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.

Improve Your Life with Panhandle E-Extension Newsletters and UF/IFAS EDIS Resources

Improve Your Life with Panhandle E-Extension Newsletters and UF/IFAS EDIS Resources

If you are a regular reader of Gardening in the Panhandle, you know that this e-newsletter covers many topics related to ornamental and vegetable gardening, Florida-friendly landscaping, pest management, and lawn and garden fertility.

But did you also know that UF/IFAS Extension in the Florida Panhandle has four other E-newsletters covering topics such as Florida agriculture, wildlife and natural resources, 4-H youth, economic well-being, health and nutrition, and overall life quality for individuals and families?

These other E-Extension in the Panhandle newsletters include Panhandle Agriculture , Panhandle Outdoors,  4-H in the Panhandle, and Living Well in the Panhandle.

[notice]Additionally, UF/IFAS also has an extensive collection of publications on many of these e-newsletter topics. If you haven’t already, check out the Extension Data Information Source (EDIS) website. It is a comprehensive, single-source repository of all current UF/IFAS numbered peer-reviewed publications. Visit EDIS for a complete listing.[/notice]

As a Gardening in the Panhandle enthusiast, here is a list of horticulture and gardening related EDIS publications you might find useful:

Vegetable Gardening

Home Lawns and Landscapes

Soil and Fertility

Pest Management

Permaculture Workshop – April 29

The Jackson County Master Gardeners are hosting “Permaculture: An Introduction” on Saturday, April 29. Join us from 9AM to 2PM on Saturday, April 29 at the Jackson County Extension Office (2741 Penn Ave., Ste.#3, Marianna, FL) to learn the basics of permaculture. What is permaculture you might ask? Basically, it is the utilization of edible plants in your landscape to create a food forest. The workshop is $20 and includes lunch. To register or for more details please contact Matt Lollar at mlollar@ufl.edu, (850)482-9620, or come by the Jackson County Extension Office.

Permaculture: An Introduction – April 29

So You Want to be a Farmer? Workshop Series

So You Want to be a Farmer? Workshop Series

Are you an avid gardener and looking to step it up a notch? Are your gardening eyes bigger than your dinner plate? If you have ever considered selling your bounty for market, you will certainly need to do your homework! One such step you can take is to attend the UF/IFAS Panhandle Extension Team’s So You Want to be a Farmer? Workshop Series.

There’s a lot to know if you want to get into this business! This series aims to introduce new or potential farmers to innovative and environmentally safe production practices, concepts of soil and water management, integrated pest management, how to grow for a farmers’ market, and farm financial management.

Agricultural professionals are actually in high demand. There is an estimated 60,000 highly skilled jobs in agriculture available annually, but only about half of these positions are being filled by graduates in agricultural fields. Additionally, Florida’s farmers are an aging group, and there was an 8% decrease in the number of farms and 26% decrease in acres of cropland from 2002 to 2012.

Fortunately, demand has greatly increased in recent years for locally produced specialty crops, meats, and dairy. There has also been an increase in the number of direct marketing opportunities and small farmers have been able to adopt new technologies, such as season extension techniques and local online marketing, to generate more revenue on small acreages.

The UF/IFAS Extension Panhandle Agriculture Team is hosting the So You Want to be a Farmer? Workshop Series to assist beginning or novice farmers as they navigate the many challenges of getting started.

If you are interested in attending, please register on the So You Want to be a Farmer? Eventbrite page. The cost is $10 per session, with sessions at multiple locations within the east Florida Panhandle.

Please see workshop dates and further details below:

Look More Deeply for Causes of Leaf Wilt

Look More Deeply for Causes of Leaf Wilt

Leaf wilt may indicate more than just dry soil. Photo by Beth Bolles

Leaf wilt may indicate more than just dry soil. Photo by Beth Bolles

Plants have specific ways of telling gardeners that there is a problem, but not all plant symptoms lead us directly to the cause. During drier conditions, we often use wilting leaves as an indicator that water is needed.  This can be a reliable symptom that the soil is lacking moisture but it is not always the case.  Wilting leaves and herbaceous branches actually tell us that there is not adequate water in the plant.  It does not necessarily indicate lack of moisture in the soil.

There can be many reasons why water is not being absorbed by roots and moved to tissues in the plant. The obvious place to start is by checking soil moisture.  If soil is powdery several inches deep around the plant, water is likely needed. However, if you ball the soil up in your hand and it holds together, there may be another reason for lack of water reaching the upper plant parts.  The harder part is determining why the root system is not taking up water.  Causes can be a rotted root system from too much water, a poorly developed root ball that has circling or kinked roots, and even problems in the soil such as compaction.  Insects, diseases, and other pathogens can also injure root systems preventing the uptake of water.

Too much water can cause roots to decay, preventing the uptake of water. Photo by Beth Bolles

Too much water can cause roots to decay, preventing the uptake of water. Photo by Beth Bolles

So before automatically grabbing the hose or turning on the sprinkler, do a little soil investigation to make sure that the plant wilt is really indicating lack of water in the soil. If you need help in your diagnosis, always contact your local Extension office.

Keep It Covered with Mulch

Keep It Covered with Mulch

Do you have a bare spot that you would like to see go away? How about a problem getting something to grow in a particular area? I’m not talking about that receding hairline or bald spot, I’m talking about your lawns and gardens. Many residents have these problems, whether it is too much shade under our beautiful oaks, that stubborn orange clay, or that hot, dry sand. Often times, the best remedy for these situations is to use mulch. Mulch is a versatile tool in the home landscape that provides many benefits while adding aesthetic beauty.mulch Mark Tanzig photo

Some of the benefits of using mulch in your landscape include retaining soil moisture, reducing the amount of weeds, insulating the soil (keeps it warm during cold months and cool during the warm season), improving soil health through decomposition, and protecting plants from mower and/or trimmer damage. In addition, mulch can help protect the quality of local lakes and streams by reducing soil erosion and stormwater runoff. Therefore, not only can it improve your yard, but it can also help minimize impacts to our precious natural resources.

When purchasing mulch, there are many options available. Local lawn and garden shops offer many different types of mulch based on their origin (type of wood the mulch comes from), texture (shredded vs. nuggets), color, and, of course, cost. When considering these options, here is some information to help you choose:

  • Origin. Cypress mulch comes from the harvesting of natural cypress wetlands and it not recommended by the University of Florida Florida-friendly Landscaping Program. Pine bark mulch is produced from the paper/pulp industry as a marketable byproduct. Pine needle mulch is harvested from pine tree farms as the trees mature to harvestable size.
  • Plant Needs. Pine mulch (either bark or needles) can lower the pH of your soils as it breaks down over time. This is great for acid-loving plants such as azaleas, gardenias, and blueberries, but may affect species that require a high pH.
  • Texture. The coarser the texture, the longer the mulch will last. Finely shredded mulches breakdown quicker than coarse mulches, such as bark nuggets. As the mulch breaks down, it adds organic content to your soil, thus improving soil health.

If you want to save money, you can often contact local tree trimming companies for their hard day’s work. As they trim or remove trees, the smaller material is shredded into mulch and they are often willing to drop it off in your yard instead of paying for its disposal. It is best to allow this freshly shredded mulch to cure for some time before placing it in your garden beds since freshly shredded mulch can temporarily reduce the availability of nitrogen in the soil.

When using free mulch options, be aware that weed seeds may be present.

Be sure to apply the mulch in a two to three inch layer in your landscape beds or around trees and shrubs. It’s not a bad idea to aerate any old mulch already present to prevent matting or compaction. This can be done with a rake or pitchfork.

So cover up that soil to improve the look and fertility of your landscapes and to reduce erosion and stormwater runoff. If you have any questions about mulch, more information is available at the Florida-Friendly Landscaping website: http://fyn.ifas.ufl.edu.