Winter Annual Weeds, a Great Place to Hide Easter Eggs

Winter Annual Weeds, a Great Place to Hide Easter Eggs

As a boy in a small town in Georgia we had a St. Augustinegrass lawn. My dad started the lawn before I was born. That lawn was still doing fine when I left for college at age seventeen. I don’t remember weeds in the lawn during summer months. I do fondly remember winter “weeds” in that lawn.

To see clumps of winter annuals in our yard and in neighbors’ yards was a natural part of the transition from winter to spring. They added interest to what

Bluish Easter egg hidden in chickweed

Blue Easter egg hidden in chickweed. Photo credit: Larry Williams

would have been a plain palette of green. It was expected to see henbit with its square stiff stems holding up a display of small pinkish purple flowers in late winter and early spring. A clump of henbit was a great place to hide an Easter egg, especially a pink or purple one.

Wild geranium, another common winter annual, offered another good hiding place for Easter eggs with its pink to purple flowers. Large clumps of annual chickweed would nicely hide whole eggs. Green colored eggs would blend with chickweed’s green leaves.

Pink Easter egg hidden in crimson clover and hop clover mix

Pink Easter egg hidden in crimson clover & hop clover mix. Photo credit: Larry Williams

Crimson clover with its reddish flowers, hop clover and black medic with their bright yellow flowers were good hiding places for Easter eggs. Plus clovers add nitrogen back to our soils.

I never remember my dad using any weed killer, he rarely watered. The lawn was healthy and thick enough to be a deterrent to summer weeds. But during fall and winter as the lawn would naturally thin and go dormant, winter annual weeds would run their course.

I’ve heard that the sense of smell provides our strongest memories. I remember the first mowing of the season with the clean smell of chlorophyll in the spring air. It was refreshing. Once mowed and as the heat took its toll, by late April or mid-May, these winter annual weeds were gone. What was left was a green lawn to help cool the landscape as the weather warmed. The lawn was mowed high as St. Augustine should be, played on and typically not worried with.

Most people have winter weeds in their lawns that let us know spring is near. Perhaps we worry too much with these seasonal, temporary plants that may have wrongly been labeled as weeds. Besides, how long have we been doing battle with these weeds and they are still here. Most lawns have countless numbers of winter annual seeds awaiting the cooler temperatures and shorter days of early winter to begin yet another generation. By May they are gone.

Year ‘Round Interest with Juliet™ Cleyera

Year ‘Round Interest with Juliet™ Cleyera

Plants with variegated foliage are very popular landscape selections.  As flowers fade on other plants, the colors of variegated foliage continue to add interest through multiple seasons.

A very adaptable shrub that has been around for a long time, now has a selection with beautiful variegated foliage.  Juliet™ cleyera offers green and white evergreen foliage that can brighten up a garden year around.  New foliage adds additional interest with a maroon tinge.

Variegated foliage of Juliet™ cleyera. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

Like other selections of Cleyera, Juliet™ needs to be matched to an appropriate spot to accommodate its mature size.  Shrubs will reach about 8 feet in height with a spread of about 5 feet.  Plants may look best when left to grow in a more natural form with light selective pruning.  This shrub is probably not suited for planting in front of home windows but used as a specimen or as a nice screen plant.

Once established, cleyera is a low maintenance plant and is adapted to grow well without routine irrigation.  My home landscape has very well drained soil and I have not needed to apply supplemental irrigation to two cleyera shrubs in over 20 years.  Consider a spot that receives full sun or partial shade for your plants.

An added advantage of cleyera shrubs in general is that bees are attracted to the flowers so it makes an additional nectar source for pollinators in the spring.

Winter Watering Concerns

Winter Watering Concerns

Plants need water. This isn’t an outrageous insight, but the details behind this statement can be more complicated than it might seem. While it is true that plants, like all living things, need water to survive, they don’t all need the same amount and they may need more or less at different times. For a healthy landscape, garden, container planting, or lawn, it’s important to pay attention to the little quirks of watering that may not be immediately obvious.

During the wintertime, temperatures are lower and days are shorter. Less heat and sunlight means water will evaporate much more slowly and the soil will stay wetter. With less heat and sunlight, plants grow at a much slower rate (if at all). This means that irrigation systems set for summertime watering are probably going to keep conditions too damp for many plants during the winter. For example, a St. Augustinegrass lawn might only be able to survive 1 to 5 days without irrigation or rain in the summer, but the same lawn can last 8 to 28 days between waterings in the winter. Consider adjusting your irrigation system or watering schedule to account for seasonal differences. Remember also that a practiced eye can tell when a lawn needs water – folding or curled blades of grass, a dulling of color from bright green to bluish-gray, and footprints that remain in turf rather than springing back are signs of drought stress. Before these signs show up, it may not be necessary or beneficial to water.

Snails love moisture, and an abundance of them may be a sign of too much irrigation.

If plants are overwatered, they often show different signs of distress. Lawns may have more issues with fungal diseases or become patchy, which can let weeds begin to take over. Ornamental plants such as shrubs and trees might show signs of nutrient deficiency or begin to drop leaves, appearing sparse and unhealthy. You may notice an increase in moisture-loving pests as well, such as slugs or snails. Check for watering issues if you notice any of these symptoms.

Cooler weather can be a good time to get outside and do regular maintenance on irrigation systems and plantings. Replace or unclog malfunctioning nozzles, patch

Moisture held against the base of a tree by mulch can eventually damage the plant.

holes in water lines, and adjust irrigation heads that may no longer be pointed in the right direction. Prune back plants that have grown into irrigation sprinkler patterns and may disrupt even watering. Put in new or replacement plants and make any adjustments needed to their irrigation. Lastly, add mulch around plants. This can help retain soil moisture, even out changes in soil temperature, suppress weed growth, and add organic matter to the soil as mulch breaks down. Avoid piling mulch against the base of plants, however, or it will hold moisture against the plant and can promote the growth of molds and other fungi.

Improperly placed or calibrated sprinklers can cause problems.

For more information on watering, there is a wealth of knowledge online. The Florida Friendly Landscaping program has a lot to read on the topic: https://ffl.ifas.ufl.edu/handbook/Water_Efficiently_vSept09.pdf

The University of Florida EDIS publications cover many watering topics as well: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_landscape_irrigation

And, as always, contact your local extension office for help as well!

It’s Time to Plant and Prune!

It’s Time to Plant and Prune!

The last several weeks have brought consistently cool weather to the Panhandle, with a few downright cold nights dipping well below freezing.  Though winter isn’t officially here, that won’t happen until December 21st, grass mowing season is definitely over and, if you’re like me and didn’t cover your raised bed garden on those nippy nights, vegetable growing has also slowed significantly.  So, what are us horticulturally minded folks with cold-weather cabin fever to do?  It’s time to take advantage of sweat-free temperatures, break out the shovels and pruners, and get to work in the landscape!

Master Gardeners demonstrate correct tree planting techniques.

The months of December through February are ideal times for planting new trees and shrubs.  The reasons for this are simple.  Days are short, rain tends to be plentiful, temperatures are cool, and plants are mostly dormant.  While newly installed plants need water to become established regardless of when they are planted, demand for supplemental irrigation is significantly less in winter (one of our rainiest seasons) and the chances of a new planting dying from thirst is slim relative to warmer months.  Also, planting in winter gives trees and shrubs several months of above ground dormancy to focus their resources below ground, recover from the shock of transitioning from a nursery container into your native soil, and produce valuable roots that will help it get through its first summer.  Think about it.  Would it be easier for you to start and finish a major outdoor project in July with one bottle of water to drink or in December with an ice chest full?  Plants prefer the same!

Not only is winter perfect for planting, tis the season for pruning many species too, deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in the fall) in particular!  The first reason to prune these species in the winter is to give the plants several months to begin healing before growth resumes in spring and insect and disease pressure ramps up again.  Many serious pests and diseases of trees are most active during warm, wet weather and all of them have easier access to attack trees through open wounds.  Prune in winter to help avoid unwanted pest and disease infestations.  Also, dormancy has conveniently knocked the leaves off deciduous species’ branches, allowing us a clear view of the tree’s crown and giving us the ability to make clear, clean, strategic pruning cuts.  Proper pruning can help maintain a strong central leader that produces a stately, straight tree and remove dead and diseased branches that could cause problems in the future.

While planting in the winter is always ideal and we just outlined several reasons pruning now can be good, not all plants should be pruned when dormant.  For instance, old-fashioned hydrangeas and azaleas that produce blooms from the previous season’s growth.  Pruning these in the winter removes all the flower buds that would have bloomed the next summer and what’s the point of an azalea or hydrangea that doesn’t bloom?  Also, many small trees and shrubs, like Crape Myrtle and Vitex, may never need pruning if you site them where they will have room to mature without encroaching on other plants or structures.

If you have any questions about planting trees and shrubs, what, when, and how to prune, or any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office!  Enjoy the weather and 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!

Conserving Water in the Home Garden, A Fluid Situation

Conserving Water in the Home Garden, A Fluid Situation

Figure: Increase water holding capacity through home composting.
Credit: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS Communications.

Water is a precious resource for Floridians, even if the last couple of months of rainfall may make you think otherwise. As home gardeners, we should keep water conservation in mind.

Wasting water now may cause restrictions in the future, as basic water needs of a growing population outpace capacity. Of course, we all hope that’ll never happen, but it is possible.

As we start planning for our fall vegetable garden, let’s think about conserving water usage. We can start by putting our “plant biology” cap on. A great way to save water is to plant fast growing, early-maturing vegetables. The strategy, of course, is the sooner a plant matures the less water it will need.

Gardening periods in Florida vary, too. Thus, there are broad choices of planting dates for many vegetables. For Panhandle gardeners, the current trend has shown dry periods in the spring, but adequate rainfall in summer months. Usually with the seasonal change to fall, soil moisture holding capacity is not a great struggle in Panhandle. However, much of our soils consist of coarse sandy particles, which are not ideal for water holding capacity. Amending garden soils with organic materials such as compost, manures, and cover crops, will help the soil hold water better.

Selecting the right irrigation method is also a great way to conserve water. Overhead sprinkling is not ideal for most gardening applications. This method wastefully projects water into areas between rows, outside of root zones and allows for much evaporation loss. Drip irrigation can help solve these issues, by concentrating water directly to the root system. IFAS research has estimated an 80% reduction in water usage when utilizing a drip system.

If drip irrigation isn’t a method you’re interested in, overhead watering the garden thoroughly twice weekly is an acceptable alternative. Remember, there’s a limit to how much water plants can use. Excess water can cause runoff and consistent heavily saturated soils may promote root rot. Mulching also ranks highly among water conservation practices, by allowing the soil to hold more moisture. Examples of mulch types include hay, straw, leaves or plastic.

Supporting information for this article can be found at the UF/IFAS gardening solutions website.

For planting information, please see the Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide.