Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

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.

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