Historic live oaks provide shade and wildlife habitat at the Escambia Extension walking trail. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF / IFAS Extension
A recent study of 3-5 year olds found that the average pre-reading American child could identify hundreds of marketing brand logos (McDonald’s, Disney, even Toyota). Most researchers would be mightily challenged to find even a middle school student who can identify more than a couple of trees growing in their own backyard. The fields and forests many of us grew up in are steadily converting to look-alike suburban areas, so this lack of local natural knowledge is commonplace. As the quote by Senegalese forester Baba Dioum goes, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” If kids and adults do not appreciate and understand the natural world around them, we are unlikely to preserve these priceless wonders.
To do our part towards this aim of educating others, we at Escambia Extension received a grant from International Paper to plant 30 trees around our office’s walking track. Every tree has a clearly marked identification tag listing its common and botanical name.
A newly planted sassafras tree on the Extension walking trail. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF / IFAS Extension
Initially we just planned to add more shade trees to the sunny side of the track, but after a discussion with local foresters, we realized this effort could be an ideal teaching tool. The local middle and high school Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapters participate in a tree identification contest, and are tasked with knowing 50 native tree species. While 10 of them were tropical species that do not perform well in north Florida, we have the other 40 planted here on the property. Students and any interested citizen interested in learning these native species can walk along our track, getting exercise and taking in the natural world around them.
A spring walking event will kick off the official opening of the tree identification trail, so join us April 26 to learn more about healthy living and the value of trees. Or, join us for an Extension Open House on April 27 to explore the demonstration gardens, purchase vegetable plants, or learn more about Extension’s wide array of community services.
One of the incredible benefits of living in Florida is exposure to the biodiversity of our wildlife population. From ordinary squirrels and mockingbirds to the more exotic panthers and migratory tropical birds, it is rare one can step outside the house without seeing or hearing wildlife of some variety. One of the practices we “preach” here at Extension is to provide habitat for wildlife in our yards and gardens. While cities and neighborhoods are human-centric, we share these spaces with thousands of wild animals, birds, fish, and insects and should always consider them in our actions.
Attracting birds and butterflies are popular pastimes, and Extension faculty can provide a tremendous amount of information on their preferences and food sources. However, a few unsung critters deserve homes and space as well. Just yesterday, I took a call from a gentleman who was excited to discover a small colony of bats roosting in a tree on his property. He was looking for ways to encourage them to stay, because he realized the countless benefits they provide in free insect control. Many people are nervous around bats of because of their unpredictable, irregular night flight pattern and association with scary stories. However, an average Florida bat can eat 1,000 insects a night, keeping pest populations down, reducing mosquito-borne disease, and saving millions of dollars in crop damage.
In our demonstration garden today, I was delighted to walk up on a black racer sunning itself in the grass. These common garden snakes provide valuable pest control of rats and mice, and are not aggressive or venomous. The fear of snakes often comes from the surprise of finding one unexpectedly, so always be alert and observant when outdoors. Respect for these creatures and a basic working knowledge of common venomous and nonvenomous species can go a long way towards calming one’s nerves. An excellent resource for snake identification in north Florida is this online guide. Like many snakes, this particular snake had been in tall grass, so it is always wise to be cautious in those areas.
This black racer sunning in the grass must have gotten the message about utilizing habitat provided for wildlife! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
To attract wildlife, learn about their life cycle and food sources, and provide shelter, water, and food for the species you are interested in attracting. Keep in mind that inviting wildlife may also draw their predators, but know that this is part of the larger cycle. Always keep safety in mind, and if necessary keep tall vegetation and deep water to a minimum in play areas frequented by young children. The benefits of providing food and shelter for wildlife are countless for human observers and wildlife alike.
Compost bins can be built or purchased and provide an easy means of recycling food and yard waste into valuable soil for a garden. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF/ IFAS Extension
What better New Year’s resolution could there be than to start recycling and do our part to preserve our natural resources? By composting yard and kitchen waste, we can also get a jump-start on our spring gardening by creating your own mulch and fertilizer. Done properly, raw compost material can transform into nutrient-rich soil in just six weeks! A free source of “slow release” nutrients, compost also loosens tight, compacted soils and helps our often-sandy soils hold nutrients.
So what is compost? Essentially, it is what’s left of organic matter after it’s been thoroughly decomposed by microbes. Among the common compostable organic materials are leaves, grass clippings, twigs, pine straw, and vegetable/fruit peelings and coffee grounds. When using these items, alternate by using brown (leaves, straw) and green materials (grass clippings, vegetables) in the compost bin to provide adequate carbon and nitrogen. Table scraps containing meat, eggs or oils are not recommended because they can draw rodents and cause an odor. Eggshells are OK, but in general, use only kitchen scraps that are either plants or paper.
The organisms doing the actual composting are microscopic bacteria and fungi, along with earthworms. The microbes need water, oxygen and nutrients to thrive. Rainfall will provide most of the needed moisture, although you may need to hand water the pile on during dry times. For the best results, keep the pile moist but not soggy; if you pick up a handful it should not crumble away nor drip water when squeezed.
To move oxygen through the pile, increasing decomposition and preventing odors, turn the pile on a regular basis with a pitchfork or rake. Some companies sell compost bins in moving cylinders that can be turned with a handle. The process of decomposition will generate extreme heat (over 150°F in the summer) within the pile, which can kill weed seeds and disease-causing organisms.
Done correctly, composting does not smell bad, is very easy to do, and is a great way to do something good for the planet, your yard, and your wallet! Learn more about composting at this University of Florida Extension article.
The Chickasaw plum is covered in beautiful small white flowers in the spring. Photo credit: UF IFAS
The native Chickasaw plum is a beautiful smaller tree (12-20 ft mature height) that is perfect for front yards, small areas, and streetscapes. True to its name, the Chickasaw plum was historically an important food source to Native American tribes in the southeast, who cultivated the trees in settlements well before the arrival of Europeans. They typically harvested and then dried the fruit to preserve it. Botanist-explorer William Bartram noted the species during his travels through the southeast in the 1700’s. He rarely saw it in the forests, and hypothesized that it was brought over from west of the Mississippi River.
One of the first trees to bloom each spring, the Chickasaw plum’s white, fragrant flowers and delicious red fruit make it charmingly aesthetic and appealing to humans and wildlife alike. The plums taste great eaten fresh from the tree but can be processed into jelly or wine. Chickasaw plums serve as host plants for the red-spotted purple butterfly, and their fruit make them popular with other wildlife. These trees are fast growers and typically multi-trunked.
Almost any landscape works for the Chickasaw plum, as it can grow in full sun, partial sun, or partial shade, and tolerates a wide variety of soil types. The species is very drought tolerant and performs well in sandy soils.
The plum is in the rose family and has thorns, so it is wise to be aware of these if young children might play near the tree.
Winter is ideal tree-planting time in Florida. While national Arbor Day is in spring, Florida’s Arbor Day is the 3rd Friday of January due to our milder winters. This year, Escambia County’s tree giveaway will include Chickasaw plums, so if this tree sounds like a great addition to your landscape, come visit us on January 19 and pick one up.
For more information about tree selection in northwest Florida, contact your local county Extension office.
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.