Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Growing citrus on offal, castor beans and cotton seed

I found a gem a few weeks ago when browsing the Florida section of duPont-Ball Library: a 98-page 1961 master's thesis titled The History of Citrus in Mount Dora, Florida, to 1900, by Martha Stokley Arterburn. I seem to have been the first to check out the volume since 1991.

Martha's research included interviews with family members of early growers, and their memories had an immediacy based on proximity. In 1961, pioneer days were still part of the not-too-distant past. Kind of like interviewing someone today about World War II or life in midcentury America.

Seems to me citrus trees grew larger in the 19th century, at least in this part of the state. Old photos like this one of DeLand horticulturist Lue Gim Gong in his grove attest to what Martha notes on page 10 of her thesis: the trees towered over people. She was told they could reach 30 feet.
Credit? I've seen this photo both at West Volusia Historical Society and at FloridaMemory.com
Citrus was fertilized with cottonseed meal, a very smelly bone meal,  castor bean "pumace," dead animals (buried), offal like discarded organs from an animal butchered for food, and "ground flesh" - not sure I want to know more. Makes me appreciate my packaged organic fertilizer. Martha reports that the fertilizer was placed between the trees and plowed in along with a cover crop, which was anything that happened to be growing there.

Not everyone adopted that early version of organic growing. She notes that an 1888 letter writer told the Florida Farmer and Fruit-Grower he used sulphate of potash, phosphoric acid, and magnesia with ammonia on his grove.

There are enough tidbits in Martha's thesis to write several blog posts, and I may return to it later. But for now I want to mention one more thing.  It's the small-world phenomenon, and maybe frontier Florida was a small world. One of Martha's interview subjects was Barney Dillard Jr., who shared his citrus expertise. Any fan of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings knows that Florida pioneer Barney Dillard Sr. shared folklore and hunting tales with the writer in the 1930s. The material helped shape the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Yearling. Rawlings had a couple of thousand citrus trees on her property at Cross Creek. I wonder what she used for fertilizer.

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