The Irrigation Association (IA) kicks off the official start of this year’s campaign on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. The initiative promotes the social, economic and environmental benefits of efficient irrigation technologies, products and services in landscape, turf and agricultural irrigation.
Irrigation (agricultural and turf/landscape) accounts for 65-70% of total freshwater use in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) WaterSense program, the average American family household uses more than 300 gallons of water per day; roughly 30% of this occurs outdoors. Efficient landscape irrigation systems and practices dramatically reduce water being lost or wasted.
The starting point for improving the efficiency of a home landscape sprinkler system is to calibrate each zone (http://ufdc.ufl.edu/IR00003389/00001) and make adjustments and repairs. That includes the rain shut-off device.
Florida is one of the few states with a rain sensor law. The most recent version of the statute (2010) states the following: “Any person who operates an automatic landscape irrigation system shall properly install, maintain, and operate technology that inhibits or interrupts operation of the system during periods of sufficient moisture.” (Florida Statute 373.62). Regardless of the water source or age of the system, all in-ground irrigation systems must be connected to a functioning rain sensor of some kind.
Expanding disk Rain Sensor
Expanded disk devices are the most popular rain sensor due to their low cost, ease of installation, and low maintenance. Traditionally, they are wired into the controller, but a wireless version allows for quicker installation and mounting up to 300 feet from the controller. These “mini-click” sensors contain disks made of cork that absorb rainfall and expand, triggering a pressure switch. The disk cover is rotated to adjust for the predetermined amount of rainfall required to trigger the switch. It should be set on ½ – ¾ inch, depending on soil type and rooting depth of irrigated plants. The switch continues to interrupt the scheduled controller as long as the disks are swollen. When the rain stops, the disks begin to dry out. Once they have contracted, the switch closes and the regularly scheduled irrigation cycle begins where it left off before the interruption. These small cork disks wear out in Florida’s heat and need to be replaced. By checking and repairing the sensor parts, the sprinkler system will operate much more efficiently. We have all seen irrigation systems running in pouring rain. Keep yours maintained to avoid this needless waste of water.
So, join the kids this summer. Go outside and play in the water. Turn on the sprinkler system and check it out. July is Smart Irrigation Month. Let’s see how efficient you can make your system and reduce the water waste in Florida.
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).
Adult and nymphs of mole crickets. Photo: Julie McConnell, UF/IFAS
The best time to treat for mole crickets is during June through July. But don’t treat at all if mole crickets have not been positively found and identified in the affected lawn areas.
Don’t worry about the adults that are seen flying around lights in the evenings or about the mole crickets found dead in swimming pools this time of year. They are in a mating phase and are doing very little to no damage to lawns during late winter and spring.
We can take advantage of the fact that there’s only one generation per year in North Florida. The eggs will have all hatched by mid to late June. At that time, you’re dealing with young mole crickets that can’t fly and that are much more susceptible to the insecticides designed to kill them. Mole crickets spend winter as adults in the soil. In late February and March, adults emerge and begin mating. Shortly after mating, males die and females fly to suitable areas for egg laying. Mated females deposit eggs in tunnels. After depositing her eggs the female dies. Attempting to control adult mole crickets during this mating period a waste of time, money and product. Plus, adult mole crickets are difficult to control and can easily fly out of treated areas.
You can easily determine if mole crickets are the cause for your lawn problem by flushing them out with a soap and water mixture.
Mix 1½ ounces of a lemon scented liquid dish-washing soap in two gallons of water in a sprinkling can or bucket. Pour the soapy water over an area approximately four square feet and count the number of mole crickets that emerge. It only takes several minutes for mole crickets to crawl to the surface after the soap treatment if they are present. Repeat the process around the yard where you suspect mole cricket problems. If you flush an average of two to four crickets are flushed out per site, control may be needed.
There are a number of insecticides on the market to control mole crickets. But before using any product, first identify the problem as mole cricket damage by using the soap flush technique. Then choose a lawn insecticide that lists mole crickets on its label. And finally read the label carefully for use directions, application techniques, irrigation requirements and precautions.
For more information on mole crickets, including recommended insecticides and other non-chemical control options, contact the UF/IFAS Extension Office in your County or access the following links.
Insect Pest Management on Turfgrass
Mole Cricket IPM Guide for Florida
Talk to nearly any Panhandle gardener and one of the first things brought up in conversation is the difficulty growing large, beefsteak/slicing tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) in their home garden. Large tomatoes are indeed among the more challenging garden vegetables in North Florida, affected by myriad pests, pathogens and abiotic issues. However, giving up growing this garden favorite is unwarranted as success can be had by following a couple of often overlooked, simple steps to ward off potential problems.
Choose Resistant Cultivars – One of the major recent gardening trends is the rise of heirloom veggies, particularly heirloom tomatoes. While many of these varieties certainly are interesting and often possess superior flavor/texture, heirlooms are, as a group, extraordinarily susceptible to disease in our climate. Fortunately for gardeners, there are a number of excellent varieties available with large resistance profiles to many common diseases and a similar taste profile to heirloom favorites! ‘Big Beef’ (pictured), ‘Better Boy’, ‘Celebrity’, and ‘Skyway’ are just a few of the many great cultivars with extensive disease resistance available as transplants at garden centers or as seed from quality online seed vendors.
Tomato ‘Big Beef’ in 15 gallon decorative container
Start Early – Once, you’ve selected the proper cultivar, the next key is to get them in the ground early! I’m convinced one of the primary reasons folks fail with tomatoes is waiting for “traditional” garden planting dates. For instance, an old tradition in the South is to plant your garden on Good Friday before Easter. However, according to Johnny’s Selected Seeds Southeast Sales Representative Blake Thaxton, tomatoes should be germinated and growing in the garden no later than March 15. Mr. Thaxton notes two primary reasons for this, the most important being pest/disease avoidance. Beefsteak tomato varieties take around 70 days from planting to harvest, so a March 15th planting date yields ripe tomatoes around the third or fourth week of May, when pest/disease pressure is still manageable. Pests and disease occurrence becomes exponentially worse in the Panhandle as May trickles into June and July, therefore it is critical that your fruit begin ripening prior to this onslaught. An important second motivation to plant early is that tomatoes stop setting fruit when nighttime temperatures rise above 75°F. At these temperatures, tomato pollen is rendered sterile and though the plant will continue flowering, no fruit will be set.
Mulch – Another overlooked best management practice in backyard veggie gardening is mulching! Those of us who tend flower beds already know many benefits of mulch like soil temperature moderation, weed prevention, and moisture conservation. But for tomato growers, mulch has another benefit – disease prevention! Several serious diseases that affect tomato are soil-borne pathogens (i.e. Early Blight, Late Blight, Bacterial Spot, etc.). These pathogens find their way onto plants either indirectly via water splashing from soil onto leaves or direct contact from leaves and fruit resting on the soil. To prevent these pathogens from infecting plant tissue, apply an organic mulch (preferably wheat straw or tree leaves) under and around plants. This simple step goes a long way toward season-long, yield-saving disease prevention.
Consistent Watering – Everyone knows plants need water but what you might not know is that irrigation consistency makes a huge difference in plant health, particularly tomatoes. Consistent watering is key in helping ward off one of the most frustrating tomato maladies, blossom end rot (BER) – you know, the one where the bottom end of your perfectly good tomato fruit turns to a brownish mush! Though BER is caused by calcium deficiency, the condition is commonly induced by creation of distinct wet and dry periods from non-regular watering, interfering with calcium uptake and availability to the plant. So, while you may have adequate soil calcium, if you don’t water correctly, the condition will happen anyway! It’s also good to keep in mind that mature tomato plants use large quantities of water daily, so during the heat of summer, plants in containers may need to be watered multiple times daily to maintain consistently moist soil. Think about it, you don’t drink 8 glasses of water when you wake up and then never drink again throughout a hot day. A tomato is no different. Allowing your plants to wilt down before providing additional water ruins productivity and can induce BER.
Tomato ‘Big Beef’ demonstrating pruning for soil clearance and airflow.
Pruning – I get it. Once you’ve nursed your baby tomato from a wee transplant or seed into a rapidly growing and flowering plant, it seems counter-intuitive to break out the pruners, but to keep your tomato plant as healthy as possible for as long as possible, that is what you must do! Pruning tomatoes should accomplish two things. First, remove the bottom layer of foliage from the plant base, so that water will not readily splash onto the lowest remaining leaves. (I tend to remove all leaves up to the second set of flowers 8-12” from the soil’s surface.) As with mulching, this prevents bacterial and fungal pathogens from spreading easily from the soil surface onto your plant. Second, tomato plants, especially the vigorous indeterminate varieties, often grow more foliage than is necessary for fruit production. This excess foliage can prevent airflow and trap moisture in the canopy of the plant, promoting disease. To open up the canopy and allow for more airflow, I prune off leaves that grow from the primary stems inward to the center of the plant. The idea is to keep the inside of the plant open while allowing enough leaves to power photosynthesis and shade the developing fruit below.
Tomatoes are notoriously hard to grow, but by following a few easy preventative practices, gardeners can greatly increase their chances of realizing harvestable fruit come summer. Please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list that will ensure disease-free plants over the entire growing season (you should also get a soil test to make sure your pH and soil fertility are correct and ideally you’d never work in your tomatoes when they are wet, etc., but this is a good place to start!). However, a little bit of planning and prevention early in the season can make growing tomatoes a lot less frustrating! As always, if you have questions regarding tomatoes or any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office. Happy gardening!
Nobody likes weeds in their garden. Weeds are not only ugly, they can host insects and diseases that later spread to your garden. This situation commonly occurs when weeds belong to the same plant family as the desired landscape or vegetable species, but some insects and diseases have diverse palettes. For example, I recently witnessed a looper caterpillar on a pokeweed plant.
Looper damage on a pokeweed plant. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension at Santa Rosa County
Loopers are common pests of vegetable gardens and in the landscape. Probably the most common loopers found in North Florida gardens are cabbage loopers (Trichoplusia ni) and soybean loopers (Chrysodeixis includens). Cabbage loopers can be found feeding on cabbage, of course, as well as leafy greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, chrysanthemums, and snapdragons. Weeds that attract this looper are lambsquarters, dandelions, and curly dock. Soybean loopers like to feed on sweet potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons, geraniums, and sunflowers. They can also be found feeding on oxalis, kutzu, and lantana.
Looper found on pokeweed plant. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension at Santa Rosa County
Although weeds can be hosts for pests, they may be used advantageously. Trap crops can be planted at a garden’s perimeter or windward portion to attract pests away from the desired crop. A trap crop draws the pest crop away from the main crop. The trap crop is then destroyed or sprayed with insecticide when the pest insect is found feeding on it. This allows for a reduction or elimination of insecticidal use on the desired crop. However, it is important that both the trap crop and the desired food crop or ornamental crop are regularly scouted to keep track of pest populations.
For more information on trap crops and other insect and disease diversion methods you can read the EDIS Publication: Intercropping, Crop Diversity and Pest Management.
Spring is a wonderful time of year. After months of dreariness and bare branches, bright, succulent green leaves and flowers of every kind and color have emerged. So too, have emerged gardeners and outdoor enthusiasts ready to tackle all their home and landscape improvement projects planned over the winter. However, this is also the time, when folks first start paying attention to their plants again, that strange, seemingly inexpiable plant problems crop up!
All plant problems can be divided into two categories: biotic problems, or issues caused by a living organism (think insects, fungus, and bacteria), and abiotic problems, issues that arise from things other than biotic pests. It’s the first category that people generally turn to when something goes wrong in their landscape or garden. It’s convenient to blame problems on pests and it’s very satisfying to go to the local home improvement store, buy a bottle of something and spray the problem into submission. But, in many of my consultations with clientele each spring, I find myself having to step back, consider holistically the circumstances causing the issue to arise, scout for pests and diseases, and if I find no evidence of either, encouraging the person to consider the possibility the problem is abiotic and to adopt patience and allow the problem to correct itself. Of course, this is never what anyone wants to hear. We always want a solvable problem with a simple cause and solution. But life isn’t always that easy and sometimes we must accept that we (nor a pest/disease) did anything wrong to cause the issue and, in some cases, that we ourselves actually caused the problem to happen in the first place! To illustrate, let’s consider two case studies from site visits I’ve had this spring.
Cold damage on Boxwood hedge
Three weeks ago, I got a call from a very concerned client. She had gotten her March issue of a popular outdoor magazine in the mail, in which was a feature on an emerging pathogen, Boxwood Blight, a nasty fungus decimating Boxwood populations in states north of us. She had also noticed the Boxwoods in front of her house had recently developed browning of their new spring shoots across most the hedgerow. Having read the article and matching the symptoms she’d noticed to the ones described in the magazine article, she was convinced her shrub was infected with blight and wanted to know if there was a cure. Agreeing that the symptoms sounded similar and wanting to rule out an infection of an extremely serious pathogen, I decided to go take a look. Upon inspection, it was obvious that Boxwood Blight wasn’t to blame. Damage from disease generally isn’t quite as uniform as what I saw. The new growth on top of the hedge was indeed brown but only where the eaves of the house and a nearby tree didn’t provide overhead cover and, to boot, the sides of the hedge were a very normal bright green. Having gone through a recent cold snap that brought several mornings of heavy frost and knowing that the weeks before that the weather had been unseasonably warm, causing many plants to begin growing prematurely, all signs pointed toward an abiotic problem, cold/frost damage that would clear up as soon as the plant put on another flush of growth. The client was delighted to hear she didn’t have a hedge killing problem that would require either adopting a monthly fungicide regime or replacing the hedge with a different species.
Damage to ‘Sunshine’ Ligustrum from pressure washing siding with bleach.
The very next week, another client asked if I would come by her house and take a look at a hedge of ‘Sunshine’ Ligustrum that lines her driveway, whose leaves had “bleached” out, turning from their normal chartreuse to a bronzy white color. This time, having seen similar issues with this particular plant that almost always involved an infestation of Spider or Broad Mites, I figured this was a cut and dry case that would end with a call to her pest control company to come spray the offending bugs. However, though the leaf damage looked similar, I was not able to locate any existing pests or find evidence any had been around recently, rather it appeared the leaves had been exposed to something that “bleached” and burned them. Puzzled, I began asking questions. What kind of maintenance occurs on the plants? Have you fertilized or applied any chemicals recently? Nothing. Then, near the end of our conversation, the client mentioned that her neighbor had pressure washed their house on a windy day and that she was irritated because some of the soap solution had gotten on her car. Bingo. Leaf burn from pressure washing solution chemicals. This time I was guilty of assuming the worst from a pest when the problem quite literally blew in on the wind from next door. Again, the client was relieved to know the plant would recover as soon as a new flush of growth emerged and hid the burned older leaves!
This spring, I’d encourage you to learn from the above situations and the next time you notice an issue on plants in your yard, before you reach for the pesticides, take a step back and think about what the damage looks like, thoroughly inspect the plants for possible insects or disease, and if you don’t find any, consider the possibility that the problem was abiotic in nature! And remember, if you need any assistance with identification of a landscape problem and want research-based recommendations on how to manage the problem, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office.