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:
Any North Florida resident who has tried their hand at growing apples, peaches, or plums may occasionally find themselves frustrated by a year (or two…or three) with a poor or nonexistent harvest. What has gone wrong? Are the trees getting a disease? Were they not fertilized properly?
It may be that the tree owner has done everything correctly, but the weather is actually to blame. The answer to “what has gone wrong?” may lie with a concept called “chill hours”. Plants that are adapted to living in colder climates need some way to figure out when the winter is over. If a plant starts blooming too early, it’s likely that a frost will come along and knock out this year’s flowers. No flowers, no fruit. For a plant, this means no little baby plants this year to keep the species going. To avoid this, some plants have figured out a way to detect and keep track of how cold it’s been in a particular year. When enough hours of cold weather have accumulated, that’s usually a safe signal that spring must be near. This means it’s time to blossom when the weather next warms up.
Usually. Different varieties of plants are adapted to blossom at different times of year, depending on the average amount of cold weather the area they live in gets each year. A plant from a colder climate might not start growing flowers until it has detected 1,000 hours of cold…or more! Given that the temperature range that counts as a chill hour is around 32-45 degrees Fahrenheit, you might correctly guess that such varieties will NOT do well in Florida. In north Florida, we receive somewhere from 500-700 chill hours each year. This winter (as of February, 2023), we have received 479 chill hours in Walton County.
That’s not a lot, and we may not get much more weather that plants recognize as cold enough to count. Apple growers with varieties that need even as few as 500 chill hours may not be making many pies this year. So what can be done?
First, temper your expectations. Understand that even though we may get the occasional hard freeze, it may not count any more toward the chill hour requirement than temperatures just above freezing. Then, when it warms up the following week, those 70 degree temperatures may actually set BACK the chill hour clock for some plants.
Second, choose varieties that require few chill hours in the first place. A ‘Honeycrisp’ apple, needing 800-1000 chill hours each year, is probably never going to produce fruit in the panhandle of Florida. Other apple varieties might, though! Try varieties such as ‘Anna’ (which needs only 300 chill hours), ‘Dorsett Golden’ (250 hours), or ‘Tropic Sweet’ (300 hours). For peaches, try varieties like ‘GulfAtlas’, ‘Gulfcrimson’, or ‘Gulfsnow’ (400 hours each).
Third, consider learning to love other types of fresh fruit. Persimmons, figs, kumquats, and loquats may not show up very often in treasured family recipes, but they can offer a tasty alternative to plants that simply might not be well adapted to our climate.
For more information, try these links:
To calculate how many chill hours your specific area has received, check out the tool at agroclimate.org.
Residents of North Florida are no doubt familiar with camellias, the large, glossy-green-leaved shrub that flowers during the cooler seasons. Common varieties include Camellia sasanqua, which blooms from October through December (depending on variety), and Camellia japonica, which blooms January through March. Both make huge, showy blossoms that demand attention, with forms that range from wild-rose-like to stunning geometric formal patterns.
The popularity of these shrubs is not in doubt, but a cousin of theirs takes the prize as one of the most popular plants in the world. Not due to its flowers: this variety of camellia does bloom, but the leaves are most interesting to humans. It is grown in dozens of countries worldwide and global production is estimated at over $17 billion worth of these leaves. The primary product made from this plant is a beverage that is consumed more than any other drink except water. It is, of course, tea.
Camellia sinensis was named by botanist Carl Linnaeus, “Camellia” to honor another botanist, Rev. Georg Kamel, who really had nothing to do with the plant at all, and “sinensis”, which means “from China”. You may be able to deduce where tea is native to.
The tea plant prefers temperatures from 65 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, doing well in zones 7-9. It can survive freezing or slightly-below-freezing temperatures, though leaves may be damaged by frost. It enjoys moist conditions, needing around 50 inches of rainfall per year. China tea (variety sinensis), which produces smaller, more serrated leaves, prefers more light than Assam types (variety assamica), which have larger, less serrated leaves. Either variety can be grown as a shrub or small tree.
Propagation may be accomplished either by seed or cuttings; cuttings are the preferred method for reproduction, as seeds must be germinated before the seed coat hardens for best results. Caring for tea plants once established involves more frequent but light fertilization, mulching, and regular scouting for pests. Camellia sinensis is susceptible to mites, thrips, scale insects, and aphids, all of which are present in large numbers in our area. Luckily, most of these problems can be solved with an application of either insecticidal soap or horticultural oil, if control is even necessary.
Once a tea plant is large enough to harvest leaves from, it is the new growth which is plucked. The top 2-3 leaves are used either fresh or fermented for a period of time before they are brewed. Green tea comes from the fresh leaves of China type tea plants, while either China or Assam types may be used to make black tea. Black tea leaves are picked, wilted or crushed, and allowed to ferment. Fermentation darkens the leaves and is halted by heating, which also serves to dry the leaves for storage.
Turfgrass lawns are popular. Homes and businesses alike often have at least some portion of their landscape dedicated to turf, and while it is often maligned, turfgrass does have some benefits when used and managed responsibly.
Detractors of lawns may argue that lawn maintenance uses water, gasoline (for mowers), and pesticides, all while contributing little to the environment. The varieties of grass we use in the Florida panhandle are not native to the area, with the possible exception of St. Augustinegrass. Planting anything – and especially non-native plants – in a monoculture limits biodiversity and does not support native wildlife. These complaints may be valid in cases, but this does not mean there is no room for turfgrass in the landscape. Instead, it is important to design landscapes appropriately and maintain lawns sustainably. The ideal of a lush, completely weed and insect free, beautifully green all year long, neatly trimmed magazine-cover style swath of grass is unrealistic.
That being said, what are lawns useful for? What are the benefits of turfgrass?
When managed properly, turfgrass can be used for numerous beneficial reasons. Grass is a plant, which means that it has roots to stabilize soil, slow runoff, and filter water. It keeps down dust, mitigates heat, and can outcompete unwanted weeds. It is useful as a surface for recreation, and can add aesthetic value to a landscape. Turf does, in fact, support wildlife to a certain degree as well, as the insects that live in and feed on it can serve as food for birds and other animals.
Artificial turf is sometimes considered as an alternative to grass, but the differences can serve as an example of the benefits of turf. Artificial turf can heat up in the hot Florida sun. Where it is used on athletic fields, it may need to be irrigated to both cool it and keep dust down. The water used for this has much more opportunity to run off the site, as the artificial turf has no roots to slow it down. Turfgrass is also much softer than its man-made replacements; sports fields with artificial turf have a higher incidence of injury than those planted with grass.