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

 

Improving Soil Health, Suppressing Weeds, and Attracting Good Bugs

Improving Soil Health, Suppressing Weeds, and Attracting Good Bugs

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 .

Crop Diversity

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

Trap Cropping

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:

  • Cowpeas
  • Sunn hemp
  • Sorghum-sudangrass
  • Winter rye

More detailed information on cover crops and green manure can be found at this link: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/aa217.

Peanut Butter Challenge in the Panhandle

Peanut Butter Challenge in the Panhandle

Feed the hungry and meet a challenge; donate peanut butter to UF/IFAS Extension ! 

If you want to help feed the hungry in Florida’s Panhandle this year, you can donate peanut butter during the annual Peanut Butter Challenge, coordinated by UF/IFAS Extension.

 

 

Thanks to a partnership of UF/IFAS Extension and the Florida Peanut Producers Association, food pantries from Pensacola to Monticello will receive thousands of jars of donated peanut butter this December.

From Oct. 1 through Nov. 21, you can donate unopened jars of peanut butter at your UF/IFAS Extension county office. Each year, one or more UF/IFAS Extension agents at your local county extension office collect unopened peanut butter jars.

Since 2012, the volunteers and UF/IFAS Extension faculty have collected jars of peanut butter from residents, volunteer groups and businesses in 16 northwest Florida counties. Last year, UF/IFAS Extension county offices received 6,222 jars of peanut butter, said Libbie Johnson, agricultural agent for UF/IFAS Extension Escambia County and co-organizer of the Challenge.

In addition to these donations, the Florida Peanut Producers Association also contributes, supplying more than 3,000 jars each Challenge, Johnson said.

They hope to surpass that total this year with your support and contributions.

“The Peanut Butter Challenge not only raises awareness about the important contribution of North Florida’s peanut growers to the state peanut industry, but also helps provide a healthy, locally produced product to food-insecure families in northwest Florida,” Johnson said.

Visit your local county extension office today and donate some peanut butter to support nutrition in your local panhandle community! (Press Release authored by UF / IFAS Communications)