Photo courtesy of Gabriel Jimenez at Unsplash.com.
Gardeners have always known, down to their bones, that getting down and dirty in the soil is good for you. My grandmother was a staunch believer in the beneficial, calming effect of pulling weeds and digging in the garden when she was angry or frustrated with life.
Pulling weeds, digging up plants, planting new plants and seeds, mixing in good compost to a new landscape bed – these are joys that bring gardeners into intimate contact with soil and all the abundant life within. Gardeners love that smell of good fertile soil. As do nature lovers of all sorts. Hikers love the earthy smell as they tromp through the woods – especially after a nice rain when the fragrance is especially fresh and sweet.
What causes the aroma that we are experiencing? Much of it is bacteria. Good bacteria. Healthy soil is a complex ecosystem containing a great biodiversity of species of plants, fungi, animals and bacteria. And much research is being done to identify and learn about the thousands of species living under our feet.
Scientists are now suggesting that a fatty acid found in the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae may alleviate stress and stress related disorders in humans. Gardeners have always known there was something about the soil that was good and healthy for us. Now, we have the science to back it up!
Vaseygrass produces prolific seed heads, and once introduced, can be spread easily by farming equipment. Photo by Herman Holley.
Beware Vaseygrass, an Aggressive Exotic Weed
A couple months ago I got a concerning call from a local small farmer. Rich Pouncey, of Bumpy Road Farm in northern Leon County, was very troubled by an unwelcome visitor he found growing on his farm.
Rich, who grows multiple crops, including heirloom corn varieties to create his delicious cornmeal and grits, noticed something amok in a portion of his rows. With closer inspection – and a visit from Extension Agent Les Harrison – it was identified as vaseygrass (Paspalum urvillei). Vaseygrass, an aggressive exotic species from South America, was starting to take complete control of a large section of Rich’s small growing space he had reserved for upcoming collard production.
With its abundant seed heads and our consistent summer rainstorms, vaseygrass quickly took over a section of Rich’s field. Photo by Molly Jameson.
Rich, who prides himself on supporting biological diversity, soil health, and native pollinators, uses strictly organic growing methods in raising his crops. Therefore, the presence of such an aggressive exotic was truly of grave concern.
Rich is not sure exactly how this weed was introduced to his fields. He suspects it may have been hidden in a soil amendment he purchased, but he cannot be certain of the source. It is certainly a reminder to be careful when bringing in outside equipment, mulch, and any new agricultural products.
When mature, vaseygrass can grow to six-feet tall with plentiful seed heads, and it flourishes in warm, wet conditions. It spreads by seeds and has very high rates of germination during times of abundant rainfall. The grass is low in nutrition – making it a poor choice for grazing cattle – but in a hay field, it will spread like wildfire if not controlled.
Vaseygrass is a true perennial bunch grass, with a small root system and, fortunately, few rhizomes. Rich began pulling and black bagging as much of the grass as he could each day, but struggled to keep up, and it quickly spread through more than a tenth of an acre of his field.
When hand pulling wasn’t enough, Rich switched to solarization, hoping to kill emerged vaseygrass seedlings and seeds with heat. Photo by Herman Holley.
About six weeks ago, Rich changed strategies and began solarizing the area with clear plastic sheeting. Tightly covering soil with clear plastic sheeting in the warmest summer months can trap heat and increase temperatures, potentially killing weeds, pests, and diseases within the top foot of the soil surface. He will find out soon if this control strategy has been successful, as he’ll be pulling up the plastic in September. He knows that if the solarization is not successful, he may have no choice but to use chemical control methods, which will mean he will have to wait years to grow any crops in this area he wishes to market as organically grown.
If hand pulling isn’t enough, small infestations of vaseygrass can be controlled by spot spraying a one percent glyphosate solution at 1.2 ounces/gallon. Be aware, mowing and tilling can make the problem worse, as the scattering and burying of seeds can exacerbate the infestation.
For more details about identifying and controlling vaseygrass, read the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, Identification and Control of Johnsongrass, Vaseygrass, and Guinea Grass in Pastures (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ag372).
If you suspect vaseygrass is growing on your property, contact your local county extension agent to get the grass properly identified and help spread the word about its presence.
Homeowners are always looking for methods to manage one of our most difficult pests in the vegetable garden. Learn about the science of how to properly use marigolds to deter nematodes against one our our favorite summer fruits In the Garden with UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.
Natural bark mulch
There have been a lot of questions about the use of colored mulches in the landscapes. Many individuals are concerned about the possibility of negative environmental impact from the dyes used on wood chips and pine straw. According to the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (https://ag.umass.edu) the primary concern with colored landscape mulches is not the dyes used for coloring. Rather, it is about the sources of wood chips and the possibility of contamination with toxic substances.
The dyes used in coloring wood mulch are primarily of two types: carbon-based dyes and iron oxide based dyes. Iron oxide, the most commonly used dye, is simply a compound of iron and oxygen. As the compound oxidizes, iron is released to the soil but is not considered to be toxic. Dyes that are not absorbed by or adsorbed to the wood would come off with contact, especially if the mulch is wet. There are also some carbon-based dyes used on mulch. These carbon-based colorants are similar to those used in ink and cosmetics. Other dyes for mulch are vegetable-based and therefore organic. At this time, there is no evidence that the dyes used to color wood chip mulch are toxic.
Most of the wood used for making colored mulch comes from recycled wood, i.e. wood scraps, wood pallets, and wood reclaimed from construction and demolition (C&D) waste. Besides the benefits of recycling waste wood materials, the reason why these wood materials are used for colored mulches is that they are very dry and readily absorb or adsorb coloring agents.
Unfortunately, some of the recycled waste wood used for making landscape mulch products is contaminated with various chemicals, such as creosote and CCA (chromated copper arsenate). CCA is the chemical that was used in the manufacturing of pressure-treated wood.
Even though arsenic-based wood preservatives were banned in 2003, there are still plenty of CCA preserved wood being re-purposed. Sometimes wood pallets that have been used in the transport of chemical agents can become contaminated by spills of these chemicals. CCA and other toxic chemicals have been found to be contaminating soil where colored mulch made from these wood products have been applied. CCA treated wood can kill beneficial soil bacteria, beneficial insects, earthworms and young plants. It can also be harmful to people spreading this mulch and animals who dig in it.
Additionally, dyed mulches break down much slower than natural mulches. The greatest advantage to using them is to reduce the expense and time required to replenish the mulch. When wood breaks down, it requires nitrogen to do so. Colored mulch can actually rob the plants of the nitrogen they need to survive. Natural mulches retain moisture and add organic material back to the soil enabling the plants to better utilize nitrogen. Avoiding the use of colored mulches reduces the risk of contamination better than any other practices. Colored pine straw may be an alternative.
It should not be assumed that all colored mulches are contaminated. However, anyone planning to use colored mulch should become familiar with the supplier and the source of the wood used in making it. If C&D waste wood is used, it should be a red flag that there is a possibility of CCA contaminated mulch.
Certified Mulch Label
If you wish to improve the chances that the dyed mulch that you are buying is safe for humans to handle look for the MSC Certification Logo on the packaging. MSC stands for Mulch and Soil Council, whose responsibility is to certify that a mulch or soil product is free of CCA-treated wood. According to MSC’s Product Certification program, “Certified mulches and soils can be found at major retailers and garden centers across the country.” If you have concerns after contacting the supplier about the source of the wood used, contact a private environmental testing lab in your area.
While reading packaging, check the source of the product. If the supplier is a land management company rather than a processing mill it may be that mature trees are being removed and shredded. These mulches are sold as “long-lasting”, “no-float” products. They have the appearance of pine straw, but are actually finely shredded cypress from the heart of trees. These are coming from properties where the bald and white cypress trees are harvested for mulch. You can tell that it isn’t pine straw because the mulch pieces lack pine needle structures such as the fascicles and a revolute shape. While the use of these products is not contaminating, it is still depleting the environment. Mulches that are natural by-products are the most Eco-friendly.
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 .
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
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:
- Sunn hemp
- Winter rye
More detailed information on cover crops and green manure can be found at this link: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/aa217.
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:
Home Lawns and Landscapes
Soil and Fertility