Ornamental Grass Pruning – A Winter Task

Ornamental Grass Pruning – A Winter Task

The term “ornamental grass” is a catch-all phrase used to describe grasses and “grass-like” plants.  Individual species are adapted to a wide variety of landscape sites (i.e., wet or dry, sun or shade, hot or cold climates, and varied salt tolerance). Growth habits range from low ground covers to intermediate shrub-like plants to very tall hedge-like plants. Ornamental grasses are very dynamic; the size, shape, texture, and color of grass changes with every season.

Deciduous Ornamental Grass

Grasses with foliage that dies in the winter and remains dormant until the weather warms in the spring are considered deciduous.  The winter character of deciduous ornamental grasses adds tremendous interest to the winter garden when contrasted with evergreen plants or structures such as walls or fences.  The dried foliage of deciduous grasses creates sound as it expands and contracts in response to changes in temperature or moisture, while interaction with wind creates movement in the garden. For these reasons, pruning of the dead foliage and inflorescences is not recommended at the time of the first frost.

Pruning of ornamental grasses should be done in late winter or early spring, just prior to new shoot growth.  In Northwest Florida, gardeners should target the end of February to prune ornamental grasses.  For deciduous grasses, such as Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis), the old foliage may be completely removed within inches of the soil. Be cautious to not remove the growth point by leaving the grass clump at least 4 inches high.  For evergreen grasses, such as muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), the ragged leaves can be removed to neaten the appearance of the plant without shortening all the way to the ground. So, depending on the damaged portions, the remaining grass clump can be 6-18 inches high after pruning.  Grasses recover quickly from a heavier pruning.  Within a few months the plant will have completely regrown.  If desired, old flower stalks and seed heads may be removed any time they no longer have a neat appearance.  For more information on ornamental grass species and growing tips, please visit the EDIS Publication: Considerations for Selection and Use of Ornamental Grasses.

Bald Cypress:  The Most Adaptable Tree for Panhandle Landscapes

Bald Cypress: The Most Adaptable Tree for Panhandle Landscapes

Lately, to survive in Panhandle landscapes, plants must be able to tolerate extremes.  Summertime temperatures over 100 degrees F, hurricane force winds up to 150 mph, deluges of 1’ of rain in a single day, spring and fall month-long droughts, and the wild winter weather swings we’re experiencing right now.  That’s quite a tall order for most plants to bear, however one of our best native trees handles all of the above conditions with relative ease, the stately Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum).  Though Bald Cypress primarily inhabits flatwood “dome” swamps and areas along the periodically flooded edges of waterways and other wetlands and most folks think of it as just “water tree”, the species is more than capable of handling anything Florida’s climate can throw at it, including thriving in home landscapes.

Bald Cypress in mid-January. Notice the excellent branching structure and the buttressed lower trunk. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

While there are lots of pretty trees in the Panhandle’s natural areas, not many of them possess the longevity, adaptability and well-behaved nature that makes Bald Cypress a great landscape tree.  Bald Cypress are capable of living for hundreds of years and grow steadily to a normal landscape height of 50-60’, truly perfect for a specimen shade tree.  The species also possesses a strong, wide spreading root system and a special above ground root adaptation, known colloquially as “knees”, that enable Cypress to reach deep to outlast droughts, grow unfazed even when the water rises, inhabit many different soil types, and resist hurricane force winds.  While some homeowners object to the presence of Cypress knees in their yard, as the above ground structures can damage mower blades and make for uneven terrain, I’ve found an easy solution is to simply keep the area under the tree’s canopy mulched and forgo mowing there altogether.  It looks nice and means less grass to cut!

Bald Cypress isn’t just a big, tough, adaptable tree, it’s also gorgeous.  The bright green, finely cut, featherlike leaves give the trees an airy appearance in the spring and summer, nicely offsetting common coarse textured yard trees like Magnolia, Sycamore, Red Maple, and others.  However, it is in the fall and winter when Bald Cypress really shines.  Though Florida is not known for its fall foliage, Cypress is a notable exception!  When the weather gets cool, Bald Cypress leaves transition from green to a yellowish orange before finally arriving at a beautifully unique, rusty, orange-brown color.  There isn’t another species out there with a similar show.  The foliage holds deep into winter before finally falling to reveal the attractive branching structure, sweeping buttressed lower trunk, and peely gray bark underneath, completing the four-season show.

Bald Cypress foliage on December 31, 2020. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

In addition to being a near perfect landscape tree, Bald Cypress embodies much of what folks admire about life in the South, living the slow life near the water and enduring everything that’s thrown at it with grace and strength.  Other than possibly the Live Oak, Bald Cypress is the tree that comes to mind first when I think about the tree that most represents where we come from.  From their majestic, buttressed trunks, to the Spanish Moss that hangs loose from their limbs, to the slow, dark water than meanders nearby, the species is iconically Southern.   When looking for an impossibly tough, adaptable, and attractive tree, one could do a whole lot worse than Bald Cypress.

If you have any questions about Bald Cypress, other landscape tree options, or any horticultural topic, please reach out to your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office.  Happy gardening!

Gardening in the Panhandle LIVE! 2021

Gardening in the Panhandle LIVE! 2021

We are back with new topics and guest speakers for 2021! All sessions are Thursdays at noon CDT or 1:00 p.m. EDT.

There are two ways to join the Gardening in the Panhandle LIVE! webinars:

1. Facebook Live – Follow us on Facebook and follow individual webinar Events.
2. Zoom Webinar – Pre-registration is required for Zoom. Users must have an authenticated account (free at https://zoom.us/signup). Be sure you have security settings up to date to prevent connection delays. Links to Zoom registration will be added to the topic one week before the webinar and a closed captioned recorded link to YouTube will be available approximately one week after the program. (Underlined words have active links!)

 

Date

Topic

Panelists

12-1 pm CDT

2/4/2021

Weeds
Reference links

Dr. Chris Marble, Beth Bolles, Mark Tancig, Larry Williams

3/11/2021

Spring Vegetables

Dr. Josh Freeman, Matt Lollar, Sheila Dunning, Evan Anderson

4/8/2021

Lawns

Dr. Bryan Unruh, Dr. Pat Williams, Mark Tancig, Larry Williams

5/13/2021

Herbs

Beth Bolles, Julie McConnell, Mary Salinas, Trevor Hylton

6/10/2021

Ornamental & Turf Diseases

Dr. Phil Harmon, Stephen Greer, Larry Williams

7/29/2021

Beneficial Insects: Predators!

Dr. Adam Dale, Beth Bolles, Julie McConnell, Danielle Sprague

8/12/2021

Open landscape topics Q&A

Beth Bolles, Mark Tancig, Matt Lollar, Evan Anderson

9/9/2021

Beginning Beekeeping

Amy Vu, Ray Bodrey, Evan Anderson

10/14/2021

Invasive Species

Dr. Stephen Enloe, Dr. Pat Williams, Dr. Gary Knox, Sheila Dunning, Ray Bodrey

11/4/2021

Houseplants

Marc Frank, Dr. Pat Williams, Stephen Greer

12/9/2021

Selecting and Maintaining Trees

Larry Figart, Mark Tancig, Larry Williams

Missed a session and want to catch up?
All webinars are archived with closed captioning on our YouTube Gardening in the Panhandle LIVE! Playlist.

 

 

Why Don’t We Get Great Fall Color in Florida?

Why Don’t We Get Great Fall Color in Florida?

red fall color on a tree

Intense red fall color of Japanese Maple in Georgia is hard to replicate in our climate. J_McConnell, UF/IFAS

Fall is a favorite time of year for many people. Cool nights, short days, football games and the fast approaching holidays are all signs of summer coming to an end. Floridians who have relocated from other parts of the country may be disappointed to realize we get very little showy fall color even though we can grow some of the same trees in North Florida as other parts of the country. Why is that? Well, although plant breeders may promise “showy fall color” in certain selections, they really can’t promise that year after year because it’s more than just genetics influencing leaf color. Let’s take a deeper dive into the science behind fall color!

Why do the leaves change color?
Lower temperatures and shorter day length indicate to plants that winter is approaching and some physiological changes start to occur. Chlorophyll is a pigment found in leaves that, in addition to capturing sunlight and producing energy, also causes plants to display green during the growing season. As fall approaches, environmental changes tell plants to stop producing chlorophyll and existing pigment begins to break down. The reduction of chlorophyll allows the other pigments present (carotenoids and anthocyanin) to reveal their colors in an array of yellows, browns, oranges, reds, and purples. Different plants have different levels of these pigments and some may not exist at all in certain species. This explains why some plants typically turn only yellow and others may show yellow, orange, and/or red!

Why is there so much difference from year to year?

Variation occurs because environmental conditions and cultural practices play a part in determining how much color will be on display. Rainfall or irrigation amounts in the preceding summer and fall, drought cycles, nutrient levels, sunlight, and day and night temperatures all influence color from year to year.

How do I increase the potential for showy fall color in my landscape?

Choose plants with the reputation of producing desired fall colors in our area. However, keep in mind that because of the influence of outside conditions, you may be in for a surprise from year to year. To increase your chance of having a somewhat predictable fall display, use cultivars instead of seedlings of a plant species. A cultivar is a selection of a plant species that has been chosen for desirable traits, like growth habit, flowering, or fall color.  These attributes are usually easily identified by the way their names are assigned. For example, Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’ is a red maple cultivar known for a full rounded canopy and exceptional red fall color. The reason that cultivars appear more consistent is because they are genetic copies of the parent plant that they are named for. A species or seedling plant is not a clone but comes from seed, which means you will get as much genetic variation as you see in human siblings. Just like children in our own families, each will each shine in their own way and no two will be exactly alike. 

A Landscape Combo for Native Fall Color:  Muhly Grass & Darrow’s Blueberry

A Landscape Combo for Native Fall Color: Muhly Grass & Darrow’s Blueberry

In the Panhandle, fall is the prettiest season for wildflowers.  Our roadsides and woodlands are covered with pinks, whites, yellows, blues, purples, and even a little red here and there.  Pretty as it may be, the beautiful wildflower look isn’t super appropriate for most yards.  It would look unkempt, a little “wild” if you will, would be hard to manage and is probably best enjoyed in natural areas.  However, we can bring some of the native colors of fall into our landscapes in a much lower maintenance, refined manner with two Panhandle species that pair excellently together, Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and Darrow’s Blueberry (Vaccineum darrowii).

Muhly Grass and Darrow’s Blueberry in a local landscape. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Muhly Grass, the native grass with the pinkish/purple panicles blooming right now, has gained much popularity in recent years, earning a reputation as a near pest/disease free, drought tolerant, attractive landscape plant.  Operating in lieu of more traditional low growing shrubs in landscapes, Muhly is an airy, greenish gray bunch grass growing about 3-4’ tall and wide, lending informal, coastal texture to landscapes most of the year and really shining in fall during its flowering season.  Once established, it never needs extra water, prefers little fertilizer, and only needs a rejuvenation prune (or burn – the Leonard preferred method.  It’s fun and mimics the role of fire in Muhly’s native ecosystems!) every couple of years to keep it looking tidy.

Unlike Muhly Grass, Darrow’s Blueberry has not caught on broadly in the landscape industry but is no less deserving.  This native blueberry species only grows a couple of feet tall, produces edible fruit that wildlife enjoy, and adds an unusual blue green color to landscapes via its tiny-leaved, evergreen foliage.  It prefers the same sites as Muhly and is part of the reason they pair so well together.  Our mostly sandy, well drained soils work just fine, but both plants can handle soils that are occasionally wet.  A bonus, Darrow’s also has tiny, bell shaped flowers in spring that attract all manner of beneficial bee species.  This makes it a must in any native pollinator garden!

As good as these species are alone, I think they are better together.  In my family’s yard, we created a loose screen of widely spaced (8’ apart) Muhly Grass specimens around a pool, in the spirit of giving the area a “coastal” airy feel, and interspersed Darrow’s Blueberry in between.

The pink Muhly Grass flowers pair nicely with the green blue foliage of Darrow’s Blueberry. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

The look has been outstanding, particularly in the late summer/early fall.  The pinky purple flowers of Muhly Grass complement the green-blue foliage of the blueberries nicely and provide easy, lasting color without having to worry about planting finicky annuals or perennials each season.

Landscaping with natives does not have to look wild and unkempt, nor does it have to be drab and unattractive.  Combining native yet showy plants like Darrow’s Blueberry and Muhly Grass makes for an unusual, refined, nearly no-maintenance feature in your landscape.  Look for these and other neat native plants at native nurseries and independent garden centers around the Panhandle.  If you’d like more information on native grasses, blueberries or any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office!  Happy Gardening!

 

Overcup Oak – The Best Landscape Tree You’ve Never Heard Of

Overcup Oak – The Best Landscape Tree You’ve Never Heard Of

7 year old Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata) on the edge of a wet weather pond in Calhoun County. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Haunting alluvial river bottoms and creek beds across the Deep South, is a highly unusual oak species, Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata).  Unlike nearly any other Oak and most sane people, Overcups occur deep in alluvial swamps and spend most of their lives with their feet wet.   Though the species hides out along water’s edge in secluded swamps, it has nevertheless been discovered by the horticultural industry and is becoming one of the favorite species of landscape designers and nurserymen around the South.  The reasons for Overcup’s rise are numerous, let’s dive into them.

First, much of the deep South, especially in the Coastal Plain, is dominated by poorly drained flatwoods soils cut through by river systems and dotted with cypress and blackgum ponds.  These conditions call for landscape plants that can handle hot, humid air, excess rainfall, and even periodic inundation (standing water).  It stands to reason our best tree options for these areas, Sycamore, Bald Cypress, Red Maple, and others, occur naturally in swamps that mimic these conditions.  Overcup Oak is one of these hardy species.  Overcup goes above and beyond being able to handle a squishy lawn, it is often found inundated for weeks at a time by more than 20’ of water during the spring floods our river systems experience.

The same Overcup Oak thriving under inundation conditions 2 weeks after a heavy rain. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

The species has even developed an interesting adaptation to allow populations to thrive in flooded seasons.  Their acorns, preferred food of many waterfowl, are almost totally covered by a buoyant acorn cap, allowing seeds to float downstream until they hit dry land, thus ensuring the species survives and spreads.  While it will not survive perpetual inundation like Cypress and Blackgum, if you have a periodically damp area in your lawn where other species struggle, Overcup will shine.

Overcup Oak is also an exceedingly attractive tree.  In youth, the species is extremely uniform, with a straight, stout trunk and rounded “lollipop” canopy.  This regular habit is maintained into adulthood, where it becomes a stately tree with a distinctly upturned branching habit, lending itself well to mowers and other traffic underneath without having to worry about hitting low-hanging branches.  The large, lustrous green leaves are lyre-shaped if you use your imagination (hence the name, Quercus lyrata) and turn a not-unattractive yellowish brown in fall.  Overcups especially shines in the winter, however, when the whitish gray, shaggy bark takes center stage.  Overcup bark is very reminiscent of White Oak or Shagbark Hickory and is exceedingly pretty relative to other landscape trees that can be successfully grown here.

Overcup Oak leaves in August. Note the characteristic “lyre” shape. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

Finally, Overcup Oak is among the easiest to grow landscape trees.  We have already discussed its ability to tolerate wet soils and our blazing heat and humidity, but Overcups can also tolerate periodic drought, partial shade, and nearly any soil pH.  They are long-lived trees and have no known serious pest or disease problems.  They transplant easily from standard nursery containers or dug from a field (if it’s a larger specimen), making establishment in the landscape an easy task.  In the establishment phase, defined as the first year or two after transplanting, young, transplanted Overcups require only a weekly rain or irrigation event of around 1” (wetter areas may not require any supplemental irrigation) and bi-annual applications of a general purpose fertilizer, 10-10-10 or similar.  After that, they are generally on their own without any help!

Typical shaggy bark on 7 year old Overcup Oak. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

If you’ve been looking for an attractive, low-maintenance tree for a pond bank or just generally wet area in your lawn or property, Overcup Oak might be your answer.  For more information on Overcup Oak, other landscape trees and native plants, give your local UF/IFAS County Extension office a call!