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Grove being squeezed to death

Saint Leo Abbey still makes about $5,000 a year from the orange grove that helped finance its construction. Help is needed to save the trees.

Published September 29, 2003

ST. LEO - Brother Felix Augustin is being overrun.

The 400-tree orange grove he tends on the grounds of Saint Leo Abbey, a remaining tie to the abbey's agricultural heritage, is being smothered under runaway vines. Looking across the grove on the shore of Lake Jovita, Augustin can see tree after tree disappearing under an eager blanket of lush invaders.

Beneath the carpet of green, trees that have borne fruit for years are gasping for light, dying in the darkness.

"Once they're established, they're a problem," Augustin said, surveying the vines. "We've got a problem."

Augustin, who looks after the abbey's utilities and grounds, has tended the orange groves for 16 years. Each winter, he sells the navel oranges on the honor system on abbey grounds for $2 per 10-pound bag, and brings about $3,000 to the abbey. He sells the juice oranges to a contractor for another $2,000.

"It runs in the black," he said. "Not by much, but it's in the black."

For years, Augustin said he has kept up with the pesky vines by spraying them with a weed killer when they are young. But this year, heavy rains awakened more vines than ever, he said. The vines grew fast with hot sun and daily waterings, and quickly they shot past seedling size, too big to be hit with weed killer.

Now, the only way Augustin can clear a covered tree is to pull the dozens of tendrils, one by one, from the ground, cutting off each vine's connection to the earth. It's back-breaking, time-consuming work.

Too much for one man, even too much for the help Augustin enlisted, including the abbey's leader, the Rev. Jim Tingerthal.

He said he would welcome help from any group willing to put its back into a tough assignment.

The vines, most likely a variety of the milkweed vine, don't actually eat the infected tree, Florida Department of Agriculture pathologist Tim Schubert said.

"It's strictly using the tree as a physical support," he said. "It can completely smother the canopy and put the tree pretty rapidly in decline."

Extra rain this summer likely reached dormant seed pods in the soil, creating a boom year for the vines, he said.

There is help, he said. A Minnesota company makes a product called DeVine, a parasitic fungus that will attack milkweed vines, killing them, then spread to seeds that may still remain in the soil.

The remaining trees are a reminder of the abbey's heritage, when agriculture was its main source of income.

The abbey's church was crafted in part with red stone produced by an abbey in Indiana that traded shipments of stone for orange juice, lending the building it's nickname, "the church that orange juice built."

If the grove dies, it could be too expensive to replant, and even if the trees could be replaced, it would take at least three years for a productive crop to start the cycle again, Augustin said.

"We've never had the vines this bad," he said. "I'm not going to let these trees die."

To help

To sign up for vine-pulling duty, volunteers can call (352) 206-0285 or (352) 588-8624.

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