Tips for Getting a Non-Irrigated Lawn through a Drought

Tips for Getting a Non-Irrigated Lawn through a Drought

For a state that receives around 60” of rainfall a year, it is sure dry in Florida right now!  In the Panhandle, the majority of our annual rainfall occurs in in bunches during winter and early spring via near-weekly cold fronts, in the mid-summer as a result of afternoon thunderstorms, and periodically in late summer/early fall if a tropical system crosses our path.  Mixed in, however, are two distinct, historically dry periods: the first one in April through mid-May (contrary to popular myth, if we have May flowers, they’re gonna have to make it without April showers) and the second right now in September and October.  The prolonged second dry period that we’re experiencing now makes it difficult to manage the mostly unirrigated, low-input turfgrass common in rural Panhandle lawns and pastures.  It is critical to enter these expected droughts with healthy turf and remembering to employ 3 simple management tips when it quits raining (although you should follow them year-round ideally) can greatly increase your turf’s resiliency!

Unirrigated Centipdedegrass turf showing drought stress- Photo courtesy of the author.

Water Wisely – The average Florida turfgrass requires ¾-1” of water per week and we generally achieve that through rainfall.  However, in our droughty months, supplemental irrigation can be a lawn saver, particularly in high traffic or more stressed areas of the yard.  I realize that many of you, myself included, maintain large lawns without irrigation systems and it’s impossible to keep all your lawn well-watered during drought, but you can maintain the areas around your home, hardscapes and landscaped beds with the highest impact/visibility nicely!  In these areas, put down no more than ¾” of water per irrigation event, a ballpark number that ordinarily allows the turf root zone to become saturated.  Measuring your sprinkler’s water output is easily done by setting several straight-sided cans (tuna or cat food containers work great) under the sprinkler and timing how long it takes to achieve 3/4”.  You might be surprised how much water you waste by leaving a sprinkler running for an hour or more!

Apply Herbicides Appropriately – Herbicides are a great item to have in the turf care toolbox, but if used incorrectly can be a waste of time and money at best, harmful to your turf at worst! Once turf and associated weeds become drought stressed (turning bluish gray, obvious wilting, leaves curling, etc.), it is too late for weed control with herbicides.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, when plants get stressed, they slow or stop their growth and focus on survival.  This survival response prevents herbicides from being taken up properly and ultimately causes ineffectual weed control.  Also, many herbicides specifically state on the product label that they should not be applied during certain conditions (drought, temperatures above 85-90 degrees, etc.).  It is critical that one adhere to these label directions as applying the incorrect product in hot and dry conditions can cause volatility, drift to non-target plants, and in some cases, toxicity to turf you’re treating in.  When it’s droughty like it is now, leave the herbicides in the chemical shed to prevent wasting your time and money and potentially damaging non-target plants!

Unirrigated Centipedegrass turf showing drought stress – photo courtesy of the author

Raise that Deck – Finally, one of the most important turf management strategies during an extended drought is to reduce mowing and raise your mower’s cutting height when/if you do mow.  As mentioned above, plants are already stressed during a drought and physically chopping off a chunk of the turf plant stresses it further, causing an energy-intensive wound response when the plant is actively conserving resources for survival.  Therefore, if you just HAVE to mow, raise the cutting height as high as possible to make the smallest injury possible on the grass and keep your mower blades sharp to ensure a clean cut, which will heal easier and require a smaller energy response from the plant.

During droughts like the one we’re currently in, there isn’t one silver bullet to keep your non-irrigated turf looking good.  However, there are several strategies you can use throughout the year to get your lawn through dry times.  Remember to water ¾”-1” per week when you can, where you can.  Before you water, calibrate your sprinkler to ensure you put out enough water and don’t waste your time and inflate your utility bill by putting out too much! Reduce or eliminate use of herbicides as they are ineffective during stress periods and can harm your turfgrass.  Finally, reduce or eliminate mowing and if you must mow, raise the deck!  If you have any questions about getting your turf through the drought or other horticultural or agronomic topics, please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office!

Pomegranates in the Panhandle

Pomegranates in the Panhandle

Last week at the Panhandle Fruit and Vegetable Conference, Dr. Ali Sarkhosh presented on growing pomegranate in Florida.  The pomegranate (Punica granatum) is native to central Asia.  The fruit made its way to North America in the 16th century.  Given their origin, it makes sense that fruit quality is best in regions with cool winters and hot, dry summers (Mediterranean climate).  In the United States, the majority of pomegranates are grown in California.  However, the University of Florida, with the help of Dr. Sarkhosh, is conducting research trials to find out which varieties do best in our state.

In the wild, pomegranate plants are dense, bushy shrubs growing between 6-12 feet tall with thorny branches.  In the garden, they can be trained as small single trunk trees from 12-20 feet tall or as slightly shorter multi-trunk (3 to 5 trunks) trees.  Pomegranate plants have beautiful flowers and can be utilized as ornamentals that also bear fruit.  In fact, there are a number of varieties on the market for their aesthetics alone.  Pomegranate leaves are glossy, dark green, and small.  Blooms range from orange to red (about 2 inches in diameter) with crinkled petals and lots of stamens.  The fruit can be yellow, deep red, or any color in between depending on variety.  The fruit are round with a diameter from 2 to 5 inches.

 Fruit, aril, and juice characteristics of four pomegranate cultivars grown in Florida; fruit harvested in August 2018. a) ‘Vkusnyi’, b) ‘Crab’, c) ‘Mack Glass’, d) ‘Ever Sweet’.

Fruit, aril, and juice characteristics of four pomegranate cultivars grown in Florida; fruit harvested in August 2018. a) ‘Vkusnyi’, b) ‘Crab’, c) ‘Mack Glass’, d) ‘Ever Sweet’. Photo Credit: Ali Sarkhosh, University of Florida/IFAS

A common commercial variety, ‘Wonderful’, is widely grown in California but does not perform well in Florida’s hot and humid climate.  Cultivars that have performed well in Florida include: ‘Vkusnyi’; ‘Crab’; ‘Mack Glass’; and ‘Ever Sweet’.  Pomegranates are adapted to many soil types from sands to clays, however yields are lower on sandy soils and fruit color is poor on clay soils.  They produce best on well-drained soils with a pH range from 5.5 to 7.0.  The plants should be irrigated every 7 to 10 days if a significant rain event doesn’t occur.  Flavor and fruit quality are increased when irrigation is gradually reduced during fruit maturation.  Pomegranates are tolerant of some flooding, but sudden changes to irrigation amounts or timing may cause fruit to split.

Two pomegranate training systems: single trunk on the left and multi-trunk on the right.

Two pomegranate training systems: single trunk on the left and multi-trunk on the right. Photo Credit: Ali Sarkhosh, University of Florida/IFAS

Pomegranates establish best when planted in late winter or early spring (February – March).  If you plan to grow them as a hedge (shrub form), space plants 6 to 9 feet apart to allow for suckers to fill the void between plants.  If you plan to plant a single tree or a few trees then space the plants at least 15 feet apart.  If a tree form is desired, then suckers will need to be removed frequently.  Some fruit will need to be thinned each year to reduce the chances of branches breaking from heavy fruit weight.

Pomegranate fruit affected by anthracnose.

Anthracnose caused by Colletotrichum sp. to pomegranate fruit. Photo Credit: Gary Vallad, University of Florida/IFAS

Anthracnose is the most common disease of pomegranates.  Symptoms include small, circular, reddish-brown spots (0.25 inch diameter) on leaves, stems, flowers, and fruit.  Copper fungicide applications can greatly reduce disease damage.  Common insects include scales and mites.  Sulfur dust can be used for mite control and horticultural oil can be used to control scales.

Rebounding a Lawn in Decline May Start with a Simple Fix

Rebounding a Lawn in Decline May Start with a Simple Fix

Seldom do we find the answer to a problem as being easy. More often, a difficult and complicated answer is what’s needed. However, the solution to a healthy lawn rebound may be found simply by adjusting your mower height and mowing schedule.

Mowing strategy is an important variable that keeps a lawn healthy and flourishing, no matter the species or cultivar of grass. Mowing too high can lead to an undesirable look and cause unwanted thatch buildup, which can create a favorable environment for pests and diseases. Mowing too low can weaken the root system causing thinning, which allows space for weeds to invade. Another problem with mowing too low is that it affects nutritional needs. Lawn grasses generate food for themselves through a process called photosynthesis. A healthy leaf surface area is needed to effectively accomplish this. If the lawn is mowed too low, then leaf surface area is lost. The grass can literally starve itself.

Table: Suggested mowing height for lawn grasses. Frequency of cut will vary based on species and time of year. Credit: L. E. Trenholm, J. B. Unruh & J. L. Cisar, UF/IFAS Extensio

Not all lawn grasses should be mowed at the same height, as show in the table above. Fine textured grasses like Bermuda and Zoysia matrella can be cut significantly lower than coarse textured grasses, such as Bahia or St. Augustine. Not sure of the type of lawn grass you have? Visit this site https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_book_florida_lawn_handbook_3rd_ed to review the Florida Lawn Handbook or contact your local county extension office for questions.

Mowing schedule is the other side of the coin. How often to mow ultimately depends on how fast your grass grows. By nature, Bermuda will grow quickly and Zoysia is somewhat slower growing. Regardless, summer months are when warm-season lawn grasses grow more rapidly. Historically, lawn grasses begin a dormant-slow growth stage in October and continues through March. Fertilizer schedule also plays a role in grass growth rate. So how often do you need to mow?  This rate is best determined by the amount of growth since the last cutting, rather than the number of days which have elapsed.  You should mow often enough so that no more than 1/4 to 1/3 of the total leaf surface is removed at any given mowing. In other words, leave twice as much leaf surface as you cut off. Remember, incremental adjustments should be made to your current practices. Never drastically change the height of the grass. If the lawn has been allowed to grow too long, you should gradually lower the mowing height on successive cuttings.

What are some other helpful tips? Always use a well-adjusted mower with a sharpened blade. You may find it easier replace your blade each year or every 2 years than periodic resharpening. Dull mower blades do a tremendous amount of damage with uneven cuts. This will cause gashes and splits in the leaf where fungal and bacterial pathogens can thrive. Never mow grass when it’s wet, either. Dry grass cuts are cleaner cuts and won’t clog the mower deck. If you have built up thatch, it’s a good idea to attach a bag to your mower that will catch clippings. These clippings will be great additions to your compost pile or to use as natural mulch. If no thatch problems exist, mowing without a bag will distribute clippings throughout the lawn, and the clippings will decompose into nutrients for the root system.

With proper mowing strategies, along with fertilizing & watering, your lawn grass can bounce back. For more information contact your local county extension office.

Information for this article provided by the UF/IFAS Extension EDIS Publication, “Mowing Your Florida Lawn”, by L. E. Trenholm, J. B. Unruh & J. L. Cisar: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/LH/LH02800.pdf

UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.

Add Some Cajun to Your Garden with ‘Jambalaya’ Okra!

Add Some Cajun to Your Garden with ‘Jambalaya’ Okra!

Though Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) fruit isn’t much more than a thick green hull, slime and seeds and the plant itself is impossibly irritating to the skin, few plants are as integral to Southern heritage.  In my mind, okra is among the best vegetables Panhandle gardeners can grow.  Not only is it a gorgeous plant – Okra belongs to the Mallow family which also includes beauties like Hibiscus and Cotton – but it’s exceedingly versatile in the kitchen, excellent fried, grilled, roasted, boiled (though you have to acquire a taste for slimy textures to enjoy this method) and most famously, as a thickening agent in Cajun gumbo.  Because of this exalted status in Southern culture, whether you enjoy eating okra or not, it’s almost mandatory here to include the plant in one’s garden.  Most gardeners stick with the old standard varieties such as ‘Clemson Spineless’ or ‘Cowhorn’ and there is nothing wrong with them, however, these plants are almost too prolific for most gardens (growing upwards of 6-7’), especially for those of us growing in the close confines of raised beds.  In the search for a less rambunctious but still ultra-productive cultivar, this summer I trialed ‘Jambalaya’, an F1 hybrid developed by Sakata Seed in 2012, with impressive results!

‘Jambalaya’ Okra in the author’s garden.

From my experience growing the cultivar this summer, ‘Jambalaya’ merits consideration in the garden, and is a must for raised bed gardeners, for two primary reasons.  First, it was bred to be compact and is considered a dwarf cultivar.  This is an awesome attribute, as I typically end the growing season picking okra from a small ladder!  Most seed purveyors tout the plant as reaching a maximum height of 3-4’ and while this estimate might be a little conservative, I can attest that ‘Jambalaya’ is greatly reduced in height compared to the standard cultivars.  The second advantage of growing this variety is that it begins producing very early relative to its peers and bears heavily.  ‘Jambalaya’ fruit begin to ripen in about 50 days, about ten days to two weeks earlier than ‘Clemson Spineless’, a definite advantage if rotating behind a late maturing spring crop like potatoes as I typically do.  Though ‘Jambalaya’ is a dwarf plant, in no way are yields reduced.  My specimens have produced continuously since late-July and will continue to do so as long as adequate fertility and consistent harvesting are provided.

‘Jambalaya’ flower & fruit production.

Like any other okra cultivar, ‘Jambalaya’ has a couple of basic requirements that must be met for plants to thrive.  In general, all okra cultivars love Southern summers and patience sowing seed is recommended, allow the soil to warm to at least 70 degrees before planting.  Okra also prefers full sun, at least 6 hours per day, any less and yields will be reduced and plants will stretch towards the light.  Belonging to the Mallow family, okra requires consistent moisture, particularly when in the flowering and fruiting phase.  Finally, it is critical to keep up with your okra harvest as the plants produce!  Okra pods grow quickly and should be harvested when they are no more than 3-4” long and still tender, larger pods are tough to the point of being inedible!

‘Jambalaya’ in the author’s garden.

Whether you’re new to the okra growing game or you’re a seasoned gumbo gardener, I highly encourage you to give ‘Jambalaya’ Okra a look next summer.  While ‘Jambalaya’ is available through many seed sources, Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells a conveniently small package perfect for backyard gardeners, though they’ll be happy to provide larger quantities as well.  In ‘Jambalaya’ you’ll find a nice compact plant that won’t outgrow your space, provide you a summer long harvest of tender green pods, and will rival the ornamentals in your landscape for the title of prettiest plant on your property!  Happy gardening and as always, if you have questions about vegetable gardening or any other horticultural or agronomic topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office!

Backflow Preventers: An Important Link Between Gardeners and the Potable Water Supply

Backflow Preventers: An Important Link Between Gardeners and the Potable Water Supply

Horticulture Extension Agents are asked a wide variety of questions, from plant identification to erosion control, from herbicide selection to water regulation. We’re usually expected to know the answer on the spot, too. We’re also expected to write a lot and share information with the public. Well, oftentimes, those factors come together to give us writing inspiration. A challenging question leads to research and gathering of information, which leads to an answer that should be shared so others can learn from it. A recent question regarding the use and regulation of backflow preventers from a longtime gardener inspired my latest knowledge quest and what I found seemed important enough to share with other gardeners.

I would guess that backflow preventers probably aren’t a common item on people’s minds, unless you’re a plumber or in the water supply business. However, backflow prevention devices help ensure that when we turn on the tap to drink, cook, clean, flush, bathe, and yes, garden, that the water isn’t contaminated.

These larger backflow preventers are required to be installed and regularly inspected for certain plumbing systems. They usually hide under utility boxes or fake rocks. Credit: UF/IFAS.

Backflow preventers do just what their name implies, they prevent backflow. Backflow in a plumbing system happens when pressure in another part of the system drops, causing water from other locations to move in to equalize the pressure difference. This can be a problem in a potable water system when the main line loses pressure and water from a contaminated line is pulled in to the main line, potentially contaminating many users water. This can happen when a pipe breaks or during fire-fighting activities, for example. Contaminants of concern include chemical and biological agents, such as heavy metals, industrial compounds, bacteria, and pesticides.

Many of our indoor fixtures have built-in backflow preventers, such as toilets and bathtubs. Exterior backflow preventers, usually found under boxes or fake rocks near the water connection, are required for plumbing systems considered to be more of a hazard risk or where higher pressures could more easily flow back into the line. Examples of such plumbing systems include those with fire-fighting systems, hospitals, several-storied buildings, those associated with certain industrial processes, and, finally back to gardening, irrigation systems. In 1990, the Florida Building Code required that all residential irrigation systems include a backflow preventer. While the Florida Building Code also requires backflow preventers on all hose connections, i.e. spigots, many residential homeowners do not have these in place nor do water suppliers have the budgets to inspect each home’s spigots. A survey of 200 homes in the Midwest during 2002 found that 91% of homeowners did not have a backflow preventer attached to their spigots. I’m not sure north Florida would fare much better.

Gardeners should be aware of this responsibility and go ahead and install a backflow preventer on their outdoor spigots. This is especially true for those that use hose-end fertilizer or pesticide applicators, mix pesticides, or leave a pressurized hose connected to a sprinkler or other device. In addition to chemicals, all sorts of bacteria, algae, and other contaminants can grow in or enter a hose and get sucked back into the house’s line or, worse, the public supply line.

Backflow preventers are cheap and easy to install. A simple brass backflow preventer that connects between the spigot and the hose runs from $3 to $10 and will typically last for several years. You know it’s still working when water leaks out of the backflow preventer as you turn the spigot off. That’s a pretty easy and inexpensive fix to make sure the potable water source stays clean.

A simple and inexpensive hose bibb/spigot backflow preventer can help gardeners protect their potable water supply. Credit: Univ. S. Cal.

For more information on backflow prevention devices, and to keep writing ideas coming in, please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.

Getting Impatient with Disease Prone Impatiens?  Try Browallia Instead!

Getting Impatient with Disease Prone Impatiens? Try Browallia Instead!

As an unabashed plant enthusiast who’s been experimenting with new plant introductions (some not really “new”, just new to me) in his own landscape, and his parent’s yard before that (sorry guys for the ‘Charmed Wine’ Oxalis that now pops up unwanted every spring) for nearly two decades now, at this point I’m pretty hard to impress.  However, last year Andrea Schnapp, a UF/IFAS Walton County Master Gardener, introduced me to a newish plant that has since changed the way I choose plants to color shady pots and planting beds, a little native of tropical South America called Bush Violet (Browallia spp.), specifically the hybrid ‘Endless Illumination’.

Browallia ‘Endless Illumination’ on the author’s back porch.

For decades, the standard bedding plant for color in the shade in the Deep South has been Impatiens walleriana.  However, in the last few years, a new disease called Impatiens Downy Mildew has wreaked habit on the bedding plant species, virtually eliminating it as a serious player in the horticulture industry.  Fortunately, the fine folks at Proven Winners introduced ‘Endless Illumination’ a couple of years ago to fill the niche formerly occupied by old-fashioned Impatiens.  And boy, is ‘Endless Illumination’ aptly named.  The unending masses of star shaped flowers are an absolutely brilliant purple hue that does indeed light up shady areas in the landscape.  I’ve encountered few plants put forth such a proliferous display of flowers for as long of a time as this Browallia selection has, and it doesn’t even require deadheading!

Browallia ‘Endless Illumination’ flowers.

In addition to having one of the more striking color displays of any bedding plant, Browallia happens to be a vigorous grower with an extremely hardy constitution.  I’ve found ‘Endless Illumination’s mature size as listed on the sales tag as being a little conservative, instead of the 16” tall x 14” wide stated, my samples have consistently grown more than the 16” listed in height and doubled the width, no complaints here as this just means more flowers!  And though my experience with Browallia has strictly been in containers so far, it has weathered heat and bounced back from drought like a champ.  It’s not super important to know that the container it occupies is sited under my back porch roof and therefore is subjected to human induced drought by my forgetting to water it, good performance in droughty conditions is good performance in droughty conditions!  Finally, Browallia requires the bare minimum of fertilizer to thrive.  A good topdressing of a slow-release fertilizer (rates according to the product’s label, of course) at planting and an identical refresher dose mid-summer have induced great performance and no noticeable nutrient deficiencies.

Browallia ‘Endless Illumination’ flowers

A quick note before we adjourn, when perusing nurseries next spring for Browallia, you’ll likely encounter the sister cultivar of ‘Endless Illumination’ with white flowers, named ‘Endless Flirtation’.  I’d encourage you to stick with the purple flowers of ‘Endless Illumination’ as I’ve found, through personal growing experience and anecdotes from other growers, ‘Endless Flirtation’ to be noticeably fussier than and not nearly as attractive as its sister plant.

Sometimes, the misfortunes of one plant are a merely an opportunity for another plant to claim its place in the flower bed.  Browallia ‘Endless Illumination’ has taken the spot occupied by Impatiens walleriana and quickly become a garden favorite.  Look for this awesome little annual in garden centers next spring!  And remember, if you have any questions about this newly introduced plant or any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office!  Happy gardening!