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!
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.
Hydrangea leaf spot disease
Photo credit: Larry Williams
It is not uncommon to see leaf spots on your hydrangeas during late summer and fall.
These spots are caused by a number of fungal diseases. Plant fungi and wet weather go hand-in-hand. Florida’s high humidity, heavy dews and frequent rains during spring and summer provide perfect conditions to allow fungal diseases to flourish. Bacterial leaf spots can be part of this foliage disease mix, too.
Common foliage diseases seen on hydrangeas this time of year include Phyllosticta leaf spot, Target leaf spot, Bacterial leaf spot, Botrytis and Cercospora leaf spot.
These foliage diseases are the norm rather than the exception as we move into the wet summer months and on into fall. As a matter of fact, you would be hard-pressed to find any hydrangea in our area without some evidence of infection now.
This late in the year it is more of a “grin and bear it” problem. In other words, it’s too late to do much about the fact that your hydrangea plant has leaves covered in ugly spots. By now many of the infected leaves are turning brown, withering and dropping prematurely from the plant.
Cercospora leaf spot is one of the most common foliage diseases of hydrangeas. Along with most of the leaf spot diseases, it begins as small dark-colored specks on the leaves. The small specks generally go unnoticed. But as the spots continue to slowly enlarge, mostly maintaining a circular shape, they become more obvious. With heavy infection, individual spots can coalesce forming larger irregular shaped brown areas on individual leaves. The individual spots may have a purplish halo with gray center.
There are some fungicides that can help prevent these leaf spots. But you’d have to begin treatment early in spring before any leaf spots exist and spray the plant every 10 to 14 days during favorable disease development (humid, rainy weather), which is pretty much our spring and summer months. These types of diseases are prevented, not cured. That’s the “grin and bear it” part of waiting until now.
The fungus survives on infected leaves. So, the best thing to do now is to remove and dispose of infected leaves. Also, be careful to not wet the leaves when irrigating the plants during the growing season.
New leaves of spring should be spot/disease free as they emerge. But the cycle of life for these leaf spot diseases will again result in spotted/diseased leaves on your hydrangeas next summer and fall without persistent treatment.
The good news is that these leaf spot diseases normally do not cause permanent/long-term damage for hydrangeas. They just make the plant look ugly.
A very popular landscape shrub installed by both professionals and homeowners is Loropetalum or Chinese fringe. This shrub offers attractive foliage and flowers along with being evergreen.
When you visit a nursery to select this plant for your landscape, realize that there are now many selections of Loropetalum available. Learn about a few of the common selections in this recording of ‘In the Garden’, with UF/ IFAS Extension Escambia County Horticulture Agent Beth Bolles, so that you are successful at matching the appropriate plant with your landscape needs.
Too often, would be gardeners travel to exotic locales, become intoxicated with the beautiful floral display of Plumeria, Jatropha, Bird of Paradise and Bougainvillea, and come home with visions of homemade leis picked from the garden dancing in their heads. As anyone who has attempted to grow any of the aforementioned plants in the Panhandle will tell you though, fulfilling those visions in the landscape are easier said than done! However, not all is lost for the gardener wanting to bring the tropics home. A tropical feel in the landscape can be achieved, you just have to look beyond the aforementioned flowering plants that will have long since succumbed to winter frost by the time they mature and begin flowering and instead to tropical foliage plants that can be enjoyed for a season and easily (cheaply too!) replaced the following spring. Of all the tropical foliage options available for Panhandle landscapes, my favorite is the Ti Plant, sometimes called Hawaiian Ti.
Ti Plant foliage
Even if you have never heard of Ti, you have probably seen it. The strap like, 12-18” long, purple and pink striped leaves are hard to miss and add an unmistakable tropical flair in the landscape! Ti Plants grow generally in single, unbranched stalks, though most commercial growers combine several plants into a single pot to give a bushy, multi trunked appearance that looks more appealing on a retail nursery bench. These plants will easily reach 4-6’ in height in a single warm season, providing a powerful punch of pink/purple all summer long. In addition to its considerable attractiveness, Ti boasts a cosmopolitan constitution, as it will grow in sun or shade, outside or inside. Of course, some cultural do’s apply to Ti broadly, regardless of where it is grown, as well as a few don’ts.
In general, Ti will be more colorful in brighter light. Though it grows well in shade, its leaves tend to lose their luster and fade to a dull purple in full shade. Similarly, though it will survive in full, all day sun, Ti’s foliage tends to bleach a bit in these conditions and can turn a whitish gray. It is best to shoot for somewhere in the middle for the most vivid foliage color. If growing indoors, give Ti as much light as you can. If growing outdoors, full sun through midafternoon is appropriate, as is bright shade throughout the day. Be sure to give Ti plants consistent moisture, as they will readily wilt down under prolonged drought conditions. As with watering, Ti prefers a consistently fertile soil and will appreciate a topdressing of a complete, slow release fertilizer (made by Osmocote, Harrell’s and others) at planting, with a follow up application 60-90 days later (possibly more frequently depending on temperature and frequency of watering).
Ti plant in a mixed container – Photo Courtesy Daniel Leonard
Though Ti performs well planted in the ground in Northwest Florida as an annual specimen to brighten a border (think of it like a supersized Coleus), it really gets to shine in large, mixed containers. Ti’s upright growth habit and traffic stopping color make it the perfect thriller in the widely used “thriller, filler, spiller” container design. Because Ti can grow quite large relative to other common container plants, a large 20-45 gallon container is necessary to facilitate optimum root growth and plant development. If a smaller container is chosen, water management will become an issue as the Ti plant’s root mass will quickly crowd the container. I prefer glazed ceramic or concrete containers as these are often painted in bright colors that complement Ti’s foliage, do not allow as much air exchange as terra cotta planters (soil in terra cotta containers dry very quickly in hot, dry weather), and are heavy enough that tall Ti plants won’t cause them to blow over in windy conditions. Mix smaller, mounding filler plants and trailing spiller plants under and around Ti in containers. For a striking contrast in color, choose companion plants in white, yellow, orange or chartreuse (remember, plants don’t have to flower to be colorful, vivid foliage plants like coleus or caladium work too!).
Regardless of how you use Ti Plant, you’ll find it to be one of the most high value color plants in the landscape. Plant one today and happy gardening!