Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Inoculation Day

Last week we talked about using mycorrhizal fungi to improve the health of fruit trees. The fungi are best placed between three and twelve inches below the surface, and either in contact with the roots, or close enough that the roots will find them quickly. So how best to get them there?

When I asked Tammy Kovar how her workers accomplish this for contract jobs, she said they use an auger to bore circular holes, an inch or two in diameter, and fill them with a mix of fungi and soil. That's fine, but augering is not a low-effort pastime. And there's some damage done to the roots, perhaps inconsequential, but I'd prefer not to damage the roots at all if possible.

MRFC Secretary Josh Starry invented a simple but ingenious device to get the job done, as long as there's a good water supply available. A shaft of PVC pipe shoots a jet of water out the end, focused enough to excavate a narrow hole in the soil without actually cutting anything. A valve next to the handle controls the flow, and a bit of experimentation yields a flow rate that works without spewing excess water all over the place.

Here it is in action near one of my citrus trees.

The hole is about 1½ inches across, and as deep as one wants.

Meanwhile, I mixed Tammy's mycorrhizal product with some dry biochar, about 1 part to 4.

Here I am dropping in the mix up to about 3 inches from the surface. I filled the rest with topsoil and Josh watered it all in.

Maybe our efforts will get an extra year or two of fruit out of the struggling citrus, which would be well worth it. The process is fast and easy, and some afternoon we'll do the smaller fruit trees. 

With so many variables in play, it's mighty hard to tell which pampering of our trees has an impact and which is just a waste of time and money. But methods that enrich the ecology rank high in my book.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Going Underground

This story begins last July 11, when Tammy Kovar spoke at our MRFC meeting. I had read about the use of mycorrhizal fungi to stimulate the ecology of plant root zones and provide multiple symbiotic benefits to the host plant. And I had heard about Tammy's Sustainable Landscape Supply company here in Sarasota. But it took her informative presentation and passion for mycorrhizae to spur me into action.

So a few weeks ago I stopped by Sustainable Landscape Supply and purchased 50 pounds of mychorrhizal fungi for my fruit trees. That's a lot, but kept in controlled conditions it will stay alive for three years and that will be plenty of time for me to use it all. Thanks to heavy mulching and other ecologically oriented techniques, most of my fruit trees look very happy, but the multiply challenged citrus trees have been on a long downhill slide. So naturally I'm starting with them.

The challenge with mycorrhizal fungi is to get them growing on the roots of the tree. On healthy soil, most every other fertilizer or soil builder can just be top-dressed around the tree. Over time, the action of rain and the constant nutrient circulation in a healthy ecology will move the tasty stuff underground where the tree's roots will find it. But soil mycorrhizae can't survive exposed to this above-ground nightmare world of UV bombardment and wild temperature swings. They need to be placed on or near the roots. Once in contact with the root system, they will gradually spread and colonize it, and life will be good.

It's easy peasy with new plantings--- at the point when you are loosening the roots from their potbound condition and fluffing them out to help them start into the surrounding soil, just wet them and smear on some of the fine mycorrhizal granules.

Bu when the tree is already established in the ground, it's not so simple. Next week we'll learn about MRFC Secretary Josh Starry's ingenious method, and see photos of it in action.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Ancient Art

The Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota meets on the fourth Tuesday of each month, and in October this falls during Eat Local Week. So naturally, we (wearing now my other hat as TFSS Treasurer) have made it an Eat Local Week event and tried to put together an October program that would pique the interest of one-time attendees. This year we hit a home run.

The presenters were longtime TFSS members Nick Ostrye and TFSS Vice President Dr. Tony Hemmer. Each has cultivated the ancient art of winemaking, using tropical fruit instead of those non-local wine grapes.

Tony is a Manatee County resident (that's only turnabout since many MRFC members, including yours truly, grow our fruit down here in Sarasota). He takes a scientific approach to winemaking, and presented the technical basics in a concise powerpoint presentation.

A table displayed an impressive collection of home winemaking gear.

Tony then turned the mic over to Nick, who is more of a traditional "intuitive" winemaker. Like Tony, he's not afraid to try making wine out of almost anything that is sweet and grows on a plant.

Nick emceed the wine tasting. He had procured clear plastic egg cartons and a boatload of little plastic cups that fit perfectly into the compartments.

With their better halves and other volunteers, the speakers had filled the cups with half-ounce servings of ten homemade wines, plus crackers and cheese cubes. A printed insert told what each cup contained.

The duo described each wine in turn, describing the ingredients, sugar content, and special idiosyncrasies of each batch. We sipped exotic flavors like mulberry-jaboticaba, with many tints and levels of sweetness.

Ten rounds later we were all impressed with the variety and quality of the home brews. Ten half-ounces only add up to one glass of wine, but the crowd left in an especially cheery mood. I've stashed the leftover cartons and cups for a repeat performance down the road.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Great Banana Flower Controversy

Here at MRFC Articles we don't shy away from the great issues of the day. We're going to look at the question of when to remove the male flower--- the big red bud at the end of the fruiting stalk--- from a forming bunch of bananas.

2014 thread at the Tropical Fruit Forum discussion board delved into this question. The most common reason cited for removal of the flower was to let the plant put its energy into the fruit rather than maintaining the flower. According to several posters, this has been tested in multiple controlled studies. Some show no effect, others a slight increase in the weight of the banana bunch--- negligible in comparison with the effects of proper watering, fertilization, and so on.

A second reason given for flower removal is that stalks often break or fall over under the increasing weight of the fruit, ruining the lot of them, and the couple of pounds or so that the flower adds is a useless additional burden. An answer to this is that if the stalk is really in any danger of collapse, one should prop it up with a couple of long poles tied together in an "X", or build a support out of PVC pipe, or otherwise rig up some support to prevent it.

Yet another reason, for commercial growers, is that when the flower is removed, a fair amount of sticky sap pours out of the stem. Added to the unavoidable seepage from the stalk end, this is more than a minor annoyance when you're harvesting hundreds of bunches in a day. So better to lop off the flower ahead of time, allowing the cut to seal by harvest time.

Some posters mentioned that the banana flower is edible. Though it's not a common practice in this country, in Asia they are often eaten and considered quite tasty by those who know how to prepare and cook them properly.

Why would you not want to remove the flower? There are reports of fungus gaining a foothold at the cut and working its way into the stem. If it really doesn't make any difference otherwise, why risk this?

The bottom line is that for the home grower, at least, it doesn't much matter. If you like the look of flower buds on your banana stalks, by all means leave them there. And it may be worth looking up how to cook them and giving it a try, you might love them.