Root rot may develop if citrus trees are mulched closer than 12″ to the trunk
Thankfully, cooler temperatures have finally made it to the Florida Panhandle, but it took until the middle of October. The last two months surely taught us lessons about helping our gardens beat the heat. One strategy to help plants cope with extreme heat or drought is mulching.
Many of us either have or can easily find, piles of wood chip mulch from fallen trees, thanks to the hurricane. This material will come in handy now, as fall and winter mulching is a great gardening practice with many benefits.
Think of mulch as a blanket for plants. By acting as a cover to the root system, mulch can perform as both a cooling factor during warm months and can help warm the root system during cooler weather, as well as assist in retaining moisture. This is important, as regulated soil moisture will accept rain or irrigation water much easier than crusty, dry soil. Water will simply runoff and can cause erosion in dry soil conditions. Mulch is a great weed barrier and is also aesthetically pleasing in the landscape by helping define borders and gives depth. A 3-4” thick layer of mulch, in a 2-3’ diameter, is typically a sufficient amount of mulch for landscape plants and fruit trees.
There are two types of mulch material that you’ll find in our area, organic or inert. Components of organic mulch include compost, bark, leaves grass clippings, straw, wood chips and even saw dust. Straw, wood chips and saw dust contain very little nitrogen, however. If mulching with these materials, it’s a good idea to add some nitrogen fertilizer. One or two cups of a complete fertilizer like 10-10-10 should help you avoid nutrient issues. Organic mulch will need to be replenished yearly to some degree, as it breaks down into a soil amending compost. This breakdown into compost will improve soil water holding capacity and fertility.
Inert mulch can be made of shells, gravel, pebbles, plastic and rubber. However, inert options are not as easy to use in controlling moisture and temperature levels and of course provides no nutrient value. With Inert mulch, you should always fertilize the area first, especially vegetable gardening. Use approximately two pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer for every 100 square feet of vegetable garden. This may not seem like much fertilizer, but since plastic mulch reduces the amount of fertilizer that leaches out of the root zone of your plants, you can apply less fertilizer to begin with. That’s a big reason why UF/IFAS researchers recommend plastic mulch to commercial vegetable and ornamental producers in Florida, but organic mulches are more appropriate for most home garden settings.
Mulching may be one of the most valuable and cost-effective garden practices. Mulch helps control weeds, conserves moisture, moderates soil temperatures, improves soil fertility and last, but not least, adds to the beauty of the landscape.
For more information contact your local county extension office.
Information for this article provided by Dr. Robert Black and Dr. Gary W. Knox of UF/IFAS Extension. More information can be found at this website: http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/care/planting/mulch.html
UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.
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!
Carrots growing in a large container.
After tending a home vegetable garden for any length of time in the Panhandle, you begin to learn some things. Tomatoes are awfully hard to grow. Raised beds drastically lower the difficulty of gardening in general. You should never plant mint in a permanent veggie garden. Swiss Chard has to be started early because it grows as molasses creeps. Of all of these anecdotal maxims I’ve discovered, the one with the most flavor return on my gardening investment is that carrots should always be a part of your cool season garden. A fresh carrot out of the garden is hard to beat. The difference between a grocery store carrot and one fresh out of your own garden is astonishing and will change your culinary life. Though carrot season in Florida is just ending (my final batch was harvested yesterday), it’s the perfect time to learn about growing carrots here and plan to get some in the ground this fall!
There are a number of reasons to grow and eat carrots. They’re obviously very healthy, though I dispute the whole eat carrots and you’ll have great eyesight thing – apparently I acquired the taste for them too late to help. They go well in more dishes than they don’t. However, the real two reasons you should supplement your grocery store carrot purchases with home grown harvests are that they’re so easy to grow and that there are so many more options than the standard long, thin orange varieties adorning the produce aisle shelves.
Though carrots are remarkable easy to grow, they do ask a couple of things of gardeners. They are a cool season vegetable and are generally planted from seed beginning in late August through early September in the Panhandle, though successive plantings can continue through at least February if you want to extend your harvest. Also, like many other root vegetables, carrots don’t transplant well so direct seeding in the garden is a must. But before you even consider seeding, care must be taken to make sure the soil bed you’ll be seeding in has been properly prepared. One of the few ways to fail growing carrots is to not start with a loose soil free from any potential obstructions. If the development of the carrot root is disturbed by anything during the germination and growing process (this includes manure aggregates or other clumpy soil, sticks, rocks or even a hard layer of soil hiding under your loose compost), the end product will be deformed. To prevent this, thoroughly till your raised bed soil to at least 12” and break up any larger soil particles that are left with your hands. If you don’t get your soil bed perfect though, fear not, deformed carrots are definitely edible, they just won’t look like they’re supposed to and are more difficult to clean and process!
Deformed carrots due to clumpy compost!
Once you’re ready to plant, I’ve found it easier on poor eyes and fumbling fingers like mine to sprinkle the tiny carrot seeds in shallowly furrowed rows 10”-12” apart and thin the seedlings later, rather than trying to individually space seeds the recommended 1”-3” apart. Finally, these colorful little veggies love water and require good fertility. To ensure good expansion of the edible root, maintain consistent moisture and fertilize at planting with a good slow release fertilizer. Additional fertilizer applications may be required later in the growing season as most carrots take around ten weeks to gain maturity.
‘Sugarsnax’ (orange) and ‘Malbec’ (red) carrots
In this age of online catalogs, farmer’s markets, and demanding consumers who crave interesting food, the selection of carrot varieties available for gardeners to grow has never been better. Among the hundreds of individual cultivar options are several broad types of carrots you’ll need to choose from. You’re probably familiar with the Imperator types. These are the extra-long, durable carrots most often find in stores. If you have a deep raised bed or other large container, Imperator varieties can be extremely rewarding! I grew the Imperator-type ‘Sugarsnax’ this year and highly recommend it for ease of growing, size and flavor. Next up are the Nantes types. These carrots are medium length and cylindrically shaped. Sometimes called “storage” carrots, these types tend to store well for long periods of time after harvest and retain their flavor well. I’ve tried a few over the last several years and can recommend ‘Bolero’ and ‘Napoli’ with confidence. There is even a carrot type for those of you with shallow raised beds (8” or less) that can’t accommodate the previously listed types! Chantenay type carrots are excellent performers in these situations as they are generally a bit shorter and possess a conical shape with roots wider at the top and tapering to the tip, making a deep soil bed a bit less critical. Finally, there are even some excellent cultivars of carrots in colors other than orange! That’s right, you can grow white, purple, yellow, and even red carrots! I’ve done very well with ‘Purple Haze’ (purple with orange interior), ‘White Satin’ (creamy white color), and ‘Malbec’ (deep, rich red) and highly recommend all three. Keep in mind that the red and purple carrots tend to lose their color when cooked, so the greatest effect is seen when eaten fresh. All of these cultivars can be found at nearly any of the numerous online and catalog seed retainers such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Burpee, and others.
As you can see, carrots are an easy to grow, extremely rewarding vegetable for the home gardener; give some a try in your raised beds next fall! And as always, if you have any questions about growing carrots or any other gardening related question, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office!
Many gardeners plant a spring vegetable garden with a number of different vegetable types, which is excellent because a diverse and varied garden is proven to improve soil health. Intercropping is a gardening practice of growing different crops in the same field. When planting a mixture of crops in the same field year after year, it is important to rotate the location of each type of vegetable. This is a practice known as crop rotation. Intercropping and crop rotation will help reduce insect pest populations, increase beneficial insect populations, and reduce weed populations .
Including plants that pest insects don’t like to eat in a garden forces the pests work harder to find what they find palatable. Studies have found reduced whitefly numbers on squash plantings mixed with a crop of buckwheat when compared to squash planted alone. Another crop mixture that may be unintentional, but may be favorable, is a crapemyrtle stand along a garden’s edge. Crapemyrtles will attract the crapemyrtle aphid which will attract predatory insects. When the predatory insects run out of crapemyrtle aphids to eat, they will move to the vegetable garden and begin to hunt pest insects.
Squash with living mulch of buckwheat. Photo Credit: Oscar Liburd, UF/IFAS Extension
A trap crop is a plant that attracts a pest insect away from your food crops. Trap crops work best when planted at the garden’s edge, along a fence row, or in movable containers. A bare space, let’s say 5 feet or so, should be kept between trap crops and vegetable plantings. This will help keep the pests from moving desirable crops plants. When a large population of pests are found on the trap crop then it is time to spray them with insecticide, or cut the crop down and remove or destroy the debris. If trap crops are planted in containers, then it makes them much easier to remove from the garden when necessary.
Cover Crops and Green Manure
Soil organic matter can be increased by the use of green manure and cover crops. Cover crops are generally planted during the off-season, but they can be planted in between vegetable rows and tilled in at a designated time as a green manure. Both cover crops and green manure improve garden production by:
- Suppressing weeds by competing for water, light, and nutrients;
- Holding the soil in place and preventing erosion;
- Scavenging for nutrients that can be utilized in future crops;
- Reducing nematode populations;
- Providing a habitat for beneficial insects.
A mixed plot of cover crops and trap crops. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, UF/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County
A number of different crops can serve as cover crops or green manure crops. Most are legumes (bean family) or grasses. A few that should be tried are:
- Sunn hemp
- Winter rye
More detailed information on cover crops and green manure can be found at this link: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/aa217.
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 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.