Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Bananas 101

For a couple of weeks we'll be talking about bananas. Next time we'll look at the question of whether to remove the banana flower once the fruit has formed. For now, let's make sure everyone has seen the basics about banana plants.

The first thing to know is that there is no such thing as a banana tree--- banana plants contain no wood. They consist of a tuberlike underground stem, called a corm, and individual stalks that emerge from it. Each stalk will flower and fruit only once, and then should be removed. Indeed, once the plant is well established, you can whack off stems without hurting it a bit. An often-recommended approach is to allow only three stems at a time: a full-sized one, a partially grown one, and a small one. This forces the plant to put all of its energy into fruiting on one stalk at a time.

Remove young stems by chopping them off the corm with a sharp-edged shovel, as cutting them at ground level just lets them keep growing. Allow a stem to grow only if it shoots up close to a big stalk and puts out just a few narrow leaves at first. These are "spears" growing directly from the corm and drawing on its stored energy. The smaller new stems that leaf out more, and are usually farther from the big stalks, are starting more-or-less from scratch, and will take much longer to grow and fruit. These should go in the compost, but spears can easily be potted up or just directly planted to make a new banana plant.

If you've never seen a banana plant forming fruit, it's like something from another planet. Each stalk puts out one large leaf at a time as it grows, keeping the last five to ten leaves as older ones wilt. After about 35 leaves, a single large deep red bud emerges on a leafless central stem. As the stem lengthens, little hands of tiny bananas are formed just behind the bud. Eventually this process stops, and the bananas grow in size until you or the squirrels decide they are ready to harvest.

The bud is generally called the banana flower, but it's really a housing for the male flowers that are exposed as leaves curl off the bud. The tiny female flowers that actually become the bananas are on the stalk itself. After the formation, the bud just sits there at the end of the stalk as the bananas grow and ripen. Many folks, including commercial growers, cut the flower off once the fruits are formed, but others leave them on. Next time, we'll look at the arguments on both sides of this grand controversy.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


I expect to make several posts about the East Bradenton Park Fruit Tree Grove project in upcoming months. A good way to start might be with the current draft of our FAQ. Amber Mills, Public Health Specialist of the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County, provided many helpful edits to my first draft. Amber has spearheaded the East Bradenton Park revitalization project, and it has been a pleasure to work with her and all of those involved in it.

Who planted the grove?

The grove is a joint project involving the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County, the Manatee County Government, the Manatee Rare Fruit Council, the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota and the UF/IFAS Extensions of Manatee and Sarasota County.

Why a fruit tree grove?

In Manatee County, survey results to assess interventions for healthy food access and consumption evaluated access to fruit trees, gardening and educational opportunities, farm stands, and lower costs. According to assessment findings, the East Bradenton community perceived fresh fruits and vegetables to be expensive, and found the time it takes to obtain and prepare them to be a barrier to consuming healthy food. The fruit tree orchard in the East Bradenton Park will provide inexpensive access to fruits as well as increase the availability of locally grown food for its community members.

How can it help the community?

There are several benefits. The East Bradenton Park neighborhood is a designated food desert, with insufficient fresh produce available. When the trees start to produce fruit, it will be freely available to area residents for their personal consumption (not for resale). When the 21 trees reach full production size, this will be a considerable amount of food. More importantly, the grove will provide both knowledge and inspiration for area residents to grow more of their own fruit in backyards and other available areas. If not just 21, but several hundred productive fruit trees can be established in the neighborhood, a tremendous amount of fruit can be produced for consumption, trade, or income. Finally, we hope that this beautiful grove will be a model for other such projects, and that the residents of the community will take pride in being the leader in this initiative.

When will there be fruit to eat?

A fruit tree planted as a seed will usually take 5 to 10 years before it begins to produce, and the resulting fruit might not be high quality. However, the trees in the East Bradenton Park grove are grafted trees, which will yield high-quality fruit as soon as they are large enough. How soon will depend on the kind of tree. Some, like the starfruit, bananas, and papaya, might produce within a year. Most will take two or three years, and a few, like the avocados, may take four years. Don't be shocked to see some of the experts who are initially maintaining the grove remove the fruit from some of the trees before it is ripe. In those cases, the tree is too small to produce good fruit, and needs another year or two of growth before fruiting. Without the burden of producing fruit, the young tree will grow much faster, and will produce far more in the long run.

How were these trees selected?

Experts from the UF/IFAS Extension Office and members of area fruit tree clubs worked together to make the selection, based on several considerations. All of these trees will grow very well in our area, and can be very productive without spraying pesticides or using expensive fertilizers. They produce fruit in different seasons, so eventually there should be at least some fruit almost any day of the year. Finally, the trees provide options for many situations: some do well in wetter soils, others in drier, some will get large and others will stay fairly small, and so on. Most any space with some sunlight and soil can be a home for at least one of these types of trees.

Who will take care of the trees?

Fruit trees like these, that are well adapted to our area, do not require much care. Initially, volunteers from the local fruit tree clubs will tend to the grove. As time goes on, local residents can take “ownership” of this responsibility. Those who are interested but do not have experience can learn through many sources: either directly from the volunteers (feel free to ask them questions, or just say hi), through self-study, by joining local fruit tree clubs that have monthly meetings to share knowledge and information, and finally through local volunteers who provide one-day classes in all the basics.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Magnificent Five and Two Halves

The rains onto saturated soil continued into early autumn, dropping another of my Sunrise papayas. It got the same makeover as its mate. New growth is already bursting forth from that first tipsy survivor.

The bigger news is that we're now eating our own papayas. Considering that the Magnificent Seven went in the ground on March 1 after starting from seed last year, this qualifies as instant gratification on the fruit-tree time scale.

The Sunrise produce very small fruits, ironic enough given the size and vigor of the plant. The Queen of the Indoors loves them, and indeed they are fine-tasting. It will be interesting to see how the topped-off plants fruit next year and how their productivity is affected.

I was more curious about the broadleaf papayas.  As you can see here, the fruit is much larger than the hand-size Sunrise's.

After the hefty fruit ripened to yellow with just a hint of green remaining, the flesh was a beautiful deep orange. But after all the hype, the taste was disappointing. There seemed to be an edge to the flavor not present in the smooth-tasting Sunrises. I found them good enough to eat, but the Queen said to call back when there were more Sunrise's. We'll see how the fruit of these two varieties evolves as the plants age, and whether dry-season product tastes different.

Meanwhile the two Costa Ricans are loaded with large fruits. I can hardly wait to see what it's like.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

ELW 2016

It's that time of year--- the sixth annual edition of Greater Sarasota Eat Local Week begins October 22. Full disclosure: I'm on the Board of Directors of Transition Sarasota, the group that puts the whole thing together.

“TS” is a non-profit organization that seeks to make America local again, or at least move the right amount in that direction. It's not a politically oriented group. Our membership ranges from greenies to Tea Partiers, all in agreement that we would rather buy fruit from southwest Florida than southwest Chile. Nothing against our Chilean friends. We just think the world has gotten too big, at the expense of local food, local business, and local community.

Once again there's an amazing variety of ELW events. The details are at the ELW web page. And of course there's a Facebook page, and a Twitter feed, etc.

Of particular interest to fruit tree enthusiasts:

Our own MRFC event, the tour of the rare fruit tree collection at Palma Sola Park, is at 10:00 a. m. on Sunday, October 23. If you haven't been to the park for a while, or if you have, this will be a great time to hang out with fellow club members, enjoy the wonderful collection of fruiting plants, and share our enthusiasm with other attendees. If we don't sign up some new members, we aren't trying hard enough!

Our sister club, the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota, has made their regular club meeting at 6:30 on Tuesday, October 25 an Eat Local Week event. It's at their new location this year, the beautiful Sarasota Garden Club, and the presentation will be Making Wine From Your Tropical Fruit. It's by two TFSS members: Tony Hemmer, who uses a very scientific approach, and Nick Ostrye, a winemaking traditionalist. I've had Dr. Hemmer's lychee wine, and it is excellent. The presentation includes samples, all adding up to about one 5 oz glass. What a great way to use all that leftover starfruit…

Finally, the closing advertisement: I'm giving my Fruit Tree Paradise Workshop again, on Saturday, October 29 from 2:00 to 5:00. There is a $25 fee that goes to Transition Sarasota. But for those for whom the fee is a burden, I'm happy to give partial or full scholarships--- no one will be turned away, as long as there is space available. Enrollment is limited to 20 or so, but if we do exceed the maximum, I'll offer a repeat a couple of weeks later for any who couldn't get into the October 29 class.

The goals of the class are to inspire, and to help people avoid the beginner mistakes that are so easy to make. The class was well-received by those who took it last spring, and I intend to continue it spring and fall, as long as there are folks wanting to attend. Needless to say, the class is not aimed at the more experienced growers who make up most of the MRFC and TFSS memberships, but please pass the word along to those who could benefit.

And here's a photo from last spring's class. Some guy who looks a lot like me, but obviously takes himself far too seriously.