Snakes in the Home Landscape

Snakes in the Home Landscape

Here in Florida, we have snakes. Some may say we have lots of snakes. While their presence may be something to be expected out in wild areas, homeowners often find it alarming when these creatures show up near places where we live. The reaction is often a simple one: if it is a snake, kill it.

Dealing with snakes should not be like this, however. Although some are venomous, many others are harmless to humans and make valuable contributions to the local ecology. As more natural areas become developed, wildlife such as snakes are increasingly pushed into close contact with people, so learning to live with them is important.

Of the 46 species of snakes found in Florida, only 6 are venomous. The chances of being bitten by one of these venomous snakes is very low; there are only 7,000-8,000 bites in the entire U.S. each year. Fatalities are even more rare, with less than ten people typically dying across the country annually from venomous snakebites. In a country with a population of around 330 million, that’s not a lot.

A venomous Eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake.

Snakes, especially venomous ones, should be treated with respect, however. Knowing how to identify a snake can be an important step in knowing how to react to them, and understanding their behavior can help avoid unfortunate encounters. The venomous snakes we have in Florida are the copperhead, the coral snake, the cottonmouth or water moccasin, the Eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake, the pygmy rattlesnake, and the timber rattlesnake. For help in identifying these species, see our guide on EDIS at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/UW229.

A harmless hognose rattlesnake.

Understanding snake behavior, including their feeding habits and preferred habitats, is also important. If you can make the areas you live in less hospitable to snakes, especially venomous ones, they’ll be less likely to move in. This doesn’t mean getting rid of every snake out there – some snakes that are harmless to humans may be predators that consume other snakes (including venomous ones) or rodents. Because venomous snakes often consume rodents and other small animals, allowing the nonvenomous ones to control populations of prey can help keep dangerous snakes out!

Watch out for areas where snakes may shelter, including tall grass, overgrown shrubs, piles of brush and wood, or debris. There is no need to remove all such things from a property, as other wildlife use them as well, but keep them away from houses and areas where people frequent. Also be sure to keep rodents under control in and around buildings to avoid attracting snakes that feed on them. You can find more information on managing habitat to deal with snakes at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/UW260.

Top Tips for Vegetable Gardening in North Florida

Top Tips for Vegetable Gardening in North Florida

A good garden takes some time and effort!

Gardening in North Florida can be a challenge. Conditions in the panhandle are very different than in most other locations in the country, and learning what and how to grow takes time! Here are a few tips to help the aspiring gardener adapt to the unique climate and soils here.

  1. Know Your Varieties

Not every variety of vegetable is the same. Some differences may be obvious – a purple cabbage isn’t hard to distinguish from a green one, and a cherry tomato will never be mistaken for a beefsteak. Other differences are not so obvious, and you may have to do some research to figure out what you’re getting with a particular cultivar. Some are better adapted to growing in the heat, or may have resistances to certain diseases or pests. See the Florida Vegetable Gardener’s Guide (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/VH021) or the Vegetable Production Handbook of Florida (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/CV292) for varieties that do well in Florida.

  1. Light is Your (Plants’) Friend

Space for a garden is often limited, but remember that light can’t be! A shady location leads to unhappy vegetables. Plants produce energy by absorbing the rays of the sun, and garden plants need a lot of light to make the food we eat. If your plants are looking spindly and not producing well, look up and see what’s shading them. If possible choose a location for your garden that gets at least six hours of full sun each day. Even more is better!

  1. Plant at Proper Times

There are really two growing seasons in North Florida: spring and fall. It gets too cold for most plants in the winter, and tropical plants will especially suffer. The heat of the summer is similarly hard on a garden. Few plants can continue producing their best in the face of such high heat and humidity. Okra and peppers might soldier on through the heat, but cool-weather loving crops like peas, lettuce, and broccoli will meet defeat. Know what temperatures each plant prefers and plan your garden accordingly. Consider starting transplants indoors early to get the most growing time possible – February or March is a good time to start transplants in the spring, and September in the fall.

  1. Watch your Watering

Even watering is important for crops, and the weather rarely cooperates. The occasional drought followed by a ten inch rain can make managing irrigation a headache, but try to keep up with the weather! Remember that warmer weather causes more evaporation, and larger plants take up more water. That being said, a ten-inch rain during the summer will probably supply all the water your plants need for the day, so consider turning off the irrigation when it rains. It’s just as possible to overwater as it is to let plants dry out too much.

  1. Be Wise When you Fertilize

A raised bed is a good choice for gardening where soil is particularly sandy.

The soil in much of our area is very sandy. In some places, it’s nothing but! Highly sandy soils don’t hold on to much in the way of water or nutrients, so the gardener needs to balance their inputs to adjust for this fact. Get your soil tested so you know what nutrients are in the soil (your local Extension office can help with that). When you do fertilize, don’t dump all your plants need for the year on at once! Chances are, much of it will just wash away in the next rain. Instead, split your fertilization up into several applications over the growing season. Try also using slow-release fertilizers or organic sources of nutrients that break down over time and feed plants. You can also amend your soil with organic matter (things like compost and manure are good sources) to help add some nutrient-holding capacity. Organic matter can also help deter sandy-soil-loving nematodes, which are microscopic worms that can damage the roots of plants.

  1. Scout for Pests and Diseases

Spider mites are a tiny, but common garden pest.

Florida’s climate makes it very attractive not just for retirees, but also for all sorts of plant pests and diseases as well. Keep a close eye on your garden and deal with anything out-of-the-ordinary before a problem becomes overwhelming. Pests of all sorts, whether they are weeds, insects, or fungi, are much easier to eliminate when they’re young or in small numbers. Remember that not everything is a plant pest – some insects are beneficial predators that can keep the enemies at bay, so don’t always immediately reach for a chemical that’s going to kill everything. Natural and biorational options such as neem oil, Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt, insecticidal soap, or diatomaceous earth can work just as well as other pesticides, and can help avoid harm to pollinators and beneficials. Know the pest you’re treating before you try getting rid of it! See our EDIS publication on natural garden products (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/IN197) for more information.

Remember not to get discouraged! If you need help figuring out what’s going wrong in your garden, you can always talk to the folks at your local Extension office. There’s also plenty of other information out there – look for our other EDIS publications on a variety of topics (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/). Happy gardening!

Stinkhorn Mushrooms

Stinkhorn Mushrooms

While there are many fungi that produce mushrooms out in the world around us, there are some that are particularly notable. Edible varieties such as the lion’s mane, jelly ear, and chanterelle may be welcome additions to the landscape. We may have to look out for harmful fungi that cause leaf spots on our landscape plants, toxic mushrooms that could cause harm if ingested, or even things like sooty mold that indicate the presence of another problem (plant-damaging insects, in that case). Then, there are stinkhorn mushrooms.

Stinkhorn Mushroom. Photo courtesy of Evan Anderson.

While not poisonous (indeed, some varieties are edible) and not harmful to plants, these mushrooms are usually unwanted by homeowners. Why? There are two things that make them undesirable. First, they emit an odor that may resemble rotting meat, raw sewage, or some delightful combination of the two. Secondly, some species strongly resemble…well, the genus name Phallus may give some indication. Suffice to say that if your landscape mulch appears to have an inappropriate anatomical addition after a cool rain, you may have a stinkhorn mushroom.

These fungi are decomposers of dead plant material, breaking down wood chips, fallen leaves, or old tree stumps. This is an incredibly important role in the ecosystem, but stinkhorns are particularly offensive as they go about doing their job. The reason for their smell, specifically, is because they need to spread their spores. To do so, they attract insects. Unlike many plants which use beautiful flowers with pleasant fragrances to attract pollinators, stinkhorns attract a different crowd of helpers. They exude a slimy mass of spores that are appealing to flies and other invertebrates that enjoy feces, dead animals, and the like. The insects transport spores from place to place as they feed on the slime.

Stinkhorn Mushroom. Photo courtesy of Evan Anderson.

If you smell or see these mushrooms in your yard or landscape, don’t worry. They won’t last long and may be beneficial to the environment. If they become intolerable, stirring mulch up can help discourage their growth, or they can be removed physically (perhaps with a tool or while wearing gloves, at least). If they recur in an area time after time, look out for their early stages of growth, which may resemble puffballs or small eggs, and remove them then. Fungicides tend not to be effective and may harm other beneficial fungi in the environment.

For more information, see our EDIS publication on stinkhorn mushrooms at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/PP345.

Who’s That Piercing My Plants?

Who’s That Piercing My Plants?

There are lots of plant pests out there, and it can take a trained eye to tell which one is doing damage. Many of the insect pests that feed on crops and ornamentals have piercing-sucking mouthparts. These insects do not chew on leaves and leave holes behind; instead, they have a long stylus-like mouthpart they use like a straw to suck out plant juices. Over time this can weaken plants, cause irregular growth as damage builds up on new sprouts, introduce diseases to their hosts, and even cause mold to grow on leaves.

Because they drink so much fluid for their meals, many piercing-sucking insects exude a sugary liquid called honeydew. This liquid drops onto stems and leaves below which can leave them shiny and sticky. Eventually, the coating will grow a light greyish coating of sooty mold, which doesn’t do much harm to the plants itself but is a good indicator that you have an insect problem. You may also notice ants on your plants, working to harvest the honeydew for food. The ants don’t harm the plant, but following are some of the pests that do:

 

Aphids feeding on a plant stem.

A parasitic wasp emerging from a dead aphid.

Aphids – Found on a wide variety of plants, aphids are fat-bodied little insects that often focus on new, tender growth.  Their color depends on the plant they’re feeding on, and they can breed explosively. A female aphid does not need to mate to produce offspring, so a one can produce a lot of children very quickly. Look closely and you might be able to see their cornicles, which look like little tailpipes; these can help identify these pests. Luckily, we have some help in controlling aphids, as they are often parasitized by wasps. If you see large, swollen, brown aphids present, you probably have some wasps working for you.

 

Ants tending some scale insects on a stem.

Scale Insects – Sometimes appearing to just be a bump on a stem or leaf, scale insects don’t move once they pick a plant to live on. Prolific producers of honeydew, some species grow a waxy shell which can protect them and make them difficult to deal with.

A mealybug.

Mealybugs – If you spy something white and fluffy living on stems or leaves, you might have mealybugs. Soft-bodied insects that are related to scales, they don’t move much. They feed on a wide range of host plants, but can effectively be controlled with a variety of methods once they’re found.

Whiteflies on the underside of a leaf.

Whiteflies – Not true flies, they are truly white in color. Tiny little members of the order Hemiptera (the same order that includes, aphids, scales, and mealybugs), they hang around the undersides of leaves. They enjoy warm weather and can become a problem in greenhouses. They are a bit more difficult to control than some of the other pests listed here.

A psyllid nymph hiding in its waxy coating.

Psyllids and planthoppers – Small jumping insects that affect a variety of plant species, some are responsible for transmitting important plant diseases. Pierce’s disease of grapes and citrus greening, for example, are both vectored by these critters. Young nymphs sometimes secrete a waxy coating which may make them look similar to mealybugs.

A tiny two-spotted spider mite.

Spider Mites – Not an insect but an arachnid, spider mites love hot, dry weather. Almost microscopic in size, the damage they do to leaves is often the first sign that they are present. Looking closely, one might notice tiny webbing where the mites live, or even the mites themselves on the undersides of leaves and on stems.

Many of these pests can be treated with a combination of methods. A sharp jet of water can dislodge some, hand removal can reduce populations even more, and products such as insecticidal soap or horticultural oils can finish them off. Insecticidal soaps are best used on soft-bodied insects such as aphids or mealybugs, while oils such as neem can help suffocate hard scales. Use products such as horticultural oil in the evening during hot weather to avoid damaging plant tissues with intense sunlight. Thorough coverage is important, as these products only control the pests they contact.

For more information on controlling insects, see our EDIS publications, such as Insect Management in the Home Garden or Landscape Integrated Pest Management.

Who’s Digging Up My Yard‽

Who’s Digging Up My Yard‽

Lawns and landscapes are greening up this time of year, and it’s not just plants showing signs of activity. All sorts of creatures are out there living their lives, and some of them are doing some digging.

From little piles of dirt to big mounds and long tunnels, it can be frustrating to figure out what is disrupting your carefully tended lawn or ornamental bed. Luckily, there are differences between the possible culprits. Here are some of the possibilities (see the associated links for more information and control methods):

  • A miner bee hole. Photo: Evan Anderson

    Miner Bees (and other ground nesting bees and insects) – Miner bees are harmless, solitary bees that tunnel into the soil. Not to be mistaken for yellowjackets, each bee digs her own small nest to lay her eggs in. Multiple such bees may be attracted to the same location, but they do not form hives and aren’t aggressive. Small mounds of soil may form around the entrances to their nests, but these will vanish after a rain.

  • Mole cricket tunnels. Photo: N. Leppa

    Mole crickets – These are crickets that dig small tunnels just under the surface of the soil. Several species live in Florida, one of which is native and is not a pest. Non-native species can become pests of turfgrass.

  • Moles – Small mammals (not rodents) that produce raised tunnels along the surface of the ground. They forage for insects among the roots of plants, and while their presence does have some benefits, many homeowners dislike their aesthetic contributions to the landscape. If you can overlook their tunnels, they do help aerate soil and eat pests like mole crickets, grubs, ant larvae, caterpillars, and slugs.
  • Pocket Gophers – Sometimes called “sandymounders” or “salamanders” by old-timers, these are small rodents that dig tunnels beneath the ground. Active especially in cooler months, they make a series of mounds of soil in a line along their tunnel as they excavate. They feed on roots, bulbs, and tubers, though their sand-mounding is often more a problem than their feeding.
  • A fire ant mound in the landscape. Photo: B. Drees

    Fire Ants – A single ant isn’t particularly threatening, but fire ants have found that thousands of rage-filled friends make a good deterrent. They build large mounds of soil to help regulate temperature and moisture in their nests, which can be quite unsightly in the landscape. Disturbing these mounds will unleash hordes of stinging ants, so beware; while they don’t necessarily do any harm to plants, they aren’t terribly friendly neighbors.

  • Squirrels -These tree-dwelling rodents may nest up in the boughs, but often come down to the ground to look for food. In doing so, they may dig small holes as they forage for nuts, seeds, and fungi. The holes they dig are typically shallow and usually not too much of a problem.
  • Armadillos – Nocturnal and heavily armored, the armadillo forages for insects in the ground. While it may sound beneficial to have an animal removing all the pest insects around, they aren’t careful about the damage they do while they feed. A hungry armadillo can dig numerous 3-5 inch wide, 1-3 inch deep holes in a lawn overnight, and may also burrow under structures, driveways, and patios.
  • Yellowjackets – Yellowjackets are a bit of an honorable mention for this list, due to the fact that their digging often goes unseen. These ground-dwelling hornets leave no mounds or raised tunnels to identify their nests by. Instead, a small hole is often the only indication they are present, until a person or pet disturbs them. Then…surprise! It’s time for stinging, screaming, and crying.

For animal pests, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission maintains a list of nuisance wildlife trappers at https://public.myfwc.com/HGM/NWT/NWTSearch.aspx. For insects, you may need to contact a local pest control specialist or company. For help in identifying a problem, contact your local Extension office.