Articles written by Darryl McCullough (unless otherwise noted)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Magnificent Flying Machines

Robotic technology has been a job killer in recent years, and a recent article suggests that our species may not be the only one put out of work. It reports on Japanese researchers who managed to pollinate lilies using small drones decked out in horsehair covered with a sticky gel that carries the pollen. Operating the $100 drone requires “a certain amount of practice with remote control”. The inventors concede that pollinating drones are not expected to replace bees altogether, only to help them.

As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.

A number of articles tell of a different sort of aerial approach already at work in the grape fields of our Pacific coast. Falconers train their raptors to protect the Dionysian fruit from wild birds. For those concerned about animal welfare--- and I most certainly count myself among their ranks--- the falcons are trained to intimidate, not injure, and the falcons themselves are required to be captive-bred, not captured from the wild. As for efficiency, one falconer advises that “for projects larger than 1,000 acres, you’ll probably have to add a second falcon.”

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I think I may have benefitted from a natural version of this approach. The woods adjoining my land are well populated by hawks, and though their noisy cries are not the most appealing, their aerial patrols keep the squirrels and smaller birds wary of the relatively open areas. Often as not, the birds and the bushy-tailed rats seem to pass up my fruit. Unfortunately there aren’t any fowl nasty enough to discourage the ring-tailed forest demons from their nighttime raids.

Between drones and trained falcons, my regular readers will easily guess which of the two I’m more enthusiastic about. I’m the first to admit that I’ve benefitted greatly from clever man-made tools both old and new--- indeed like many of us, I likely would not have lived as long nor nearly as comfortable a life without them. But how much better it is, in the long run, when we can use what nature provides, and just steer her natural course a bit to our benefit.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Calling All Newbies

We interrupt this ongoing blog to plug this spring’s Fruit Tree Paradise Workshop. That’s my twice-a-year, 3-hour introductory class on fruit tree horticulture, which will take place on Saturday, March 25, from 2:00 to 5:00. If you know anyone who might want to take the class, you can send them to this web page for more information and to register if they like.

The class costs $25, or $35 for a couple, but if that is a burden I’ll be happy to adjust the price appropriately. The proceeds all go to Transition Sarasota, a non-profit non-political organization that seeks to build local community by supporting local food and local business (full disclosure--- I serve on its Board of Directors).

Of course there is a long list of folks in these parts who know a heck of a lot more than I do about growing fruit trees, but none of them offer such a class. If they do, I’ll be happy to send interested parties there, and to attend it myself. But for now, it’s up to me.

This will the fourth time for the class, and it’s been fun. I’m fortunate to have a convenient classroom--- my two acres here in north Sarasota County. Actually, it’s less than two, after allowing for the house, the driveway, the shade of the oaks, and the ornamentals, but that still leaves room for plenty of fruit trees for hands-on demonstrations.

In a 3-hour class, a lot of information is dispensed. But as an experienced teacher of subjects other than fruit trees, I’ve learned to ask myself “What are the key underlying ideas?” If I can’t sum them up in a few sentences, then I don’t really have a clear understanding of what I’m trying to get across. So, in a nutshell:

1. In selecting a species and variety of fruit tree, and then in growing it, one should consider seven basic horticultural concerns: sunlight, nutrition, drought, flood, wind, cold, and (for those lucky and unlucky enough to live right on the coast) salt.

2. A fruit tree is not a machine, but rather an adaptive system with enormous embodied intelligence. And it is part of a surrounding ecology, which is an adaptive system with enormous embodied intelligence.

I try to put most of what I say in the context of these big ideas. And I also ask myself “What are are the key takeaways that I want people to remember, even if they forget everything else?”. Simply put, they are:

1. Promote healthy ecologies above and below ground.

2. Prune aggressively, fertilize conservatively, and mulch heavily.

Of course there are lots of practical tips, for example:

1. Tip-prune to force bushy structure, and don’t allow the tree to grow tall.

2. Plant on mounds, and when you plant, free the roots enough for them to start growing straight into the surrounding soil. If necessary, root-prune to correct circling roots and other bad root structure.

And of course there’s the most important takeaway of all:

Join your local fruit club(s) and become part of the fruit tree growing community. Share your knowledge with others as they share theirs with you.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Warm Day In December

Readers know of my fondness for heavy mulch in fruit tree groves. I won’t say it’s the solution to all fruit tree health problems, but throw in good root pruning when you plant a tree with a root system distorted by living in a container--- that is, any tree that has spent time in a container--- and you’re getting close. All those trees growing out in the woods, doing perfectly well without any babying from us, have at least two things going for them--- a natural root system and a rich soil ecology.

Early in the sequence of East Bradenton Park Grove project organizational meetings, I began my lobbying effort for mulching the future grove. The County people, bless their hearts, think of mulch as something that comes a cubic foot or two at a time in a plastic bag, and makes things looks pretty, while controlling weeds. We fanatics think of it as something that comes in a huge orange or white truck, costs next to nothing, and after a month of weathering makes things look pretty, while controlling weeds. And after a year of decomposition, nourishes the tree and gives rise to that marvelous explosion of soil life.

Starting this far apart, the goal was not a full meeting of minds, but only some truckloads of wood chips in the grove. The county does trim trees and chip the wood into big trucks, but it’s not used to taking the resulting “waste” anywhere except the specified dropping area. Of course bureaucracies are hard to change, and that’s to be expected--- no one wants to be responsible for something that turns out badly, and the safe thing to do is what you’ve already been doing. But in my experience, most people really do want to do what’s best, and you just have to persist until you find the right combination of authority, willingness to listen and understand, and a bit of courage, and then change can happen.

So eventually, piles of mulch started appearing next to the grove. As autumn unfolded, MRFC member and East Bradenton Park super-volunteer Josh Starry moved vast quantities of it in his double-wide orange wheelbarrow. Once in a while, I showed up to move one load to each three of his.

The grand finale, at least for this season, was on December 27, the day of the Palma Sola tour for MRFC and Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota members. After the enjoyable walk in Palma Sola, four of us gathered our armloads of black sapote and starfruit, then drove over to East Bradenton. Josh and I, along with MRFC and TFSS member Kevin Hook and Susan Jennifer Griffith of the Manatee Extension, set to work.

Even at its lowest point, the Florida sun packs some punch, and I was glad it was late in the day. Shadows were long by the time we finished, but the nineteen remaining trees now sit comfortably on their irrigated mounds, roots happy under their protective mulch layers, looking forward to spring and a vigorous 2017 growing season.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Heavy Hitters and Scouts

I wonder whether there is any place with more great local fruit tree clubs than Florida's Suncoast, with the MRFC and Sarasota's TFSS in the heart of it. I attend at least two dozen club talks every year, and the overall quality and entertainment value of the presentations is impressive. More often than not, the talks given by club members rival the big names. With the diversity of subjects--- from how to grow a good mango, to the fascinating species of annonas, to the health benefits of eating fruits and how best to cook them---- there is something for everyone.

This spring features a lineup of heavy hitters up and down the coast, and I'm not talking about baseball spring training:

This Wednesday, February 8, the Suncoast Tropical Fruit and Vegetable Club in Nokomis hosts Noris Ledesma of the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden on "Training and Pruning a Mango Orchard to Improve Blooming and Yield in South Florida". As most of us know, any talk by the effervescent Noris is a treat. If you miss the February 8 talk, you can hear Noris at the March 28 meeting of the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota. The topic is not posted, but will appear at the TFSS website in due course.

February also gives you two chances to hear the famous Chris Rollins: at the MRFC meeting on the 13th, and the Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota meeting on the 28th. The topic at both is Florida's Best Fruits For Homeowners. Retired after 40 years directing the Fruit and Spice Park in South Florida, Chris is spending this month touring the state. The great fruit tree sage and raconteur is another treat not to be missed.

As if these weren't enough, May features Jonathan Crane, famed tropical fruit tree expert and Associate Director of the Tropical Research and Education Center, speaking at the Sarasota club on May 23. Dr. Crane is a fount of knowledge on pretty much every aspect of growing tropical fruit, and always gives an enjoyable and informative talk.

All of the local clubs welcome guests, and details about the meeting times and locations can be found at the websites of these organizations: MRFC, TFSS, STFVC.

It's certainly an historic spring lineup, but let's not forget the "scouts" who find these speakers, persuade them to visit, and make the arrangements. With apologies in advance to those I am failing to credit, thanks go to Jimmy and Sally Lee (along with Scott Petersen, Ray Jones, and Wayne Clifton in recent years) at the MRFC, and Bob Thinnes at the Suncoast club. In Sarasota, the entire Board pitches in, but past and current Chairman Will Wright deserves the lion's share of the credit. When we see these volunteers at our club meetings, let's remember to thank them for putting together the speaker programs that we all enjoy.