sales of 4,500 plants with, as we'll see, remarkable accuracy.

Vendors reported heavy buying, continuing even after the incredible rush of the first three hours. As we neared the 4:00 closing, many of the vendor areas were almost empty.

In the secure area of the counting rooms, pal Kevin and I made many, many little piles of cash. I noticed after a while that all of Kevin's had exactly 10 bills in them, of the same denomination. That made it easy to total them for our bank deposits, while Birgitte and Betty totaled the checks. The bank's cash-counting machines and check tallies agreed exactly with our totals, a perfect count. Am I bragging? You betcha!

But that was the easy part. The hard part was sorting chits for 4,500 plants, first by vendor, then by amount, and then computing each vendor's total. The credit goes to Betty, Birgitte, and several of their able helpers. Multiple recounts had to be made, as the sticky chits were a nightmare to handle, but after days of work, the reconciliation spreadsheet showed our expected and actual totals to be within 0.18%, that is, an error of only $1.80 per thousand dollars. That's the smallest percentage error in the four years I've been involved with the sale, a remarkable achievement.

Overall sales were up 25%--- yes, 25%--- from last year's record. Expenses were about the same as last year's. I think you can see where this is heading--- let's just say that our club is in a sound financial position that will maintain our many activities through the coming year.

I've already lauded our tree sale committee, and Betty has done a wonderful job of everything except carrying out her wish to retire from the job after so many years leading the sale. And all of the members (and non-member draftees) who contributed in so many different ways should share in the pride. Of course there are some things we can do better next year, starting with more cashiers and tag pullers on shorter shifts. But needless to say, this is one for the record books.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Laurel Wilt Update

Most of us in the fruit tree clubs have heard about laurel wilt, the deadly fungal disease that affects trees in the Laurel family, including our beloved avocado. It's spread by the red bay ambrosia beetle, which bores into the trunk, inoculating the tree with fungal spores that attack its vascular system. The beetle's advance through Florida has been especially difficult to halt since it can attack native trees including red bay, swamp bay, and sassafras.

Symptoms of laurel wilt include rapid leaf wilt, dieback, and death, but the disease may not be easy to distinguish from dieback caused by root rot or lightning strike. A telltale sign, not always present, is strings of compacted sawdust protruding from the trunk.

recent article in Growing Produce magazine reports that in Florida, laurel wilt has now been found in 61 of 67 counties. On the relatively positive side, it's classified as “high incidence” only in Miami-Dade County. The beetle seems to prefer bay trees to avocados, and so far there are few known cases of the disease in dooryard groves.

What can you do? Here are several recommendations:

–-Educate yourself about laurel wilt disease. Considerable information including a 10-minute video is available at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Many other websites have articles and photos.

---Keep your avocado trees healthy with proper irrigation and fertilization. Healthy trees are less attractive to the beetle.

---Buy only local firewood. The beetle can travel long distances in unprocessed wood.

---Do not leave pruned wood from your avocado trees lying around, as this can attract the beetle. My area has weekly collection of "yard waste", the county's term for composting material (joking aside, they do grind it all up, compost it, and make it available to county residents), and I prune avocado trees the evening before pickup so that fresh-cut wood can be removed the next day.

---Report any host trees that appear infected to your local Extension Office or to the Florida Division of Plant Pathology. Do not remove wood from such trees from your property.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Christmas In May

We're one week away from the 2016 MRFC Fruit Tree Sale, the best fruit tree buying opportunity of the year. To me it feels a bit like waiting for Christmas. 

This was my May 1 snack of homegrown fruit: the last Big Jim loquat of the season, the first Sunraycer nectarine, Cherries of the Rio Grande, and dark Surinam cherries. If you need one of these for your fruit tree collection, or most any other kind of fruiting plant that can grow in Southwest Florida, May 22 will be the perfect day to find one--- you know where!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Maggie Finds A Home

It's been said that no good deed goes unpunished, and I'd rather not to think about how many times I've thought that to myself. But so too I've marveled at how often things manage to work out well in the end. Both of these apply to Maggie's story.

It started in 2014, when a lady I barely knew in the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota asked me to take care of her container plants for a few weeks. Seems she was moving, and for some reason that I never quite understood, the plants couldn't stay at either the former residence or the newer one.

The lady, whom I'll call Miss Not Much Longer, or Miss L for short, said it would only be for a few weeks, and she could drop them off at my place and pick them up after she had moved. I reluctantly agreed, overruling the voice in my head that was screaming "No!".

A few days later Miss L and her plants showed up in a van with her boyfriend, a strapping young fellow without whose help I could never have managed the two heavy containers full of sandy potting soil--- seen here empty with one of the neighborhood cats on patrol. They housed a persimmon tree and a fig tree. In an assortment of smaller containers were a shrimp plant, a lantana, and some garlic chives. A 1-gallon container, filled with topsoil approximately as dense as lead, sported a mysterious little succulent about an inch tall.

I don't need to tell you that Miss L disappeared. When she showed up a few months later at a club meeting, I asked her about the plants. She said there had been complications, but in a few more weeks she could take them back. I managed to obtain her email.

Spring arrived. The persimmon leafed out beautifully, made fruit, and died. The fig made a fruit that looked somewhat like a Brown Turkey's. I emailed Miss L a few times, getting no answer. Finally, late in the year, she called me and reported that she hadn't been able to email me successfully, but she was coming by my place.

When she arrived, we established that she had saved my email address incorrectly and hence I never received her messages. She said that she still couldn't take the plants, as she was going to work for a couple of months in Fiji, but when she returned she definitely would be able to take them. I suggested giving them away to good homes, but she was horrified at the prospect of losing her "babies". I had propagated three cordylines, pretty purple-and-cream Cameroons, and Miss L said she could use them in a landscaping job she was doing. So I at least got rid of some plants, though not what I'd had in mind.

Time passed with no word. The garlic chives grew and grew. The little succulent didn't grow at all, but did manage to stay alive in full sun with no care. I saw a plant like it at church and found out that it was a full-shade-loving Christmas cactus. I put it in a 4-inch pot on the porch, where as you can see it has done much better.

A hurricane ravaged Fiji, reminding me of Miss L, so I emailed her. She reported that she had been traveling in the islands seeking her dream plantation, and had found it, but it got wiped out in the hurricane. And now she has been “living with the village people to adapt the fruit and vegetable menu.” She didn't say how long that might take.

Winter turned to spring, and as May approached, I finally decided to listen to the voice in my head, which for quite some time had been telling me to pull the plug. The lantana went to compost, as Florida doesn't need more invasive exotics. The garlic chives joined those in my garden. The shrimp plant is being pampered into good health to be given away. I rather like the Christmas cactus, which will keep its place on the porch.

As for the fig tree, I decided to repot it. Extracting it from the container was a feat, but produced a surprise. Below the soil line was a plastic tag around the trunk that said “Fig – Magnolia”. The Google machine told me that Magnolia is an interesting variety--- its fruit is one of the largest of all figs--- and after being christened Maggie, the forlorn visitor joined my merry band of fig trees.

Maggie is still adjusting to her 15-gallon container, but looking very happy to have a permanent home. If Miss L ever does find her way from Fiji back to Sarasota, I'll tell her that Maggie has found her dream plantation and decided to stay here forever. But that I will take a cutting and start a new Magnolia fig tree that Miss L can have. And I'll get on that in just a couple of months. After I finish up a few other things. Not much longer.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Lychee Watch

Lychee trees are easy enough tree to grow, but they can be temperamental fruiters. The Pine Island Nursery Cultivar Viewer rates major cultivars on crop consistency, giving five stars to Mauritius and Kwai Mai Pink (Bosworth 3), four stars to Brewster, Emperor, Hak Ip, and Sweetheart, three to Ohia, and two to Kaimana and No Mai Tsze. Your results may vary.

What's not in question is that 2015 saw nary a lychee blossom in my groves, while 2016 finds fruit on almost every tree. Paying absolutely no attention to my recent sermon on the importance of removing fruit from young trees, I've left every one of them on.

What conditions are needed to induce a lychee tree to set fruit? According to Lychees On Line, lychees grow in 10-week cycles, consisting of a growth flush, hardening-off of the new growth, and a period of dormancy as the tree gathers energy for the next flush. The key to fruiting is to have a growth flush occur when the temperature is 68 degrees or less, causing it to develop into flower buds rather than leaves. In south Florida, chances for this are maximized by pruning back the tree in mid-July, initiating a 10-week growth cycle at the start of August. Two 10-week cycles later, a growth flush is likely to occur around the end of the year when it has its best chance to produce blooms.

Here in Southwest Florida, it's cooler in winter, enough to produce longer dormancy than just the regular portion of the 10-week growth cycle. The recommendation I've heard for our region is to prune around the end of July, avoid fertilizing after that (some even say never to use nitrogen-containing fertilizers on lychee trees), and turn off irrigation in fall and winter. This promotes extended winter dormancy. When warming weather wakes the tree up and restarts the 10-week cycle, you just need a patch of cool temperatures to occur during the flush. Some say that once the fruit forms, giving plenty of irrigation will help prevent fruit drop.

Again, your results may vary.

One way or another, our weather pattern this past winter must have been just right to trigger blooming and fruit set. But we're behind the usual schedule. At the end of February, a knowledgeable fruit man told me that there would be no lychees this year, since no blooms had yet formed. A month ago, when the first blooms were breaking, an even more knowledgeable fruit man speculated that because of the late start to the season, hot weather would cut into production and maybe even wipe out the crop. In the next sentence, however, he said he didn't really know, because such a late start is unprecedented.

All I know is that I see lychees, and they will be mighty tasty if they can reach maturity. I'm especially hopeful for my largest lychee tree, this six-foot Sweetheart planted four years ago, now loaded with its first-ever fruit. Fingers crossed.