Bright color is sometimes hard to come by in landscapes, especially in those areas where not much likes to grow. In particularly sandy areas along our coastlines, it can be a challenge to find plants that can both tolerate extremely dry conditions with heavy salt spray and provide an aesthetic boost. Luckily, there is at least one flower out there that goes above and beyond when it comes to beauty.
Gaillardia pulchella, or blanket flower, Indian blanket flower, firewheel, or sundance is a relatively low growing (up to 1.5 feet tall) plant that favors conditions that would make most plants wither. It grows as an annual or short-lived perennial and though it goes dormant in the winter, during warm weather, it’s bright and colorful! It is native to the United States, but probably never spread farther east than Texas until assisted by humans. It grows well throughout Florida, and can often be seen along roadsides.
Spreading to around two feet wide, each individual plant may not blanket the ground, but it readily produces seed which is easy to germinate. Flowers are produced throughout the growing season. Varieties are available with different appearances, though all tend to be some combination of bright yellow and dusky red. The blossoms can be used as cut flowers, or left in the landscape to attract pollinators.
Blanket flower prefers well-drained soil, even growing out into beach dunes. As stated previously, it may be propagated easily by seed; either let dried seed heads remain on the plant long enough to drop seeds or harvest them to plant elsewhere. Sow seeds in the spring and enjoy low-maintenance color for months after!
If you enjoy time spent outdoors, chances are you’ve come across a plant or two that has caused you to say, “That’s interesting! I wonder what that is?”. Identifying the plants you’re looking at can be a challenge, unless you happen to be a botanist. Even a handy book or reference guide can leave some room for confusion. You can always bring a picture or sample of a plant to your local extension office for help, but we also have some new tools available to help with identification. With the development of artificially intelligent software, we have apps on our cell phones that can do amazing things, including identifying living organisms.
There are a lot of options available, however, and cutting through the clutter is hard. To help decide which apps are the most trustworthy and effective, read on! Here are some plant identification apps that stand out currently:
Free. Runs on Android devices (6.0 or later) or iOS devices (12.0 or later). This app requires an account, and combines artificial intelligence (AI) identification with a community of “citizen scientists” online who can help to confirm results.
Free to download, with a $2.99 monthly charge, $19.99 yearly charge, or $39.99 lifetime subscription for their premium version. Runs on Android devices (5.0 or later) and iOS devices (12.0 or later). PlantSnap relies on AI to identify plants using a database of over 600,000 plants and fungi.
Free to download, 7 day free trial with $29.99 premium access. Works on Android devices (5.0 or later) and iOS devices (13.0 or later). AI provides immediate identification of over 10,000 plant species.
Free to download, with a $7.99 monthly fee or $35.99 yearly subscription. Works on Android devices (8.1 or later) or iOS devices (14.5 or later). Specifically tailored to houseplants, Planta includes plant identification as well as a light meter, care guides, and automatic reminders for houseplant care.
Free. Works with Android devices (6.0 or later) and iOS devices (14.0 or later). Among many other functionalities such as searching for consumer products, Google Lens is able to use its AI to identify plants.
Free. Usable only on iOS devices (15.0 or later). Included with the iOS 15.0 system, simply tap the info button on a photograph of a plant and then the leaf icon that appears. The iOS system will use its AI to attempt to identify the plant in question.
There are plenty more options out there and, as AI develops, more are undoubtedly on the way! Remember that not every identification, regardless of the software’s quality, might be accurate. Rare plants or those with many similar look-alikes could be mistaken. Use caution with these tools, especially for plants that might be harmful or toxic. While these can be a good starting point, it’s always a good idea to consult a knowledgeable human being (such as an Extension Agent or Master Gardener Volunteer) to be sure about any plant’s identity. Happy IDing!
How many blissful summer days have been disrupted in Florida by biting or stinging insects? More than a few. Mosquitoes, fire ants, yellow flies, dog flies, no-see-ums, yellowjackets, and more all live in our area and are either gleefully happy to violently defend their territory or actively seeking people out as food. One more creature to add to the list, though it is technically an arachnid rather than an insect, is the chigger.
Chiggers, also known colloquially as red bugs, are the larvae of mites in the family Trombiculidae. They are difficult to see, even as adults, because of their diminutive size. They’re tiny. So tiny, in fact, that you may not be able to feel them even if they’re crawling all over you. They don’t seem to have any claustrophobia, rather enjoying the tightest spaces under clothing and spots where skin is thin and tender. This leads to bites in some very uncomfortable places. When they bite, chiggers temporarily attach themselves to their host and inject a digestive fluid into the skin. This triggers an immune response in people; our bodies don’t seem to like being partially digested and sucked up by tiny critters. Even if the body’s response means the mite doesn’t finish its meal, it still leaves a mark. Different people may have varying sensitivity to the bites, but it is never a pleasant experience. Itching sets in four to eight hours after the bites, which may be accompanied by red welts or bumps on the skin. Severe reactions may lead to fever.
Chiggers do not attach themselves permanently to people, nor do they burrow under the skin. If you’re lucky enough to discover any mites still biting you, take a hot shower and lather with soap several times. Nail polish applied to the bites will not help, though strangely enough meat tenderizer may help with the itching. Antiseptic is always a good idea as well, and if you’re short on meat tenderizer, an over-the-counter anti-itch product will serve too.
To avoid running afoul of chiggers, be aware that they are most likely to be found in low, damp areas outdoors with shrubby vegetation. They may be found elsewhere, but one persistent myth is that they like to inhabit Spanish moss. In reality, they don’t have any particular attraction to it.
Thankfully, insect repellants that contain DEET repel chiggers as well as other pests. For maximum effectiveness on chiggers, apply repellants to sleeves and cuffs of pants, as well as waistlines.
As the weather warms up, people will be outside tending to their landscapes more often. Part of that tending involves a simple thing that everyone knows plants need: water. And that is correct! Plants DO need water, and most of them need it regularly. However, even with the sandy soils in our area that drain quickly, it is possible to overwater your plants!
It is not uncommon to have a dry spell in the spring or fall in North Florida. Weeks may pass by with little or no rain, until the summer rains settle in. People may set their irrigation systems to deal with the lack of rain, but then forget to change the settings once the water isn’t needed. When plants receive too much water, we see a number of things happen. Trees and shrubs may appear to be deficient of nutrients, displaying yellowed leaves. They may die back and have a patchy appearance. Sprinklers that run constantly and splash water on leaves may increase the number of fungal diseases that plants get. Lawns that stay too damp may start seeing moisture-loving weeds such as dollarweed pop up in profusion. Luckily, we do have some guidelines for how much we should water.
For lawns or landscape plants, it is important to know what plants you are dealing with. Different plants have different needs when it comes to irrigation. Plants should be grouped by their water (and light) needs in a landscape, and irrigation zones should be set with those groupings in mind. Plants that enjoy or tolerate more water include wax myrtle, yaupon holly, swamp sunflower, swamp milkweed, pond cypress, and river birch. Others enjoy drier and well-drained soils, such as yucca, oleander, false rosemary, and turkey oak. To help determine the cultural needs of various plants, try consulting the Florida Friendly Landscaping Guide to Plant Selection and Landscape Design or the Florida Native Plant Society’s website.
When deciding whether or not to irrigate, one thing to pay attention to is the weather. All too often sprinkler systems will continue to run despite the weather – even in the middle of a thunderstorm! Install a rainfall shutoff device or make sure yours is functioning properly to avoid this. Overwatering can lead to unhealthy plants, disease issues, and weed problems.
It can help to learn what a thirsty lawn looks like. Turfgrass that needs a drink will fold up its leaves, become dull bluish-green in color, and footprints will remain instead of the grass springing back. When signs of drought stress are evident, it’s time to water.
How much to water? The recommended amount is ½ to ¾ inch of water per application. Different irrigation emitters put out different amounts of water over time, so some measurement is necessary. Put out some small, straight-sided cans such as tuna or cat food cans in the area to be measured, run the irrigation for 15 minutes, and then measure how deep the water is in the cans. If you’ve collected ¼ inch of water in that time, you’ll know that you need to run the system for 30-45 minutes to give your lawn a thorough watering.
For more watering tips, there is plenty of information available. Check out these links:
Every spring, a certain type of pollinator is busy in the yards and landscapes of our area. It may be alarming to see small piles of soil mounded up amidst carefully tended grass, but there is no need for concern. In fact, quite the opposite! The creatures making those mounds are bees, but they’re not the type that want to sting you. Instead, they’re harmless, solitary pollinators who just want a safe place to lay their eggs.
It’s easy to confuse a bee digging in the lawn or landscape for a yellowjacket and become alarmed. Yellowjackets are very different; they form hives underground consisting of hundreds or even thousands of individual hornets. Miner bees, on the other hand, each dig their own small burrow. Each miner bee is looking for the same sort of place to build a little hidey hole, so many individuals might be attracted to an area with prime real estate, so to speak. This can lead to large numbers of mounds in close proximity to one another, but again, there is no reason to be alarmed.
Each female bee will dig a vertical tunnel up to a foot and a half deep, then make side chambers lined with waterproof material. She stocks each chamber with pollen and nectar, then lays her eggs. Larvae remain in the ground until the following spring. When they emerge as adults, they start the whole process over again.
It is important to understand and protect pollinators such as the miner bee, because they all provide a valuable service to the environment. Pollinators ensure that all the plants around us can reproduce, by carrying genetic material from one flower to another. You can help these little messengers in their task by learning about their habits and making a little room for them in your landscape. When you see these small mounds of soil in your yard, don’t worry! The bees will do their job and the next rain will likely wash away the soil.
Consider attracting other pollinators as well! Plant flowers that attract native pollinators, or leave an area of your landscape “wild”. Let dead plant stalks remain over the winter as nesting sites for pollinators, or try letting a patch of native wildflowers escape mowing for some time in the spring.
For more information, there are plenty of publications out there: