Save Water, Save Money, Save Your Plants!

Save Water, Save Money, Save Your Plants!

After a relatively cold winter like the Florida panhandle has experienced the last couple of years, it’s always gratifying to see plants greening up in the spring. Anyone who enjoys the outdoors is likely to want to get out there and start helping things grow. That means it’s time to get the irrigation system up and running every day, right?

Probably not!

The conditions in our region can be harsh on plants. The soils are very sandy, meaning they don’t easily hold on to water or nutrients for plants to use. The weather ranges from freezing cold in the winter to sizzling hot in the summer. Rain might come down in 20-inch bursts or not at all for weeks at a time.

With all these challenges plants face, it’s very important to choose ones that can handle all that our environment throws at them. Native plants and those designated as “Florida Friendly” tend to be well suited for our location, but they still may need some care. They must be placed in the correct location in the landscape based on their needs for sunlight, water, and other factors. If you choose the right plant and place it in the right location, you’ll drastically reduce the amount of management that it needs on an ongoing basis. This includes watering.

While actively growing, plants – whether that means towering trees or low-growing grass – take up water through their roots and give some off in the form of water vapor through their leaves. If the amount of water in the soil is more than the plant is giving off, it doesn’t need more! Watering at these times can actually harm, rather than help. The roots of overwatered plants typically start to die back, which can lead to symptoms such as patchy dieback of foliage or what may look like nutrient deficiency. Overwatered areas might also see an uptick in water-loving weeds such as dollarweed, which will be difficult to control unless the area is dried out a bit.

Set irrigation systems to water early in the morning rather than at midday, and make sure they water plants, not walls.

It is tempting to think that our sandy soils drain quickly enough to make watering a constant necessity, but remember! We’ve already chosen plants that survive well in our location. Even our turfgrasses are chosen for their ability to withstand drought. There may only be three or four months out of a year that become dry enough to warrant extra irrigation at all, and even then, it’s probably less than most people expect!

For lawns, a general rule is to water only when the grass is showing signs of drought stress. Leaf blades may fold up lengthwise, the lawn’s color may become duller, and footprints in the turf persist rather than springing back. If the turf needs watering, apply ½ to ¾ inch of water per irrigation – that’s all!

Improperly calibrated irrigation systems can do more harm than good.

To figure out how much that is, set several small, empty straight-edged cans such as cat food tins or tuna cans out in the lawn. Run the irrigation for a set period of time to see how much water collects. This will also highlight any inconsistencies in watering, so you can try to adjust your irrigation system to water evenly by replacing broken nozzles and making sure the whole area is covered with no gaps or overlaps. Make sure the irrigation system is equipped with a rainfall shutoff device as well, to automatically stop watering when it rains (which it often does regularly).

Overwatered shrubs may display patchy dieback or yellowing leaves.

For landscape plants such as trees and shrubs, you may not need any supplemental irrigation at all unless there is a severe drought. Know your plants’ needs and keep an eye on the weather. Droughts, if we do have them, usually occur in the spring or fall in our area. During the summer, daily rainstorms often allow us to keep our irrigation systems off for months at a time!

Water appropriately and you may notice a reduction in your water bill, fewer plants that need to be replaced, and fewer water-loving weeds. You’ll also help the environment by reducing runoff into water bodies.

For more information on watering, contact your local Extension office. There is also a wealth of information to be found online, with resources such as the Florida Friendly Landscaping program and UF’s EDIS publications (see “Watering Your Florida Lawn”, for example). Happy watering!




On occasion, homeowners report being troubled by certain slimy visitors to their gardens. Perhaps not the first pest most people would think about in their landscapes, snails are nonetheless a source of frustration for some. While many species are harmless or even beneficial, some can make a nuisance of themselves by munching on plants, or even just congregating in large numbers.

Just sighting a snail is not always cause for alarm. Snails are gastropods, a type of mollusc that is closely related to slugs. Snails may be found in the water or on land, and terrestrial species are often seen in areas where moisture is plentiful. Many feed on decaying organic matter, doing the important job of breaking down dead material in the environment. Others may eat living plants, and can cause consternation when they chew holes in the leaves of vegetables or ornamentals. A few may even act as predators, such as the native rosy wolf snail, which attacks other snails.

Farmers have found difficulty in dealing with Bulimulus sporadicus, a species introduced from the West Indies. This species is often found in moist areas, and seems to prefer feeding on decaying plant matter rather than live plants. However, it is prolific and gregarious, with large populations appearing on walls, fences, irrigation emitters, and on plants. Peanut growers may have difficulty screening the shells, which are around the same size as a peanut, from their harvest. Growers relying on irrigation to water their crops may find nozzles clogged by snails seeking out moisture. And homeowners may find their homes polka-dotted with dozens of these little creatures.

When snails get together, it may be an alarming sight. Bulimulus sporadicus doesn’t seem to damage plants, but does like to congregate. Photo credit: Danielle Sprague

If you are having trouble with snails, consider trying to reduce areas of higher humidity that they may shelter in. Mulch, dead vegetation, or weedy areas can all hold moisture, making happy homes for slugs and snails. While it may be difficult or almost impossible to control humidity, denying pests their shelter can help to keep them away.

Commercial repellents are available. Copper fungicides may protect plants from fungal diseases as well as leave residues that snails find distasteful. Hydrated lime or sulfur dust at the base of plants can repel snails, though be aware that they may have an effect on the pH of the soil if used in large amounts, or over time.

Traps can be of some help in reducing snail populations. A dish with steep sides, sunk into the ground and baited with something attractive, may be able to trap snails in it. Beer, fruit, or leafy greens like lettuce can work, though they may also attract raccoons or other animals.

Some baits containing molluscicides may also be available, but these may or may not be effective.

For more information, see our EDIS publication on terrestrial snails here:

The Gulf Frittilary Butterfly

The Gulf Frittilary Butterfly

Migratory animals are no stranger to our neck of the woods. Every year, Florida is host to countless creatures as they make their way from one place to another in search of food, nesting sites, or just a change of scene. From hummingbirds to manatees, it can be interesting to watch the annual cycle of nomadic animals.

A gulf frittilary butterfly.

One of the smaller wayfarers we see year-round, but especially when they migrate south in the fall, is the gulf frittilary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae Linnaeus. They spend the warmer months of the year in the southeastern United States, following frost-free weather as temperatures drop. During the winter, they enjoy the sunshine of peninsular Florida.

The gulf frittilary is a medium-sized butterfly, with a wingspan of 2½–3½ inches. Females are larger than males. It is bright orange in color, with black markings on the top of its wings and silvery-white spots on the bottoms. In its larval form, it is also bright orange in color, with dangerous-looking spines along the length of the caterpillar. Despite their appearance, these do not sting.

The gulf frittilary caterpillar looks dangerous, but won’t sting. Please do not eat it, however.

If given a choice its larvae will feed primarily on passionflower (Passiflora incarnata and related species), but have also been seen snacking on buttonsage. Toxins from passionflower concentrate in the larvae and butterflies, making them poisonous to predators – much like the monarch butterfly and its host plant, milkweed. The insect’s bright coloration serves as a warning that it is not to be eaten.

Keep an eye out for these beautiful butterflies and consider planting a passion vine in your landscape to help them out. The caterpillars may eat the leaves, but in giving them a feast you’ll help them grow into adult butterflies. Once they do mature, they are fantastic at pollinating many of our native wildflowers, further beautifying the world around them.

For more information see the University of Florida’s article here.

An Insect With Multiple Personalities

An Insect With Multiple Personalities

Throughout the year, people with citrus trees of any sort may notice some damage to the leaves. Chewing damage, which leaves pieces of the leaf missing, is a common sight. The likely culprit for this type of damage is an insect that is very common in our area, but seems to have multiple personalities!

The adult form of this peculiar creature is the giant swallowtail butterfly, Papilio cresphontes Cramer. A large black-and-yellow butterfly, it is found throughout the country east of the Rocky Mountains, and is present in north Florida most months of the year. Adults spend their days as many other butterflies do, flitting from flower to flower in search of nectar. They are attracted to a wide variety of blossoms, pollinating as they go.

The giant swallowtail butterfly. Photo courtesy of Donald Hall, University of Florida

Females lay tiny round eggs individually on the surface of plant leaves. Though their larvae may eat numerous types of leaves, one of their favorites seems to be those of citrus trees. This means that though the adults may be considered beneficial as pollinators, their caterpillars are often thought of as pests.

Bird poop or caterpillar? The orange dog caterpillar is, in fact, a caterpillar.

Similarly, the beauty of the adult butterfly is quite different than the appearance of their younger selves. The caterpillar of the giant swallowtail, often called the ‘orange dog’ caterpillar, relies on camouflage to keep itself safe. Even with this it displays multiple personalities, so to speak. Larvae of any age may be mistaken as bird droppings on a leaf. Their irregular patches of white and brown make them look like the leavings of a passing avian, which predators are probably likely to pass over. Older caterpillars have another trick up their sleeve, with markings on their head that mimic the head of a snake. Disturb one enough and it may even flash a forked, bright orange protuberance called the osmeterium, which may resemble the tongue of a snake. This gland also emits a musky odor to make the insect even less attractive to potential predators.

Snake or caterpillar? The osmeterium might look like a snake’s tongue, but don’t be fooled. Photo courtesy of Donald Hall, University of Florida

Whether wearing a beautiful, ugly, or scary face, these insects are here to stay. Thankfully, they don’t often do enough damage to citrus trees for homeowners to worry about. Young trees in danger of being defoliated may need some protection, but an established tree can lose a leaf or three with no issues.

If control is called for, hand-picking the caterpillars is a viable option, as long as the tree is small enough to reach the branches. A product called Bt, short for Bacillus thuringiensis, is another option. Applied to the leaves, this insecticide only affects caterpillars, and shouldn’t harm other pollinators.

For more information, see our EDIS publication: or contact your local Extension office.

Local Lizards in Your Landscape

Local Lizards in Your Landscape

Anyone spending any time outdoors in the Florida panhandle is bound to come across some of our local scaly residents before too long. With our high temperatures, high humidity, and high number of insects, we have a great climate for numerous reptiles to survive in. Some are native, some are not, and it can help to learn a little about them to understand the ecology we live in.

Here are some of the most common lizards you’ll see in our area:


One of the most commonly seen lizards around, the green anole (Anolis carolinensis), is native to Florida. While it is named ‘green’, it is able to change color from green to brown. Despite this ability to camouflage themselves, they are not related to chameleons. Often active during the day, they eat a wide range of insects and other arthropods. Males can often be seen doing push-ups and flashing their dewlaps (colorful neck-flaps) as either a deterrent to predators or to attract a mate. This species favors living in trees, but can be found almost anywhere. These and many other lizards have the ability to lose their tails when pursued by predators. The tail may continue to move for some time after it detaches, which can serve as a distraction while the lizard itself flees from danger. The tail will regrow over a period of time.

A similar species is threatening our native populations of anoles. The brown anole (Anolis sagrei), also known as the Cuban brown anole, is highly invasive. They differ from the green anole in that they cannot change color, and often display a bold pattern on their skin. Introduced to the United States as stowaways on ships in the late 1800s, they compete with native species for food and sometimes even eat young green anoles. Brown anoles are typically found near the coast in the panhandle. While control of this invasive species is probably impossible at this point, you can help to avoid spreading them by cleaning equipment they may hide in (trailers or boats, for example) before transporting it, and inspecting ornamental plants for hidden anoles before moving them.


At least two species of skinks share our habitat, the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) and the broadhead skink (Plestiodon laticeps). The five-lined skink is mostly black with colorful accents, usually having a reddish head and blue tail. White or off-white stripes run lengthwise down their body. They are found in almost any habitat, and eat insects and other arthropods. The blue tail does not indicate any ability to sting, despite some local folklore.

The broadhead skink is one of the largest lizards in the area, growing up to a foot in length. Colored similarly to the five-lined skink, mature males fade in color and develop large, reddish heads with powerful jaws. They use these jaws to eat insects, invertebrates, and probably other small animals as well. Broadhead skinks prefer living in trees, but can be seen on the ground occasionally as well.

Fence Lizards

Sceloporus undulatus, the eastern fence lizard, loves dry, open woodlands. They often flee for higher ground when scared, climbing trees, stumps, or fences for protection from predators. Fence lizards have rough scales, usually patterened along their backs, with males sometimes displaying blue patches on their undersides. They, like other lizards, eat insects.


Not native but commonly seen, the Mediterranean gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) is a nocturnal species that is found throughout Florida. Urban and suburban locations are their favored habitats. They are often attracted to artificial lights at night, or rather the insects that themselves are attracted to the lights. Mediterranean geckos are usually pale in coloration, with almost translucent white or grey skin. They have large eyes with slit pupils and wide pads on their feet, which help them stick to smooth surfaces.

Glass Lizards

Upon first sight, one might be forgiven for thinking that a this species is actually a snake. It is not. Ophisaurus ventralis, the Eastern glass lizard, is a species of legless lizard that can grow to more than three feet in length. They hunt for insects to eat during the day, but are shy and will quickly try to hide if confronted. They are quick to shed their tails when in danger from predators; their name refers to their being perceived as brittle and breaking easily, like glass. They are not venomous, and their jaws are not powerful enough to break human skin.