Florida is known for many things, however sweeping vistas of hillsides covered in the orange, red, and yellow foliage of fall is not one of them. Our long, hot summers and short, cool (not cold) winters, and lack of anything of substance resembling a season in between, precludes the fall color show our neighbors to the north enjoy. Don’t settle for synthetic Halloween decorations or faux painted leaves to add festivity to the autumn landscape design. When football season kicks off and summer blooming annuals begin to fade, it’s time to reach into the horticultural toolbox and pull out a couple fall-y Florida Friendly annual foliage species, perfect for the balmy Panhandle “autumn”: ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus and ‘Petra’ croton.
‘Alabama Sunset’ Coleus in mixed container – Photo Courtesy Andrea Schnapp
The first plant to consider when looking for outstanding heat tolerant foliage is the common coleus (Solenostemon scuttellarioides), particularly the cultivar ‘Alabama Sunset’. As the name indicates, ‘Alabama Sunset’ offers leaves in shades of red and yellow, perfect for designing fall containers or mixing into planting beds. This popular summer annual is known for its ability to add interesting color and texture to shady areas.
Recently with the arrival of the ‘sun coleus’ series (to which ‘Alabama Sunset’ belongs), coleus is permissible in situations with greater sunlight. Coleus is incredibly easy to grow and easy to find since nearly every nursery stocks at least a few cultivars. What’s more, these plants are generally free of pests and disease problems! Even sun coleus does appreciate a little protection from the hot afternoon sun and occasional deadheading of flowers.
‘Petra’ Croton. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
The second plant in the fall foliage arsenal is ‘Petra croton’ (Codiaeum variegatum ‘Petra’). Primarily known as a tropical foliage or indoor houseplant, Petra croton is criminally underused in fall landscape and container design. Petra croton sports bold magnolia-sized leaves striped with colors of yellow, red, orange, and black. A great Halloween plant to complement those front-porch Jack-O-Lanterns!
Like coleus, Petra croton is extremely easy to grow either in a container or in the ground. It should be located in either in full sun or partial shade and watered through establishment. Otherwise, this species is quite drought tolerant and can be killed with kindness if watered too frequently!
Although croton is a perennial shrub in the tropics, in Northwest Florida it may be killed by frost and best treated as an annual. Croton can be expected to reach 30-36” in height in a single season, its size and the boldly colored foliage make it a true focal point in the autumn landscape!
Appalachian-grade fall color may be unattainable in the Panhandle in the literal sense, but with these novel plant selections the autumn mood may be present even as the emerald waves hit the sugar white sand. By using annual foliage plants that possess traditional fall colors throughout their life cycle, anyone can add a splash of Autumn to their mixed containers or landscape beds. ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus and ‘Petra’ croton are the perfect match for this time of year, pairing ease of culture with bold, seasonal color. Plant a couple today!
The plasmodium of Fuligo septica slime mold consuming bacteria and fungi inside the office worm bin. Photo by Molly Jameson.
Just when we thought we had our Leon County Extension vermicompost bins all figured out for recycling office food waste with the aid of worms…aliens invaded. I instinctively started looking all over for my “Ghostbusters” proton gun and backpack – but when they didn’t turn up, I decided to retreat and do a little research.
Fuligo septica moves as a mass of protoplasm about a millimeter an hour. Photo by Molly Jameson.
A mesmerizing bright yellow substance had taken over the entire top of the office worm bin, and when the lid was lifted, the yellow ooze was streaming down the inside of the lid and into the bin. Long, squiggly zig zags seemed to be engulfing nearly all the contents within the worm bin.
Unlike Ray Stantz’s reaction when he first meets Slimer devouring the room-service leftovers in the hotel hallway in the original “Ghostbusters,” we were all a little taken aback by our surprise intruder.
“Oh my! Will it kill our worms? Is it toxic? Where did it come from?”
Turns out our slimy yellow visitor was Fuligo septica; a species otherwise known as – and here’s hoping you’re not eating – dog vomit slime mold. A fitting name, indeed. To our amazement, Fuligo septica is not actually a mold (aka: fungus). Nor is it a plant, animal, or bacteria. It is actually a plastid, in the kingdom Protista and class Myxogastria, whose wind- or insect-spread spores converge and divide into a singular giant cell containing millions of nuclei, known as a plasmodium. These individuals come together to form a larger plasmodium and move as a mass of protoplasm, about a millimeter per hour, to feed on microorganisms living in decaying plant material.
I know what you’re thinking…this smattering of scientific terms has you right back in high school science class, and you’re feeling a bit woozy. But really – who needs science fiction movies like “Ghostbusters” when we have scientifically-explained neon slime molds all around us?
After a few days, Fuligo septica transforms into a pillow-like fruiting body in preparation for spore dispersal. Photo by Molly Jameson.
Besides the potential of Fuligo septica spores to be an allergen to those who are susceptible, this surprisingly common slime mold is not toxic to people, plants, or animals. It can be found on rotting bark and forest floors in nature – or on wood mulch in urban areas – normally when conditions are moist. The microorganisms the slime mold consumes are mainly bacteria and fungi, which are also very much present in the decaying food scraps and coffee grounds within a worm bin. And although Fuligo septica is harmless to people, it needs to watch out for us, as it is actually edible! Appropriately, another name for dog vomit slime mold is scrambled egg slime, as indigenous people in some areas of Mexico have collected the mold and scrambled it like eggs. Breakfast anyone?
Although real-life slime molds give Slimer a run for his money, the plasmodium blob of Fuligo septica will not stay its striking yellow amorphous shape for long. After a few days, it transforms into a pillow-like aethalium – a spore-bearing fruiting body like that of a mushroom – then degrades, darkens to a pinkish tan color, and finally releases its spores to start anew when conditions are right.
As the slime mold degrades, it darkens to a pinkish tan color, and releases its spores into the air. Photo by Molly Jameson.
Slime molds have stood the test of time, as analyses of their DNA has revealed they’ve been on Earth approximately a billion years! For reference, that’s hundreds of millions of years before plants or animals. And it’s a good thing Fuligo septica is here, because some of its characteristics has shown a lot of potential to be helpful, including as antibiotics, an ability to fight cancer cells, as antimicrobials, and environmental site remediation due to its ability to hyper-accumulate toxic heavy metals, such as zinc, and convert them to inactive forms. Scientists have discovered it’s the same yellow pigment that gives Fuligo septica its striking color that also forms a chelate with the heavy metals.
So, if you’re walking through a forest, down a path of mulch, or tending to your worm bin and come across this eye-catching, bright-yellow blobby creature, let this plasmodium do its thing. Probably better to scramble some actual eggs, lest your guests be squeamish.
Feed the hungry and meet a challenge; donate peanut butter to UF/IFAS Extension !
If you want to help feed the hungry in Florida’s Panhandle this year, you can donate peanut butter during the annual Peanut Butter Challenge, coordinated by UF/IFAS Extension.
Thanks to a partnership of UF/IFAS Extension and the Florida Peanut Producers Association, food pantries from Pensacola to Monticello will receive thousands of jars of donated peanut butter this December.
From Oct. 1 through Nov. 21, you can donate unopened jars of peanut butter at your UF/IFAS Extension county office. Each year, one or more UF/IFAS Extension agents at your local county extension office collect unopened peanut butter jars.
Since 2012, the volunteers and UF/IFAS Extension faculty have collected jars of peanut butter from residents, volunteer groups and businesses in 16 northwest Florida counties. Last year, UF/IFAS Extension county offices received 6,222 jars of peanut butter, said Libbie Johnson, agricultural agent for UF/IFAS Extension Escambia County and co-organizer of the Challenge.
In addition to these donations, the Florida Peanut Producers Association also contributes, supplying more than 3,000 jars each Challenge, Johnson said.
They hope to surpass that total this year with your support and contributions.
“The Peanut Butter Challenge not only raises awareness about the important contribution of North Florida’s peanut growers to the state peanut industry, but also helps provide a healthy, locally produced product to food-insecure families in northwest Florida,” Johnson said.
Visit your local county extension office today and donate some peanut butter to support nutrition in your local panhandle community! (Press Release authored by UF / IFAS Communications)
Finding professional landscape services for your home or business can be difficult. Unlike many skilled trades in Florida, landscapers/groundskeepers are mostly unregulated. No state exams exist to determine mastery of the basic skills required to perform lawn or landscape maintenance. Ultimately, consumers are left on their own to determine who to hire.
As UF/IFAS Extension Agents, we cannot endorse or provide referrals to companies; however, we can offer some guidance to help you with your search for qualified professionals.
- Be an informed consumer. You don’t have to be an expert in landscapes. Instead you should have an idea of what you envision for your landscape. Familiarize yourself with the type of turf grass and plants you want and learn what the basic maintenance is for their upkeep.
The Florida Friendly Landscaping™ program is a great place to start. Most Extension offices have free books on how to care for Florida landscapes. Or you can find online resources at www.floridayards.org
- Fertilizer and pesticide applications DO require state certifications.
Commercial landscape fertilizer applicators must obtain state certification.
- Fertilizer applicators for hire must maintain the Limited Urban Fertilizer Applicator Certification (Chapter 482.1562, Florida Statutes). Each applicator must have an individual certification. No one can “work under” another applicator’s certificate.
- Pesticide applicators (any substance applied with the intent to kill or inhibit growth of weeds, insects, nematodes, fungi, bacteria, etc.) have two options depending on application site and qualifications.
- Residential or commercial building turf pesticide applicators must hold the Commercial Lawn & Ornamental Pest Control License or be a current Employee Cardholder of the Certified Pest Control Operator
- Residential or commercial ornamental beds (trees, shrubs, flowers) pesticide applicators can hold either Commercial Lawn & Ornamental, as above, or Limited Commercial Landscape Maintenance Certification
- You can check to see if the applicator has a current certification by visiting http://aessearch.freshfromflorida.com/PersonSearch.asp You must enter the applicator’s legal name (name listed on his driver’s license, no nicknames) or their certification number (this will start with two letters)
- Ask about affiliations with professional organizations. Although landscapers are not required to obtain state certifications (excluding fertilizer and pesticide applicators), many take the extra steps to increase knowledge and keep up with industry standards and trends. Voluntary participation in organizations such as Florida Pest Management Association (FPMA), Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA), Florida Turfgrass Association (FTGA), Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA), International Association of Arboriculture (ISA), etc. Some of these groups offer certification programs for professionals to help them increase knowledge.
- Word of mouth/observation. If you see a landscape that looks good, ask who they use and if they are pleased with their service. Talk to friends and colleagues for recommendations.
- Check references. Always ask for references and contact them. Yes, they may only give you the names of happy clients, but you can still ask questions to get a feel for the type of service offered and assess the longevity of the company.
Landscape professionals looking for certification classes should visit Green Industries in the Panhandle Upcoming Events page.
This tomato hornworm is being parasitized by beneficial wasps. Photo credit: Henry Crenshaw
Why would anyone allow dozens of wasps to thrive in their garden? Why would they let caterpillars keep moving through their pepper bushes? Don’t they know you can spray for that?
As Extension agents, one of the tenets we “preach” in gardening is the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This technique involves a series of insect control measures that begin with the “least toxic” method of control, using chemicals as a last resort. One of those least toxic measures is “biological control”, in which a natural predator or parasite is recognized and allowed to remove a pest insect naturally. It is important to be able to recognize some of the more common garden predators and parasites. Many times these insects look strange or dangerous, and they are mistaken for pests and killed.
One such beneficial insect to the home gardener is the braconid wasp (Cotesia congregatus). Most people shudder at the mention of wasps, but these tiny (1/8 inch long), mostly transparent wasps are of no danger to humans. Quite the opposite–they are an excellent addition to gardens, especially if you are growing tomatoes or peppers. One of the major pests to these favorite vegetables is the tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata), a fat green and white-striped caterpillar.
The beneficial wasp can control hornworms because females lay eggs under the caterpillar’s skin, after which the eggs hatch and larvae feed on the hornworm. After eating through the caterpillar, they form dozens of tiny white cocoons on the caterpillar’s skin. The tomato hornworm is rendered weak and near death, and the vegetable crop is saved.
If you happen to find a tomato hornworm covered in these small oval cocoons, consider yourself lucky. Let the process continue, allowing the new generation of beneficial wasps to hatch and continue their life cycle. They will control any future hornworms in your garden, and the whole process is fascinating to watch!
For questions on integrated pest management, beneficial insects, or growing peppers and tomatoes, call your local County Extension office.