Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

And Then There Were Twenty-Seven

The freeze cloths gather dust in my garage, as January continues with barely a chill hour. Still, last Sunday night saw some weather damage of a different sort, as an intense weather front barreled through the Suncoast. The 1.7-inch rainfall in my location was more than welcome, but the winds left their mark.

Monday morning my strawberry containers looked like the aftermath of an orgy of the ring-tailed forest gods, but the fruits were still on, and apart from a bit of spilled potting mix, no harm was done.

One of my unusual specimens, a Moringa stenopetala, was down again, about the same as after last October's flooding rains. I should have left the stake in. It's been righted and restaked, but looks like it's going to defoliate. Maybe it's a goner, but moringas are tough so I am hopeful.

The papayas, of course, were all over the place. I've begun the fallen papaya recovery sequence, standing them up and bracing them with heavy sand packed in around the trunk. I expect that at least one of the two broadleaf papayas is destined for the next step--- chopping off at 4 feet--- but we'll see how things go.

A couple of newly planted jaboticabas, a Red and a Grimal, were pushed partway over. I think this was as much due to erosion of the loosely packed soil around the root balls as to the wind. But they've been stood up and repacked, and seem fine.

More impressively, this Grimal in a 25-gallon container was on its side, again with soft ground more than likely aiding the wind. But jabos are tough, and again no harm done.

The real damage was to my Coconut Cream mango, planted back in August of 2013. With its 4-inch trunk and a couple of fine fruit last summer, it seemed to be on the road to good production this year.

No such luck. Monday morning the trunk was still there, but the rest was 50 feet away. Steve Cucura told me he had heard of this problem with Coconut Cream mangos, and indeed there is a thread at Tropical Fruit Forum that documents some cases. It's said to be a "compatibility problem" at the graft union. CC's can exhibit a peculiar growth habit, as if they aeren't quite sure which way is up, and maybe this is somehow related. Whatever the reason, my collection of 28 mangos is now 27, but I can't complain about that. And for me, a no-freeze winter would be more than a fair trade. But we're still a ways from that.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

And Then There Were Nineteen

In planning the East Bradenton Park Grove, we gave due attention to security. With a lot of 7-gallon trees and even a 15-gallon avocado, all top quality varieties, the collection had retail value around a thousand bucks. And in addition to the desperate people willing to cart off and sell most anything that isn’t bolted down, there are the sad cases out there of folks so alienated that they want to vandalize any beauty that the rest of us enjoy.

We didn’t want to fence the area--- in addition to the cost, it would just advertise the value of the trees. And besides, how inspiring is a grove that you can’t walk around in?

Susan Jennifer Griffith consulted the police department, who agreed to step up patrols for a month. They also advised placing a “psychological barrier”--- just a way of saying “look but don't touch.” So on planting day I took along some marking ribbon and a pile of shortlasting wooden stakes, and at the end of the planting, we left these unsubtle messages around each tree.

It worked well, but not perfectly. Two of the mango trees, an Angie and a Pickering, walked away some time during the first week. But since then, no problem. It appears that we hoped, once the grove ceased to be a novelty, its interest as a target waned. And the appreciative comments Susan receives when visiting the grove tell us that the neighborhood is starting to feel some ownership for it. No security precaution that we could use could match that.

Come spring we’ll replace the departed mango trees, though most likely with a Cogshall in place of the Angie. Josh's Angie and both of mine showed fungal problems during the heavy rains of September and October. Also, Cogshalls are nearly dwarf, with an attractive compact look, and easier for home growers to find for sale--- overall a better choice for the demo project.

Setbacks are to be expected, of course, and frankly I'm relieved that nineteen of the twenty-one trees--- more than ninety percent--- have made it through the first six months. And those appreciative comments more than make up for the loss.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Warm Day In September

 It was painfully early in the morning when the MRFC's Josh Starry and Susan Jennifer Griffith of the Manatee County Extension arrived at my house to load up everything for planting day at the East Bradenton Park Grove. Susan’s County van, Josh’s pickup, and my little Civic were just barely enough for all the trees, wheelbarrows, tools, soil amendments, and plenty of cold water.

Once again the County turned out in force, though the fellows in striped shirts must have been somewhere else that day. In fact there was a bit more labor help than we needed, since Josh, Susan, and I wanted to do all of the actual planting ourselves. Next time, whenever that may be, we’ll know better what to request. Most importantly, the County's big water truck made all the difference to the planting, as the nearest water spigot to the grove is a good 200 meters away, and running a hose there would have been next to impossible.

We pulled out all the stops by amending the soil with biochar, crabshell, and azomite, and smearing the roots with Tammy Kovar’s mycorrhizal fungi. And after planting, a top dressing of organic fertilizer and then a little of the County’s bagged Florimulch. Rather short of our concept of adequate mulch, but that's a topic for another day.
Twenty-one trees is a lot, and though it was late September, by the time morning ended the Florida sun was packing quite a punch. Here are Josh and Susan taking a water break in the shade of a young bald cypress by the grove.

We had a pleasant surprise, a visit from Larry Atkins, fruit tree guru and past president of the MRFC as well as of the Sarasota club. Of course Larry planted many a fruit tree in his younger days, and we didn’t begrudge him relaxing in the shade and giving us moral support.

The trees were in excellent condition and looked mighty fine once they were all in the ground. Here is a nice Trompo canistel, and behind it a Tice mulberry, planted in the corner to give it plenty of room.

And they don't come much prettier than this young Kohala longan.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Warm Day In August

A good way to start the new year is to finish doing the things we promised to do last year (or the year before that, or …). Let’s get going on that!

Back in October I wrote about the East Bradenton Park Fruit Tree Grove and promised to tell more later. As I wrote then, the concept was to create a demonstration of the trees that people in the underserved neighborhood near the park might be able to grow for home use, trade, or sale.

Several planning meetings took place during the spring and summer, involving different government agencies and non-governmental organizations (that us!). As with most any new initiative, things moved more slowly than we might have liked, but it was a good-faith effort all around.

By the end of August, the 29th to be exact, the County was ready to build mounds for the trees and put in irrigation according to our specifications. Susan Jennifer Griffith of the Manatee County Extension, a co-organizer of the project, joined me in laying out a spacious array of 21 tree locations. It was mighty hot, and the fire ants were out in force, but we got the job done.

Here are some of those County workers in front of a pile of well-tested soil, and behind that the Tropicana plant that borders the park to the west. The men who build parks for a living brought along plenty of machinery as well as muscle power--- several fit-looking county workers, plus a couple of officers and some fellows in striped clothing who didn’t look like good choices to pick a fistfight with. We left them to it, and I turned to the task of coming up with the trees.

Club members will remember that the MRFC contributed $200 toward the cost of the 21 trees, and the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota another $150. That didn’t quite cover it, but a suave, witty, drop-dead-handsome private donor, too modest to reveal his identity, closed the gap.

Friend-of-the-club and all-around good person Steve Cucura provided most of the trees at cost. With two of the MRFC’s reliable volunteers, Josh and Kevin, I made a shopping trip to Fruitscapes to select the trees, and on his next trip to Sarasota Steve dropped them off at my house. A few trees came from other sources, and by the time planting day arrived on September 16, I had the start of a nice fruit tree nursery on the pad behind the garage. Next week we’ll see how the planting went.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Finally, A Gold Star

Perhaps you recall my post from January 3, 2016 where I declared my fruit tree New Year’s Resolution. It was to go down Joyner Road--- to emulate Gene Joyner's famous Unbelievable Acres by laying down deep wood-chip mulch everywhere in my groves.

This has well-known benefits that include suppression of competing grass and weeds, holding soil moisture, and stabilizing soil temperature. And the breakdown of the wood by fungi and microorganisms acts as an excellent slow-release fertilizer. The process is fast in the summer and slow in the winter, adjusting automatically for the dormant season.

But the slow-composting mulch doesn’t just provide nutrients. Over time, the addition of organic matter to the soil improves its ability to hold water and nutrients. Just what we need on this big sand bar.

Most important to me, as an ecological grower, is that the mulch feeds not just the tree but the entire soil ecology. I’ll hold forth on ecological growing some other day, but the short version is that a rich ecology, starting with the fungi that perform the initial breakdown of much of the soil’s organic matter and working up through the soil food web, has enormous benefits to plant health.

It takes a lot of wood chips to deep-mulch a large area, but the local tree pruners--- the brawny fellows in the orange trucks and the smaller arborist and landscape companies--- generate truckloads of wood chips day after day. I’ll write more about them some other time, but suffice it to say that two of my good buddies who spend much of their days up in trees wielding chain saws--- a job where I wouldn't last two hours--- keep me well supplied.

A Bobcat can move one heck of a lot of mulch in one heck of a short time, but I follow the spiritual path of moving it by hand. A big 10-cubic foot wheelbarrow and both a 5-tine and a 10-tine pitchfork for different sizes of chips are all one needs. Plus some muscle power. I’ve moved a respectable amount, considering that I’m a skinny old geezer, but most of it was done by my right-hand man Josh, who’s truly impressive in action.

We laid down big cardboard sheets from furniture boxes obtained at a local warehouse, to suppress the grass and weeds, and then at least twelve inches or more of ground leaves, twigs, and branches. Everywhere except close in to the trees, which as they always say should be kept clear of mulch lest it promote fungal damage to the trunk.

So what about that resolution? Definitely a gold star. We got a lot down early in the year, and finished all the groves in time for the rainy season. The trees look happy and healthy, though of course they might have anyway. But I can point to one unexpected benefit that’s almost surely due to the effort.

Many fruit trees in our region, including some in the collection at Palma Sola, are plagued by Sri Lankan weevils. Little white crawlers, about 3/8 inch long. They can fly a little, and their life cycle involves an adult stage chewing the edges of the leaves, and an underground stage going at the roots. They don’t kill an otherwise healthy tree, but they do sap its energy and slow down growth, not to mention the cosmetic effect of half-eaten leaves all over the place.

The little pests apparently don’t have many enemies in these parts. They are often found on lychees and black sapotes, and occasionally on other species.

Several of my trees had quite an infestation of them, especially the black sapote. Manual removal was limiting the damage, but wasn’t going to be feasible when the trees grew larger.

As we moved into summer, a miracle occurred--- Sri Lankan weevils got rarer and rarer, and finally disappeared. The lychees and black sapote started growing like crazy--- here's the black sapote tree, 8 feet tall and 12 feet across, and loaded wth 1-inch fruit. My guess is that simply having a thick enough layer of mulch near the tree interrupts the cycle of getting into the ground and back up to the tree. How much better a solution can there be to a nasty pest problem?

Unfortunately I have to report that a few Sri Lankans have shown up on the east side of the property, which is mulched but not as thickly. There goes my 2017 New Year’s resolution to start getting less exercise.