Dirt, earth, humus, terra firma, soil—no matter what you call it, the ground below us is one of the most important substances on, well, Earth. As children, most of us stomped in mud puddles, dug holes, and played in sand boxes—the tactile experience of moving dirt around seems to appeal to humans innately. Just last weekend a local charity raised thousands of dollars by setting up an obstacle course for adults (and kids) called the “Mud Run,” with participants exiting the race completely covered in mud.
Kids have an innate appreciation for soil! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson
Despite how much fun it can be to play in, the humble soil often gets overlooked. Mixtures of clay, sand, and loam seem less exciting when competing for attention with more charismatic natural phenomena such as colorful flowering plants or powerful top predator animals. Partially because of this status, soil scientists and agronomists declared 2015 the “International Year of Soils” with the goal of educating the general public on soil’s importance.
While most of us don’t think about soil on a regular basis, it is the literal foundation for producing healthy food and much of our clothing, along with fuel sources and many medicinal products. Without the small organisms and insects living in the soil to break things down, everything that ever died could still be slowly decaying on the surface of the earth. Soil is the primary player in recycling and making crucial nutrients such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium available to plants. If you’ve ever tried to grow vegetables in the Panhandle, you know the high sand content and low nutrient levels of many of our native soils leave much to be desired. Gardeners know that a mix of organic materials is necessary to give soil enough structure, water-holding capacity, and nutrient sources to provide plant roots a healthy growing environment.
Soil profile. Photo courtesy UF/IFAS.
Soils are crucial to agricultural production, but they also play important environmental roles. On a global scale, soils are a “sink” for carbon and help combat climate change. At the same time, soils help reduce pollution through filtration and store water to recharge our drinking water aquifers. The water absorbed within healthy soils can help protect communities from both drought and flooding.
Pollution and erosion are among the biggest threats to healthy soil, and governmental agencies at all levels devote considerable funds and staff to protecting this life-giving limited natural resource. To learn more about soil and how to test for soil nutrients and pH, talk to your local Extension agent. There are many great online resources devoted to soil science, such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s new “Unlock the Secrets in the Soil” campaign, the USDA’s online soil surveys, and the UF IFAS Soil & Water Science Department newsletter, “Myakka.”
Variegated lemon thyme. Photo: JMcConnell, UF/IFAS
If you have ever thought about gardening but feel too intimidated to give it a try, consider starting with a herb garden!
Culinary herbs are generally very easy to grow and very forgiving of the neglectful gardener. They have relatively few pest or disease problems and thrive in hot climates on poor soils. An added benefit of growing herbs is that some parts are edible and can really liven up a plain dish.
Just like with other plants, there are both annual and perennial herbs. Annuals only live for one season and will need to be replanted or allowed to go to seed for the next season’s plant. An example of an easy to grow herb with an annual life cycle is basil. Basil comes in many different flavors and can be purchased as a transplant (small plant) or grown from seed. It performs well in warm weather and will be killed by a hard frost. Basil grows well in part to full sun and when it flowers it is attractive to bees and other pollinators. If you allow it to go to seed, you will have more plants throughout the growing season and more the following year.
Some perennial herbs that are easy to grow are rosemary, thyme, and mint. All of these plants can live for many years in the home garden. Rosemary and thyme like sunny spots but have very different growth habits. Rosemary will grow into a large woody shrub while thyme is low growing and hugs the ground. Both like full sun and good drainage. Another perennial herb that fits into shady sites with moist soil is mint. Mint has a vining habit and can either trail over the edges of pots or can form a dense mat in a flower bed. It will root wherever the stem touches the ground, so it is also easy to divide plants and share with friends.
To learn more about herbs read Herbs in the Florida Garden or attend our upcoming class “More Cooking With Herbs” where you will learn how to grow and cook with them! Class will be held on Saturday, November 14th from 9 a.m. – 12 noon. Pre-registration and payment of $10 is required no later than November 9th to attend the class. For more details or to register, call our office at 850-784-6105.
Fall is a wonderful season for viewing wildflowers and there are many flower colors brightening our landscapes and roadsides. Amongst all the color there is one wildflower, the Rayless sunflower (Helianthus radula) that may not be nearly as showy but is very interesting in the landscape.
Flower heads have disk flowers but no rays. Photo by Beth Bolles
Many people will discover the Rayless sunflower in a moist area near the ditch or a drainage area. It has a basal set of leaves that blend into the surrounding grass. In summer a leafless stem about will emerge that is topped by a round flower with discs but no rays. It mostly appears brown but may offer a tinge of red or purple from the disc flowers.
Rayless sunflower in mass. Photo by Jeff Norcini
Not everyone will appreciate the beauty of the rayless sunflower. It will be visited by pollinators and offers an attractive contrast to the greens of surrounding plant material. It is a plant suited to its preferred habitat and an understated treasure among native wildflowers.
Contrary to popular belief, stormwater runoff—not industrial discharge—is the primary source of water pollution in Florida. During a rain, anything on the ground can be picked up, carried via water, and taken downstream to the nearest body of water. While newer construction projects require stormwater treatment (including detention ponds or newer techniques such as pervious pavement and biofiltration), the infrastructure in older coastal communities often pipes rainwater directly into local creeks, bayous, and bays.
A large storm drain empties into Pensacola Bay. Photo Credits: Carrie T. Stevenson, IFAS Extension
Pollutants contained in stormwater vary greatly in type and potential for damage. E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria from pet waste and septic tanks frequently cause closures of local swimming holes due to high bacteria counts. Heavy metals from car exhaust, along with oil and grease from roads and parking lots can contaminate fish. Litter from yards, roadsides, and coastal areas can trap, injure, or kill wildlife. Nitrogen and phosphorus from excess fertilization and organic debris can result in water bodies with oxygen deprivation, algae blooms, and in worst case scenarios, fish kills. Even sediment and clay from dirt roads, eroding property, and construction sites can end up downstream, filling in creek bottoms or seagrass beds.
When creeks are filled with sediment, the small invertebrates that make up the bottom of the food chain are smothered, while turbidity (cloudy water resulting from sediment particles) and sedimentation in grass beds reduces the amount of sunlight reaching the grasses and prevents growth.
Pervious pavement allows rainwater to filter into the soil instead of running over parking lots. Photo Credits: Christopher J. Martinez, UF Agriculture and Biological Engineering.
The most difficult aspect of preventing stormwater pollution, also referred to as “non-point source” pollution, is that it doesn’t come from a single source but is the result of numerous cumulative impacts. However, there are many ways that individuals can reduce their unintentional contribution to this problem. When it’s time to fertilize plants, read and follow the label, and if you have questions, contact an extension agent to make sure you understand the proper amount to apply. If you live on a dirt road that crosses a creek, encourage your neighbors to agree to having it paved—many county projects are held up by a handful of homeowners who don’t see the benefits to having a rural road paved. Be sure to clean up pet waste, and if you’re on a septic system and have the capability to convert to sewer treatment, take advantage of that option.
While it can seem that these minor changes can’t make a big difference, there is much evidence to the contrary. The US Environmental Protection Agency recently recognized the success of a Florida community that took assertive stormwater pollution prevention measures. As a result of their actions, a polluted water body, Roberts Bay (Sarasota) was removed from the state’s list of impaired waters.
Warm and wet weather in the Florida Panhandle presents the optimum conditions for the development of bacterial gall on loropetalums. Shoot dieback is usually the first and most noticeable symptom of the disease. The dieback can be followed down the branch to dark colored, warty galls that vary in size. The galls enlarge and eventually encircle the branch resulting in branch or plant death. Olive, oleander, and ligustrum are also hosts for the bacteria that causes the galls, Pseudomonas savastanoi.
Dieback symptoms on loropetalum leaf from bacterial gall. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS
Bacterial gall on loropetalum. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS
The most common source of bacterial gall is from the plant nursery. Prior to purchase, inspect plants for galls near the soil line. If plants have already been installed in the landscape, remove any branches containing galls. Pruning cuts should be made several inches below the gall. After each cut, dip pruners in a 10% bleach solution or spray with isopropyl alcohol to avoid spreading the disease to other parts of the plant or other plants. Prune during dry weather.
The best control for bacterial gall is selecting good quality plant material. For more information on this disease, please visit: Bacterial Gall on Loropetalum. More information on disease issues in the home landscape can be found at: Lawn and Garden Plant Diseases.