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:

Kiwis – A Golden Opportunity

Kiwis – A Golden Opportunity

Kiwi Vines

Twisted and tangled kiwifruit plants in a North Florida orchard. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

When we think of kiwis, we think of fuzzy, slightly tart, egg-shaped fruits from somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere.  However, there is a species (Actinidia chinensis) of kiwi with smooth skin, sweet taste, and golden color.

Commonly available cultivars of this species are ‘AU Golden Dragon’ and ‘AU Golden Sunshine’.  Most years, kiwis won’t produce much of a crop in North Florida because they won’t receive enough chill hours, but they might be fun to try for the adventurous gardener.

  • Site Selection – Kiwis perform best in well-drained soils with a neutral pH (around 7.0).  High winds may cause canes to break and scar fruit, so a windbreak is recommended or they can be planted near a structure.
  • Irrigation – Kiwis need a lot of water during the summer.  This is partly due the their large leaves that transpire rapidly because of surface area.  Newly planted kiwis should be watered deeply at least once a week.
  • Fertilization – Fertilize kiwis three times a year (January, April, and June).  Do not apply fertilizer after the month of July to reduce the incidence of cold injury in the winter.
  • Insects and Diseases – The most common insects of kiwis are mites and scales.  To reduce the incidence of disease, plant kiwis at least 15 feet apart and train on a trellis.
  • Training – A T-bar trellis, similar to the system used to train grape vines, or a pergola should be used to provide support for the plants.  Once the plants are established (2 to 3 years after planting), about a third of the vines should be removed each year.
T-bar Trellis

An illustration of a T-bar trellis system. University of Georgia Extension

Kiwis are wind- and insect-pollinated.  Good growing conditions and insect pollination help increase fruit size.  Male and female plants are required for good fruit yields.  At least one male (pollen producing) plant should be planted for every four female (fruit producing) plants.

Kiwi plants will soon be planted for evaluation at the West Florida Research and Education Center in Jay, FL.  Please stay tuned for future data!  For more information on growing kiwis in the Southeast, please visit these webpages:

Kiwifruit Production Guide

Bringing Home the Gold – Auburn horticulture alum gets kiwifruit orchard off the ground in Reeltown

 

Starting Transplants for the Home Garden

Starting Transplants for the Home Garden

Winter is in full swing and home grown produce is probably not the first thing that comes to mind.  But it should be!  It’s time again to start thinking about spring vegetable gardening.  While a number of crops can be started by direct seeding in the soil, success rates are higher when plants are started indoors or in a covered structure.  In order to be successful, it’s important that you follow some simple steps.

Germinating watermelon seeds

Seedless watermelons planted in a 128-cell flat. Photo Credit: Gene McAvoy, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Hendry County

  • Transplant Trays/Flats – Trays are made from different materials such as plastic, polystyrene, and compostable materials.  Different cell sizes are also available.  Generally, smaller cells are used for smaller seeds and larger cells are used for larger seeds.  It’s important to think of the life cycle of the crop.  For example, lettuce and other leafy greens have much shorter life cycles compared to tomatoes.  Because of this, they have smaller root systems at transplant time and may not develop a good rootball in a large cell.  Therefore, lettuce would perform better in a smaller cell.
  • Media – It’s important that you choose a germination mix instead of a potting mix.  Definitely don’t use garden soil!  Germination mixes are typically a combination of finely ground peat, perlite, and other soiless substrates.
  • Seed – Purchase seed from a reputable source with a germination guarantee.  If you save seeds for future gardening, then store them in a cool, dry place.  Seed can be stored in the refrigerator.  However, do expect the germination rate of stored seeds to diminish over time.  Coated seed is recommended for smaller seeds to make seeding easier and more efficient.  Seeds should be planted in media at a depth of approximately 3 times the diameter of the seed.  Check the seed package for additional planting recommendations.  For more germination and storage information please see this publication from the University of Nebraska.
  • Fertilizer – Too much fertilizer can result in leggy and possibly burned plants.  A 20-10-10 (or similar ratio N-P-K) water-soluble product is generally used in commercial production.  Rates are dependent on crop, sunlight, and temperature.  The media should be kept moist, but not continually wet.
Kale transplants

Well-grown kale transplants ready for field planting. Photo Credit: Gene McAvoy, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Hendry County

Seeds can take up to 14 days to germinate depending on species and conditions.  Most transplants are ready for the garden by 6 to 8 weeks.  To improve success rate and accelerate production time, most farmers harden off their transplants before planting.  Hardening off is the process of stressing the transplants for about a week.  Generally, transplant trays are taken out of the greenhouse (or other transplant area such as a window sill) and set outside.  Watering frequency is reduced and fertilization is halted.  It’s important that the plants aren’t completely neglected, but just stressed enough to prepare them for the elements.  A good place to put the trays is under a tree in partial shade.  After this hardening off period, the transplants are ready for your garden.  Hopefully these tips will make you a more successful gardener!

Spice Up Your Salad with Unusual Leafy Greens

Spice Up Your Salad with Unusual Leafy Greens

Many Americans have a remarkably unrefined taste in salads; my brother has long counted himself in this group.    Dice up some crunchy Iceberg type lettuce, splash on a dollop of ranch dressing, maybe chop a leaf of romaine up if you’re feeling frisky and call it a salad, this is the way we’ve been trained to eat.  I’m here, a voice in the supermarket produce aisle wilderness calling, to tell you it’s time to open up your palate, look beyond lettuce, live a little, and add some spice to your life and salad bowl with three of my favorite easy to grow leafy greens:  Mizuna, Frilly Mustard, and Italian Dandelion.

Mature Mizuna plants in the author’s container garden.

Before we get into species specifics, let’s cover a couple of reasons you should grow them at home!  Growing your own flavor-packed greens has many benefits.  First, leaves from these plants can be difficult to find anywhere but specialty health food stores or high-end supermarkets.  Growing your own ensures a consistent supply, especially if one utilizes the “cut and come again” harvesting method (just remove the leaves and stems you need that day, leave the crown intact and allow the plant to regrow for next week’s harvest).  Second, you do not have to worry about the too common food safety recalls and other health scares involving “leafies”.  If you follow standard safety practices (clean irrigation water, wash picked leaves and store properly, etc.), you’ll be eating scrumptious salads when everyone else is begrudgingly trashing entire bags of recalled store-bought greens.  Finally, each of these species double as gorgeous accent plants in

‘Scarlet Frills’ Mustard in the author’s container garden.

raised beds or containers.  I love plants that do heavy lifting as both eye-catching ornamentals and delicious edibles!

Mizuna is a little known member of the mustard family that is quickly becoming one of my favorite leafy greens!  It faces no major pest or disease problems in the garden and it is extremely tolerant of the cold weather Floridians periodically face through the winter, laughing off frost.  Mizuna possesses lovely, deeply cut, pale green, fringy leaves complete with crispy white stems, all of which are edible – no need to separate stems when processing to eat!  This lovely little Asian green has a mild peppery taste (think a toned-down Arugula) and adds perfect flavor and texture to any salad!

Many Southerners are well acquainted with traditional Mustard greens and their preparation (more than a little bacon and salt) but may not be aware of newer Mustard cultivars that give the species a bit of refinement and make it a salad celebrity!  This winter, I’m growing a cultivar of Mustard called ‘Scarlet Frills’ (aptly named with finely serrated burgundy-red leaves) and really enjoy its peppery horseradish taste as a foil to the mildly sweet taste of traditional salad greens like lettuce and spinach.  Mustards are extremely cold tolerant and slow to bolt, making it a mainstay in the salad garden all winter long; you really get your money’s worth from a few Mustard plants!  However, even if this leafy green wasn’t delicious, it would be worth growing.  The “fancier” Mustard cultivars are highly ornamental and deserve a spot in any cool season container garden.

‘Italiko Red’ Italian Dandelion in the author’s container garden.

Finally, the one that turns up the most noses when I mention growing and eating it, Italian Dandelion (Cichorium intybus)!  I’m not advocating foraging in your turfgrass to find dinner, in fact, Italian Dandelion is not a true dandelion (it’s actually a chicory).  However, it does share a number of features with its weedy cousin, including leaves that are similar in appearance and a vigorous taproot.  That’s where the comparisons stop though, as Italian dandelion is a superior garden plant, more upright growing, much larger, and deeper green (some varieties including the one I grow ‘Italiko Red’ have red veined leaves) than its wild cousin.  Unlike Mizuna and some of the milder mustards, Italian Dandelion is a bit of an acquired taste.  It imparts a strong bitter flavor that may be cut with milder greens in a salad or cooked down to reduce bitterness. Either way you try it, put Italian Dandelion on your cool season garden next year!

Mizuna, Frilly Mustard, and Italian Dandelion all require similar growing conditions.  In Florida, leafy greens are cool season vegetables, growing through the fall, winter and spring months.  Seeds should be sown in late September and can be stagger-sown (plantings every couple of weeks) to ensure a steady supply through spring.  As a rule, they prefer rich, well-drained soil high in organic matter.  These soil conditions are achievable with either quality commercial potting mixes or homemade concoctions of compost and pine bark. The beds or containers you fill with the aforementioned soil should be sited near a good water source (plants that aren’t convenient to water get neglected, trust me) in an area that gets 6-8 hours of full sunlight.  I like to topdress at planting (if using transplants) or after germination (if using seed) with a good general purpose, slow-release fertilizer, many formulations and brands that work are widely available for purchase.  Finally, be sure to purchase seed from a quality source.  Online purveyors Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and Sow True Seeds are good places to start, though the options are nearly endless!

Next year, when planning your cool season garden, remember to add a little spice with these three leafy greens, Mizuna, Frilly Mustard, and Italian Dandelion!  For more information about cool season gardening and other topics, consult your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.

It’s Never a Bad Time to Plant Arugula

It’s Never a Bad Time to Plant Arugula

Arugula is a pungent, peppery leafy green native to the Mediterranean. It is in the Brassica or crucifer family, which also contains vegetables such as broccoli, kale, radishes, and cabbage, but is perhaps less common in the edible garden landscape. Although arugula is typically considered a fall vegetable, it can be seeded all year long with a little bit of protection from extreme cold or heat.

Arugula is an easy green to grow and adds pungent, peppery flavor to salads, pizzas, and many other dishes. Photo by Turkey Hill Farm.

Matter of fact, you can plant arugula every few weeks year-round to enjoy young tender leaves anytime. Since arugula has a compact root system, sow seeds one to two inches apart, thin out young whole plants as they fill in, and add them to salads for some extra dinner pizazz. Once plants are four to six inches apart, begin to harvest just arugula leaves, leaving the plants to grow taller in height. Leaves make great toppings on a sandwich or pizza, can be tossed in pasta just before serving, or can be steamed, stir-fried, or pureed and added to a plethora of dishes.

Although arugula is not as flashy as many of its fall garden counterparts, it is often the easiest to manage and last to get pest and disease problems. While your lettuce is attacked by slugs, kale crawling with aphids, and cabbage chewed up by armyworms, arugula often shines unblemished. And in late fall and winter, arugula will only need cold protection if we have a hard freeze (temperatures below 28 degrees for more than four hours). In these cases, cover your plants with frost cloth, bed sheets, or simply buckets, if your arugula patch is small. Just remember to secure your cover to the ground, such as using bricks to pin the cloth, to prevent gaps for air to escape. If done correctly, you can raise air temperatures eight degrees.

From June to September it will be helpful to plant your arugula in partial shade or use shade cloth with 40 to 60 percent density to cut the intensity of the heat. Spring and summer planted arugula may go to seed faster than in fall or winter, but because it is such an easy plant to sow and manage, you can be planting your next round just as your previous crop begins to senesce.

Throughout the life cycle of arugula, you will notice changes in the intensity of the plant’s complex flavor. This is due to fluctuations in sulfur compounds called glucosinolates, which increase as the plant matures.

So be brave, clear some space in your garden plot, and give this spicy cabbage cousin a try!

Distorted Leaves Caused by Mites

One of my favorite native plants is winged sumac.  I like this plant not only for its ornamental beauty, but also for its fruit that can be dried and used as seasoning and to make tea.  So you can understand my concern when one of my prized winged sumac plants had distorted leaves.

Eriophyid mite damage on winged sumac

Eriophyid mite damage on winged sumac. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

After doing a little research and speaking with one of our UF/IFAS Specialists, I was able to determine that the leaf distortion was caused by eriophyid mites.  Mites are not insects and are more closely related to spiders.  They normally have four pairs of legs, however eriophyid mites only have two pairs of legs.  They are microscopic, elongate, spindle-shaped, and translucent.

Eriophyid Mite

An eriophyid mite. Photo Credit: USDA, Agricultural Research Service.

Eriophyid mites cause galls (sometimes called witch’s broom) on various species of ornamental shrubs.  Symptoms include early and late bud distortion, distorted leaves, and possibly plant death.  In fact, the species Phyllocoptes fructiphilus is the vector for the viral disease of roses called Rose Rosette Disease.  Sometimes the damage can be confused with herbicide damage.

Control options are currently being evaluated for eriophyid mites in the home landscape.  Removing distorted plant material and removing it from the site can help prevent the spread of mites.  If you suspect eriophyid mites are the cause of your distorted plants then samples should be collected.  To collect samples: 1) Prune off symptomatic plant material and immediately place into a vial with rubbing alcohol; 2) label with collection date, plant species, and location; 3) mail to the Landscape Entomology Lab in Gainesville at P.O. Box 110620, Gainesville, FL 32611.

For more information on eriophyid mites and the sampling process, please see the fact sheet “Unusual Galls on Woody Ornamentals” from Erin Harlow and Dr. Adam Dale.

For more information on other mites that could be infesting your landscape, please go to this link from the Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka, FL.