Unexplained Plant Problems?  Might be an Abiotic Issue!

Unexplained Plant Problems? Might be an Abiotic Issue!

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.

New Tree Identification Trail to Provide Knowledge in the Shade

New Tree Identification Trail to Provide Knowledge in the Shade

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.

 

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.

Fatsia japonica Provides Gorgeous Winter Blooms

Fatsia japonica Provides Gorgeous Winter Blooms

Fatsia japonica, common name Japanese aralia, provides tropical texture to your landscape.  That coarse texture is attributed to its large (nearly a foot wide) leaves that are deeply lobed (maple leaf shaped).  This shade-loving plant performs well in moist (not soggy) locations.  Upright stems originate near ground level usually near the base of older stems.  The stems grow to about eight feet tall before bending toward the ground under their own weight.

Even though the foliage of this species is enough to make you want it in your own garden, you will absolutely fall in love with its blooms.  Upright clusters of showy, creamy white flowers begin to appear in fall.  These little snowballs provide wonderful color to your garden.  The shiny, black fruits appear in winter and are prominent for several weeks.  The fruit are know to attract birds to the landscape.

Fatsia japonica Blooming

A Fatsia japonica specimen in full bloom. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension

Fatsia japonica thrives in the shade in slightly acidic, nutrient-rich, moist soil.  Older stems become leggy and can be cut back to encourage branching.  In the right place, Fatsia japonica is low-maintenance and not typically bothered by pests.  It is also known to perform well in coastal landscapes.  It fits well in entryways, in containers, or in mass plantings spaced three feet apart.

 

Create Your Own Fall Color with Annual Foliage Plants

Create Your Own Fall Color with Annual Foliage Plants

Florida is known for many things, however sweeping vistas of hillsides covered in the orange, red, and yellow foliage of fall is not one of them.  Our long, hot summers and short, cool (not cold) winters, and lack of anything of substance resembling a season in between, precludes the fall color show our neighbors to the north enjoy.  Don’t settle for synthetic Halloween decorations or faux painted leaves to add festivity to the autumn landscape design.  When football season kicks off and summer blooming annuals begin to fade, it’s time to reach into the horticultural toolbox and pull out a couple fall-y Florida Friendly annual foliage species, perfect for the balmy Panhandle “autumn”: ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus and ‘Petra’ croton.

‘Alabama Sunset’ Coleus in mixed container – Photo Courtesy Andrea Schnapp

The first plant to consider when looking for outstanding heat tolerant foliage is the common coleus (Solenostemon scuttellarioides), particularly the cultivar ‘Alabama Sunset’.   As the name indicates, ‘Alabama Sunset’ offers leaves in shades of red and yellow, perfect for designing fall containers or mixing into planting beds.  This popular summer annual is known for its ability to add interesting color and texture to shady areas.

Recently with the arrival of the ‘sun coleus’ series (to which ‘Alabama Sunset’ belongs), coleus is permissible in situations with greater sunlight.  Coleus is incredibly easy to grow and easy to find since nearly every nursery stocks at least a few cultivars.  What’s more, these plants are generally free of pests and disease problems!  Even sun coleus does appreciate a little protection from the hot afternoon sun and occasional deadheading of flowers.

‘Petra’ Croton. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

 

The second plant in the fall foliage arsenal is ‘Petra croton’ (Codiaeum variegatum ‘Petra’).  Primarily known as a tropical foliage or indoor houseplant, Petra croton is criminally underused in fall landscape and container design.  Petra croton sports bold magnolia-sized leaves striped with colors of yellow, red, orange, and black. A great Halloween plant to complement those front-porch Jack-O-Lanterns!

Like coleus, Petra croton is extremely easy to grow either in a container or in the ground.  It should be located in either in full sun or partial shade and watered through establishment. Otherwise, this species is quite drought tolerant and can be killed with kindness if watered too frequently!

Although croton is a perennial shrub in the tropics, in Northwest Florida it may be killed by frost and best treated as an annual.  Croton can be expected to reach 30-36” in height in a single season, its size and the boldly colored foliage make it a true focal point in the autumn landscape!

Appalachian-grade fall color may be unattainable in the Panhandle in the literal sense, but with these novel plant selections the autumn mood may be present even as the emerald waves hit the sugar white sand.  By using annual foliage plants that possess traditional fall colors throughout their life cycle, anyone can add a splash of Autumn to their mixed containers or landscape beds.  ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus and ‘Petra’ croton are the perfect match for this time of year, pairing ease of culture with bold, seasonal color.  Plant a couple today!

Florida Native: Muhly Grass Muhlenbergia capillaris

Florida Native: Muhly Grass Muhlenbergia capillaris

Versatile, easy-care, beautiful, native – what’s not to love about muhly grass?

Muhly grass is a hardy landscape choice with dramatic fall blooms. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

How is it versatile? It makes a perfect border along a fence or structure. Plant it in a single or double row depending on available space. Use a single plant as a specimen in a smaller landscape. Muhly grass can also be planted in mass to serve as groundcover in a larger landscape.

What makes it easy-care? Since it only grows into a 3-foot-tall mound, there is no need to continually prune it as you would have to do for many landscape shrubs that serve a similar function. Plant muhly grass in areas where you only want to have plants grow to a 3-foot height, such as under windows or along a short fence. This clumping grass can be pruned in late winter to remove dead leaf blades, but it is not necessary. There are few pest and disease issues and its’ fertility needs are low. This tough plant can handle both drought and inundation with water. Perfect for a rain garden! Flowering is best in full sun, but it can take part sun as well.

What’s so beautiful about a grass? In the fall, abundant pink to pinkish/purple blooms cover the canopy of the grass and add color to the fall landscape. The wispy blooms move with the breezes and add interest with their movement. The new cultivar ‘Fast Forward’ blooms as early as August and into the winter. If pink is not your color, there is a form with white blooms known as ‘White Cloud’.

Consider adding some muhly grass to your landscape. You will love it as I do.