Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

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.