Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

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.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Having A Field Day

A small but dedicated band of growers is working to make pomegranates a commercial crop in Florida. I'm just a dooryard hobbyist, but I'm doing my small part by learning about this unique and fascinating fruit, growing eight of the more than one hundred varieties being tested in the rigors of Florida, and hanging out from time to time with the Florida Pomegranate Association.

In late July, the Association had a “field day” at Green Sea Farm, the Zolfo Springs nursery and pomegranate farm of Cindy Weinstein. MRFC members will remember Cindy's very informative presentation to our club in June, 2015. I wasn't about to miss the opportunity to see the Farm.

The beautiful summer morning found the two dozen or so participants gathered under an open tent in the middle of a field of several hundred pomegranate trees. Just about every variety being tested is there, growing under uniform conditions.

Among the attendees was MRFC member and popular club speaker Andy Firk, seen here in the meeting tent checking out the handouts and fruit samples.

Several speakers gave brief presentations. Here are some of my notes, in no particular order:

---Poms typically take four years to begin fruiting. Almost all varieties are deciduous, and need a period of six weeks of winter dormancy. The soft-seeded varieties tend to be best for eating, while the hard-seeded toothbreakers are superior for production of juice, pomegranate oil, and tannins.

---The main challenge for commercial-scale production is fungus, but Cindy is also having some problems with the black pin-hole beetle. It attacks the small branches of the tree. Like the ambrosia beetle that is plaguing avocado trees in some areas, it bores and deposits fungus, though it is not fatal unless the infestation is major. Cindy is still investigating the best control methods. She now does all her major pruning in late winter to avoid attracting and spreading the pest.

---Until the necessary fungicides are labeled for use on pomegranates, the fruit can legally be sold in Florida only as animal feed. The good news is that research in the past couple of years has found very effective fungicides and application schedules for Florida, and two of the fungicides are now in the approval process, so commercially viable operation is now in sight.

---The industry can't depend just on chemical solutions to fungus and pest control, since these won't last. An integrated approach will be necessary, using resistant varieties, best practices in sanitation to prevent disease proliferation, and rotation of chemical applications.

After the talks, Cindy led us on a field tour telling about many of the varieties. A large shade house protected thousands of 1-gallon pomegranate trees, and I bought five baby Azadi poms to bring back to friends in Sarasota. Green Sea Farms also ships pomegranate trees. To the left are the Azadi, Desertnyi, and Medovyi Vasha that Cindy shipped to me in 2014. Even with a transplanting last fall, they have grown well with no fungus or pest problems so far--- though we'll have to wait and see how things go once they begin fruiting.
Andy has posted an excellent collection of photos of the field day event. This one shows Cindy guiding the pomegranate tour. The tall fellow in the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota shirt looks somewhat like me, 'cept I'm not that old or skinny.