Designing A Sensory Garden

Rachel Mathes, Leon County Horticulture Program Assistant

Rachel Mathes, Leon County Horticulture Program Assistant

Article by Rachel Mathes, Leon County Horticulture Program Assistant

Sensory gardens are a great way to involve children and people with special needs with gardening. Gardens provide a no-judgement zone for creative expression and allow us to get down in the dirt every now and then. Because sensory gardens are designed to be appreciated by more than just the sense of sight, they are an approachable way for disabled and non-disabled users alike. By engaging taste, feel, smell, hearing, and more, sensory gardens allow visitors of all ages and circumstances to engage in gardening.

To make your own sensory garden, think about what feeling you would like to experience while visiting your garden. Do you want a calm healing place of introspection or perhaps a vibrant playful area for engaged learning in nature? Having a theme can help you choose the different elements you would like to include in your sensory garden, which can be an entire yard or as small as a container. They are being used more and more in memory care units of nursing homes as well as preschools and elementary schools, but you can make your own right at home.

Moving water provides enticing sounds for human visitors and a water source for wildlife, such as this honeybee. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

Water features provide enticing sounds for human visitors and a water source for wildlife. Can you spot the honeybee enjoying the fountain? Photo by Rachel Mathes.

The sound of moving water is calming to many, so a small fountain can be a great addition to your sensory garden. It will also benefit local wildlife by offering them a small watering hole. As long as the water is moving, mosquitos should not be a problem, but mosquito dunks or even the incorporation of mosquito fish are easy solutions to solving mosquito problems in small ponds or fountains. Some plants to consider for their sounds include false indigo (Baptisia australis), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and mountain oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). False indigo produces seed pods great for rattling, and when it is windy, switchgrass and mountain oats provide a gentle rustle.

A variety of textures offers the gardener a safe place to interact with nature without worrying about the dangers of poison ivy and other plant irritants. Plants like muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) offer a multitude of interactions as they sway in the wind, have bright white and pink blooms, and can be braided together in a variety of patterns. The native sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa) is a low growing ground cover that puts out pink powderpuff flowers and folds up when touched. Some other plants to explore by touch are lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantine), maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis), the mildly dangerous points of aloe, and the many textures of southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).

There are plenty of smelly plants to entice your nose in the garden. From rosemary to dill, mint and beyond, many herbs do very well here in the Florida Panhandle. Lemon balm and lemongrass bring a punch of citrus without the need for a big citrus tree. Beyond herbs, pine needles give a resinous scent when compressed, gardenias offer heavy sweetness from their voluminous white blooms, and sweet almond verbena (Aloysia virgata) delights with a vanilla almond aroma that carries pleasantly in the wind.

Fragrant blooms can offer pleasant aromas to enhance a sensory garden. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

Fragrant blooms can offer pleasant aromas to enhance a sensory garden. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

When it comes to tasting in a sensory garden, fruits and vegetables are an obvious choice. Plenty of annual vegetables can be grown year-round, from leafy greens in the fall, winter, and early spring, to tomatoes and peppers in the summer. Blackberries are an easy to grow favorite in this part of the state, are available as thornless varieties, and take well to growing on a trellis in small spaces. A great edible that many children favor in the Demonstration Garden at the Leon County Extension Office is cranberry hibiscus. The bright red leaves of new growth are a sweet and sour treat they equate to Sour Patch Kids candy. The older leaves can be added into stir fries and salads and the flowers can be cooked into a syrup for making purple lemonade. Herbs can be used for their taste factor as well. But if your sensory garden will be visited by the general public without supervision, I recommend clear delineation for the tasting area so that no one eats anything unpalatable or poisonous by accident.

When setting up your sensory garden, be sure to involve your intended audience. Small children thrive when given a job to do and will enjoy planting sweet herbs alongside you. Even regular maintenance of the garden can involve the participants you hope to engage. The simple acts of weeding and watering can foster a sense of responsibility and empowerment as the visitors gain sensory enrichment through these activities and see the fruits of their labor with time.

Rachel Mathes is the Horticulture Program Assistant for UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.

Diagnosing Abiotic Blackberry Fruit Disorders

Diagnosing Abiotic Blackberry Fruit Disorders

Although blackberries are well adapted to North Florida, many different biotic and abiotic factors can impact fruit production. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Diagnosing Abiotic Blackberry Fruit Disorders

Whether it be wild blackberries you’ve foraged or a prized cultured variety you’ve oh-so-carefully sustained, we are now in prime blackberry season, and there are many sweet, tangy delectable fruits to be eaten.

Blackberry bushes are well adapted to the Florida Panhandle and the plants can be found growing all over – along roadways, in ditches, throughout open fields, and also within forests.

Although wild blackberries and domesticated cultivars thrive in our climate, there is a wide range of factors that could affect blackberry fruiting. When diagnosing plant problems, we tend to blame insects and diseases, but there are many abiotic (non-living) factors that could negatively impact blackberry fruit production. If your blackberry drupelets (the small subdivisions that comprise a blackberry fruit) are compromised, you may be experiencing one or more of the following abiotic blackberry disorders.

Although blackberries can self-pollinate, insect pollination is critical for forming the best blackberries. Photo by Johnny N. Dell, Bugwood.org.

Poor Pollination. Blackberries, strangely enough, are not true berries botanically. True berries only have one ovary per flower (such as bananas, watermelons, and avocados!). Each blackberry flower contains over 100 female flower parts, called pistils, that contain ovaries. To form a fully sized blackberry with many drupelets, at least 75% of the ovaries need to be pollinated. While blackberries can self-pollinate, pollinator insects, such as bees, are very important to ensure adequate drupelet formation. When weather conditions are overly cloudy and rainy, bees are less active. If this coincides with blackberry flowering, you may end up with some blackberries that are nearly drupe-less.

White Drupe. If you notice patches of white and brown drupelets on your most sun-exposed canes, you might have white drupe disorder. When humidity drops and temperature heats up, solar radiation contacting your berries is more powerful, as there is less moisture in the air to deflect the intense heat. Berries that are not protected by leaf coverage, and those on trellises oriented for maximum sun exposure, are most vulnerable to white drupe damage.

Sunscald. Often associated with white drupe, sunscald is most common when temperatures are extreme. Daytime highs in the Florida Panhandle in June and July regularly reach 90°F, if not higher. At these times, fruit exposed to the sun can be hotter than the air temperature around them, which essentially cooks the fruit. As I suspect you’d prefer to cook your fruit after harvest in preparation for blackberry pie, orient your trellis so it gets shade relief during the hottest part of the day and harvest often.

Diagnosing a blackberry issue can be challenging, as there can be more than one culprit impacting the fruit. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Red Cell Regression. One of the not-so-well understood abiotic blackberry disorders is red cell regression, or red drupelet disorder. If you’ve ever harvested blackberry fruit and stored them in the refrigerator for later munching, you may think your eyes are deceiving you when you discover your fruit doesn’t appear as ripe as when you picked it. This regression in color is linked to rapid temperature change, but rest assured, it does not affect the sugar content of the fruit. There are a few things you can do if you think this is affecting your berries, such as harvesting in the morning when the berries are still cool, harvesting when the sky is overcast, or shading your berries pre-harvest. You can also try to cool your berries in stages, perhaps moving from the field, to shade, to A/C, and then to the fridge.

Beyond abiotic stresses, blackberries can also suffer from insect, pest, and disease damage, such as from stink bugs, beetles, mites, birds, anthracnose, leaf rust, crown gall, and beyond. For domesticated blueberry bushes, proper cultivar selection, site selection, planting technique, fertilization, irrigation, propagation, and cane training is important and will allow the plants to grow healthy to defend themselves against any abiotic or biotic nuisance that comes their way.

For more information about growing blackberries, check out the EDIS publication, The Blackberry (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hs104).

Beat the Heat With a Self-Watering Container Garden

Beat the Heat With a Self-Watering Container Garden

Spring is in the air, and that means temperatures are warming up and tank-tops, shorts, and flip-flops will soon be your preferred attire. Once those highs are steadily in the 80s and 90s, any outdoor activity will become coupled with a bottle of water and the occasional ice-cold glass of lemonade.

Self-watering containers allow you to continue gardening even if you plan on going on vacation this summer. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Self-watering containers allow you to continue gardening even if you plan on going on vacation this summer. Photo by Molly Jameson.

If you’re a gardener, you will notice the hot sun doing its best to dehydrate not only you, but your spring vegetable and flower beds too. And although April showers bring May flowers (and Mayflowers bring pilgrims) in many parts of the country, spring is historically one of the driest periods for the Florida Panhandle.

While spring in the Florida Panhandle can be quite dry, it is the relentless heat of summer that really drives up transpiration and evaporation rates. And herein lies the dilemma: the kids are soon to be on summer break, family vacations are on the horizon, and all your favorite summer veggies are on the brink of delivering their bounties.

If you do not have a reliable irrigation system and timer or the fortune of a very generous green-thumbed neighbor, you risk your hard work in the garden succumbing to the heat while you are away. If you find yourself sacrificing a summer garden in place of a vacation, don’t despair. There is a low-cost, homemade solution that can step in while you are away: a self-watering container garden.

Self-watering containers use the process of capillary action, where water molecules are pulled upward from a water reservoir into soil above and then into and through plant roots. The forces of cohesion, in which water molecules stay close together, and adhesion, in which water molecules “stick” to other substances, create this important phenomenon.

A wicking basket uses capillary action to pull water molecules up from the water reservoir into the soil. Photo by Trevor Hylton.

A wicking basket uses capillary action to pull water molecules up from the water reservoir and into the soil. Photo by Trevor Hylton.

While store-bought versions can be costly, you can make a self-watering container for less than $10 with just a few materials and tools. There are multiple designs for creating a self-watering container at home. Typically, designs include two five-gallon food-grade plastic buckets to hold the soil and plant; a knife or hole saw to access the water reservoir; a wicking basket or strips of cotton from an old towel, pants, or shirt to generate the capillary movement of water; a drill and drill bit for drainage; and a plastic pipe for easy filling of the water reservoir.

To make your own, view these Extension-produced self-watering container garden resources and follow the step-by-step instructions that work best for you:

Leon County Sustainable Community Summit

UF/IFAS Extension Agents and Master Gardeners of Leon County have partnered with the Leon County Office of Resource Stewardship to lead multiple educational activities at this year’s Leon County Sustainable Community Summit.

The conference is breaking out of the indoors this year and will be held at the beautiful J.R. Alford Greenway at 2500 Pedrick Road in Tallahassee on Saturday, March 23, 9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. There will be many interactive educational activities, including a chance to learn about electric vehicles, waste reduction, green spaces, local food systems and vegetable gardening, and energy and conservation. There will be a kids’ tent and post event tours, including a nature walk, greenway hayride, and a bike ride with Joyride Bicycle Collective.

During the Summit, there will be an opportunity for the community to provide input for the Leon County Sustainability Action Plan, learn about the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing program for making homes more energy efficient, and the Community Garden Network of the Capital Region will be giving away a free garden bed kit.

Please register to attend the Leon County Sustainable Community Summit on Eventbrite (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/2019-leon-county-sustainable-community-summit-tickets-54664825966). Coffee, snacks, and lunch are included in the registration fee. For more information, visit the Growing Green website (www.GrowingGreen.org/Summit2019). Please bring a water bottle and wear weather appropriate clothing.

Get the Scoop on Raised Bed Gardening

Get the Scoop on Raised Bed Gardening

Raised beds are an excellent way to get started with gardening. Photo by Molly Jameson.

One of the biggest obstacles a vegetable gardener faces is how to supply crops with healthy soil that can support crop growth all season long. Many native soils in Florida are stripped of imperative nutrients that crops need to grow, are too compacted from vehicle and foot traffic, and are often too sandy to support soil life, which is very important for nutrient cycling, building soil structure, and combating pests and diseases.

One of the best ways a gardener can ensure a successful gardening experience is to build a raised bed garden. No matter your native soil type and existing conditions, raised bed gardens allow a framework for building nutrient rich soil that can supply crops with what they require to grow healthily and thrive.

Want to learn how to garden using raised beds? On February 5, from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m., UF/IFAS Extension Leon County is offering a Raised Bed Gardening 101 workshop as part of the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance’s Seven Days of Local Delights. This is a week-long annual celebration that includes educational workshops, restaurant partnerships, fundraisers, and more that supports the local food community and farmers in the Red Hills Region. This year, the Seven Days of Local Delights runs from Sunday, February 3 to Sunday, February 10.

A trellis can even be built right on the end of a raised bed. Photo by Molly Jameson.

At the Raised Bed Gardening 101 workshop, learn how to choose the best raised bed garden site location, basics of irrigation in raised beds, planting dates and plant spacing, the difference between treated and untreated lumber, how much and what type of soil to use, and other tips on growing food in your backyard.

There is no cost to attend, but please register on Eventbrite (https://sdldraisedbedgardening101.eventbrite.com). For more information, contact Molly Jameson at mjameson@ufl.edu.

Check out everything going on during the Seven Days of Local Delights at the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance website: https://www.redhillsfarmalliance.com/seven-days. If you are not in the Tallahassee area, check with your local extension office to see what gardening events they may have available and how you can support your local food community and farmers in your area.