October 15, 2008

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Texas A&M citrus scientist proposes orange revolution

By Rod Santa Ana
Texas AgriLife Extension Service

A scientist in Weslaco thinks it's time for a citrus revolution. He says he has the tools to help growers survive today's adversities by making major changes and improvements in the way they produce fruit.

Dr. Mani Skaria, a plant pathologist at the Texas A&M-Kingsville Citrus Center at Weslaco, said planting ultra-high density orchards with micro-budded trees has the potential to rescue the nation's stressed citrus industry.

"I call it the 'Orange Revolution,' and this is the time to do it," Skaria said. "When things are not going right, it's time to make a change. Using these strategies, citrus growers can increase profits while saving time, space and money. It will help them survive the challenges that threaten the industry today."

Those threats include new citrus diseases, hurricanes, freezes, soaring land prices, urbanization, labor shortages and ecological factors, Skaria said.

"We have to look at the successes of the apple industry in North America and Europe," he said. "In the late 1980s in Washington, growers normally planted 200 or fewer trees per acre. Back then, some growers went to 400 trees and people thought they were crazy. Today, high density apple groves are planted with 1,600 to 2,400 trees per acre. Growers not only stayed in business, they started making money again. They made a huge comeback."

Skaria is convinced citrus growers can make similar strides by increasing orchard density using trees propagated by micro-budding, a technique he developed in the mid-1990s.

"Growers here in the Rio Grande Valley currently plant about 121 trees per acre," Skaria said. "In California, I know of one grower who has successfully grown about 900 grapefruit trees per acre. Growers here could successfully plant at least 500 trees per acre using micro-budded trees under drip irrigation."

Skaria's method of micro-budding trees dramatically reduces the time and costs associated with the century-old method of mechanically grafting buds from tasty fruit trees onto hardy sour orange rootstocks.

Traditionally, a budded tree is kept for 18 months or more in a nursery before it can be transplanted to an orchard where it spends another three to four years maturing sufficiently to produce fruit, Skaria said.

In micro-budding, rootstocks are grown from seeds in tube-like containers. Under a microscope, a single bud is then inserted into the rootstock. Within two or three weeks, the newly budded rootstock begins to grow and is soon ready for transplanting to an orchard.

"Micro-budding eliminates the nursery stage and reduces the entire process it takes before you can see fruit on trees. In just two years, sometimes less, a grower can go from planting to fruit production," he said.

Skaria planted his first micro-budded orchard in the summer of 1997, and by the fall of 1999, several varieties of micro-budded citrus, including lemons, oranges and grapefruit, were producing fruit and continue to do well today.

The potential benefits to growers are many, he said. With lower costs per tree, growers can plant higher-density orchards, reduce water, pesticide and fertilizer costs, and get increased returns on their investment sooner. And unlike conventional grafting methods that can be done only in the spring and fall when tree sap is flowing, micro-budding can be done year-round.

Several commercial operations in the Rio Grande Valley are already experimenting with micro-budded, ultra-high density citrus trees. These range from a 3-acre plot to a 20-acre orchard where 7,000 such trees were planted, Skaria said.

"Another grower here is inter-planting micro-budded trees among his mature conventional trees, and commercial growers in California and Peru have also successfully used my technique and report to me that they have saved a lot of time and expenses and are already making substantial profits," he said.

Mark McCaleb farms 30 acres of citrus north of Weslaco. He's devoted three acres to Skaria's citrus planting technique.

"There may be some resistance to this new method," McCaleb said, "but I see it as the only way to go. The return on your investment is much sooner. And the cost of planting trees is considerably less. A conventional tree, including all expenses, costs about $14 per tree. Micro-budded trees cost only $3."

McCaleb said the practice of planting fewer citrus trees per acre began before the advent of chemical weed control when orchards required space to maneuver tractors and implements to remove weeds mechanically.

"It's an outdated practice of planting for the sake of an outdated method of weeding," he said. Barbara Storz, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service horticulture agent in Hidalgo County, is sold on Skaria's new citrus technique.

"The projected yields are amazing," she said. "And urbanization, especially when it encroaches on prime farmland, will force agriculture to high-density planting. Farming is changing; we don't have the huge acreage we used to. So we need to be creative, and Dr. Skaria's new trees and planting methods show great promise. It's the future of citrus production."

Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, said Skaria's technique offers both promise and challenges.

"This certainly is something of interest," he said, "especially with some of the threats out there that might require growers to do more replanting than they'd like. It's not being discussed much here, but in Florida where citrus greening disease is endemic, they're talking about citrus as a rotational crop because the expected life of a tree would be limited."

Prewett said that while the high-density technique has its challenges, the industry will keep a close eye on its progress.

"The challenge would be protecting such small trees from damage from wildlife and making pesticide applications in narrow spacing. We'll continue to examine how well this technique does, but outside factors like greening could trigger large-scale use of Dr. Skaria's technique. We admire him for thinking outside the box, so to speak, to come up with potential solutions."

Skaria and four other researchers at the Citrus Center have submitted grant proposals to conduct large-scale, long-term testing of his technique compared to conventional plantings.

One of the collaborators, Dr. John da Graca, the Citrus Center director and an expert in citrus greening, said such research is critical in the battle against diseases.

"There are several devastating citrus diseases out there and our challenge is to find ways to counter them," he said. "A short-term tree life with economical production is certainly a viable way to do that."

Skaria said Florida citrus growers and others who travel to Texas to inspect his new orchards are impressed with the technique, yet concedes change will take time. "It's a matter of having the will to make this change happen," he said. "We have to make adjustments to our growing methods and to our mind-set so that we can consider the possibilities. Diseases like citrus greening may force growers to make these changes because they will limit the life of trees."

Citrus greening is an incurable disease of citrus trees caused by a bacterium spread by insects called psyllids. Greening has been confirmed in Florida and Louisiana but not in Texas, although psyllids have been found throughout South Texas.

Symptoms of greening include yellowing of leaves and discoloration of fruit that eventually develops a very bitter taste. Eventually, trees drop their fruit, go into decline and die.

Skaria said he was encouraged to persist in finding a new, cheaper and quicker way to produce fruit when he realized that freezes, diseases, high initial investments and increasing land values in South Texas were pushing many growers out of the business.

"I just knew there had to be a better way to do things," he said. "The apple industry now equates high-density planting with successfully profits. I'm sure eventually citrus growers will too, and now is the time to start. Let us begin the orange revolution in Texas."

Gardening tips

When you are finished using your gasoline-powered equipment (such as mowers and tillers) for the season, either drain the existing fuel or add fuel stabilizer to the existing fuel before storing. It is also a good idea to go ahead and change the oil and air filters, and sharpen the blade at the same time. That way your equipment will be in top shape next spring.
Have a favorite gardening tip you’d like to share? Texas Gardener’s Seeds is seeking brief gardening tips from Texas gardeners to use in future issues. If we publish your tip in Seeds, we will send you a free Texas Gardener T-shirt. Here’s a chance to get published and be a garden stylist as well! Please send your tips of 50 words or less to the editor at: Gardening Tips.

Did You Know...

Our founding fathers called dill and fennel seed the "meeting house seeds," because they would chew them to stave off hunger and boredom during long church and civic meetings. Perhaps we should rename them the "presidential debate seeds" and use them to stave off the litany of boredom from tonight's debate.

Upcoming garden events

Wimberley: The Hill Country unit of the Herb Society of America will celebrate national herb day, Friday, October 17, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Wimberley Presbyterian Church, Wimberley. The featured speaker will be Henry Flowers, director of gardens at Festival Hill, Roundtop. For reservations, call Barbara Rawson, (512) 847-0521.

Elm Mott (near Waco): World Hunger Relief will hold a Fall Farm Day, Saturday, October 18, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the farm. Live music, farm-fresh food, plants, seeds and grass fed meat plus demonstrations by local artisans will be offered. Lots of activities for the kids including pony rides, hayrides and more so bring the whole family and make a day of it. For more information call (254) 799-5611 or visit www.worldhungerrelief.org.

Fredericksburg: Texas Gourd Society will present the 13th annual "Lone Star Gourd Festival" at the Gillespie County Fairgrounds October 18 and 19. There will be door prizes, raffles, classes, demonstrations and an opportunity to meet Bill Decker, 2008 TGS Artist of the Year, and Bonnie Gibson, nationally-known author and artist. The show is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturday and from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $5 and free to children under 12. For additional information, call (806) 523-9092 or visit www.texasgourdsociety.org.

San Antonio: Bexar County Master Gardeners are hosting Bootanica and Fall Garden Fair at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, 555 Funston, Sunday, October 19. Fun for the family. Enjoy children's activities, plant sales and much more. For Youth Activities contact Hector J. Hernandez (210) 467-6575 hjhernandez @ag.tamuedu.

Sugar Land: Rescheduled due to hurricane Ike. The Sugar Land Garden Club's 10th Annual Garden Art and Plant Sale has been rescheduled to October 25. On Tuesday, October 21, the public is invited to attend a presentation on the plants offered by TreeSearch Farms that will be available at this year's sale. For this meeting only, the location is the Fellowship Hall at the First Presbyterian Church, 502 Eldridge in Sugar Land. Refreshments start at 9:30 a.m. and the program begins at 10 a.m. The Sale on Saturday, October 25 (8:30 a.m. until 1:00 p.m., at the Sugar Lakes Clubhouse, 930 Sugar Lakes Dr., Sugar Land) will feature not only plants, well adapted to local climates and soils, but also garden-themed art by talented local artists, and seeds from members' gardens. Visit www.sugarlandgardenclub.org to preview some of the plants or call (281) 491-1621 for more information.

Austin: Plant and Insect Photography for Beginners class will be taught by Sam Myers, a Master Gardener and experienced photographer, from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m., Wednesday, October 22 at Zilker Botanical Garden, 2220 Barton Springs Road, Austin. The class will concentrate on developing the ability to take sharp, colorful photos with impact. There will be an overview of cameras, both film and digital. Discussion will include how lighting, focal length and aperture interact in composing photographs and how to use your camera’s programs (landscape, portrait, etc.) effectively. Guidelines of composition will be covered along with "posing" plants and insects for best visual presentation. Prerequisite: study the owner’s manual on your camera. Bring your camera for some practical exercises. Class size is limited. Reservation required: gisathccs@aol.com or (512) 804-2257. The class is sponsored by the Travis County Master Gardener Association in partnership with the AgriLife Extension, Travis County. For more information call (512) 854-9600 and ask for the Master Gardener’s desk. http://www.tcmastergardeners.org.

Victoria: The Victoria Master Gardeners and Agrilife Extension will host Dr. Jerry Parsons at the South Texas Farm and Ranch Show, October 22, at the Victoria community center. Dr. Parson, extension horticulturist, will speak on Superstars Plants for The Farm and Ranch. Tickets are $10 in advance and include lunch. For more information, visit www.southtexasfarmandranchshow.com.

Weatherford: The Parker County Master Gardeners will hold their Annual Fall Open House and first Fall Plant Sale, October 25, from 8 a.m. to noon, at the demonstration garden, 604 N. Main, Weatherford. The event will also include a rainwater harvesting demonstration. A limited selection of fall annual, trees, shrubs and native and adapted plants will be offered for sale. For more information, visit www.pcmg-texas.org or call (817) 598-6168.

Buda: The Master Gardeners of Comal, Guadalupe, Travis and Hays Counties will sponsor a gardening conference entitled “Heirloom Treasures - Jewels of the Garden,” Saturday, November 8, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Texas Disposal System’s Exotic Game Ranch and Pavilion in Buda. Featured speakers include Dr. Bill Welch of Texas A&M, Roses and Perennials; Dr. Tina Cade of Texas State, Landscape Design; Sean Watson of the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Heirloom Seed Saving, plus more. Visit our vendors, including Texas A&M Press, for books, garden ornaments, plants, herbal soaps, lavender products, birdhouses and much more! Malcolm Beck will brew up fresh compost tea for us – bring your own pint or quart bottle! Visit www.tcmastergardeners.org for more event details, registration form and driving instructions.


Kilgore: Northeast Texas Organic Gardeners meets at 10 a.m. on the first Wednesday of each month at Wildwood Eco-Farm in Kilgore. For more information, call Carole Ramke at (903) 986-9475.

Allen: The Allen Garden Club meets on the first Thursday of each month at 7:30 p.m. at the little blue-gray house located at 102 N. Allen Dr., Allen. For more information, visit www.allengardenclub.org.

Austin: Austin Organic Gardeners meet at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at the Zilker Botanical Gardens in Austin. For more information, visit www.main.org/aog.

Schertz: The Guadalupe County (Schertz/Seguin) Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT) meets the second Tuesday of each month at the Guadalupe County Annex, 1101 Elbel Road, Shertz. A plant exchange and meet-and-greet begins at 6:30 p.m. followed by a program at 7. For additional information or an application to join NPSOT, contact guadalupecounty@npsot.org.

Friendswood: The second Tuesday of each month the Harris County Precinct 2 Master Gardeners hold a free evening educational program for the public, called the Green Thumb Series, at Southeast Church of Christ, 2400 W Bay Area Blvd., Friendswood, about 1 mile west of I-45 and Baybrook Mall. For more information visit http://hcmgap2.tamu.edu or call (281) 991-8437.

Rockport: The Rockport Herb & Rose Study Group, founded in March 2003, meets the second Wednesday of each month, with the exceptions of June and July, to discuss all aspects of using and growing herbs, including historical uses and tips for successful propagation and cultivation, meets at 619 N. Live Oak Street, Room 14, Rockport at 10 a.m. Sometimes they take field trips and have cooking demonstrations in different locations. For more information, contact Linda (361) 729-6037, Ruth (361) 729-8923 or Cindy (979) 562-2153 or visit www.rockportherbs.com.

San Antonio: The San Antonio Herb Society meets at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at the San Antonio Garden Center, 3310 N. New Braunfels (corner of Funston & N. New Braunfels). For more information on programs, visit www.sanantonioherbs.org.

Dallas: The Rainbow Garden Club of North Texas meets the second Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. Everyone is welcome. Meetings are held at member’s homes and garden centers around the area. For more information, visit www.RainbowGardenClub.com.

Sugar Land: The Sugar Land Garden Club meets on the third Tuesday of each month, September through November and January through April at 10 a.m. at the Sugar Land Community Center, 226 Matlage Way, Sugar Land. The club hosts a different speaker each month. For more information, visit www.sugarlandgardenclub.org.

Denton: The Denton Organic Society, a group devoted to sharing information and educating the public regarding organic principles, meets the third Wednesday of each month (except July, August and December) at the Denton Senior Center, 509 N. Bell Avenue. Meetings are free and open to the public. Meetings begin at 7 p.m. and are preceded by a social at 6:30. For more information, call (940) 382-8551.

Houston: The Native Plant Society of Texas — Houston (NPSOT-H) meets at 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month except for October (4th Thursday) and December (2nd Thursday). Location varies. For locations, for more information on programs, and for information about native plants for Houston, visit http://www.npsot.org/Houston.

Rosenberg: The Fort Bend Master Gardeners meet at 7:15 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month except December at the Bud O’Shieles Community Center located at 1330 Band Road, Rosenberg. For more information, call (281) 341-7068 or visit www.fbmg.com.

Seguin: The Guadalupe County Master Gardeners meets the third Thursday of each month at the Texas AgriLife Extension Bldg. at 210 E. Live Oak at 7 p.m. For more information, phone (830) 379-1972 or visit www.guadalupecountymastergardeners.org.

Longview: The Northeast Texas chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas meets the third Thursday of each month at St. Mary’s Parish Hall in Longview. For more information, call Logan Damewood at (903) 295-1984.

Edna: The Jackson County Master Gardeners present their "Come Grown With Us" seminars on the fourth Tuesday of each month, January through October, beginning at 7 p.m. at 411 N. Wells, Edna. The seminars are free, open to the public and offer 2 CEU hours to Master Gardeners or others requiring them. For additional information, contact the Jackson County Extension Office at (361) 782-3312.

Fort Worth: The Organic Garden Club of Forth Worth meets at 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month except July and December at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens main building. Refreshments are served. For more information, call (817) 274-8460.

Seabrook: The Harris County Precinct 2 Master Gardeners hold an educational program at 10 a.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month at The Meeting Room (on the Lakeside) at Clear Lake Park, 5001 NASA Road 1, Seabrook. The programs are free and open to the public. For more information, visit http://hcmgap2.tamu.edu.

Dallas: The Dallas Organic Garden Club meets at 6:45 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month at the Fretz Park Recreation Center, located at the corner of Hillcrest and Beltline Road in Dallas. For more information, call (214) 824-2448 or visit www.dogc.org.

Arlington: The Arlington Organic Garden Club meets from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. on the last Thursday of each month (except November and December) at the Bob Duncan Center, 2800 S. Center Street, Arlington. For more information, contact David at (817) 483-7746.

If you would like your organization’s events included in "Upcoming Garden Events," please contact us at Garden Events. To ensure inclusion in this column, please provide complete details at least three weeks prior to the event.

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Texas Gardener’s Seeds
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