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.
There are numerous insects and insect relatives that can produce webbing, and webbing can be a sign that something unwanted is near. Arachnophobes might grow uneasy at the sight of a spiderweb, and gardeners might frown to see the tiny filaments that spider mites spin. Tree lovers might assume that webs on a tree are a sign that caterpillars such as the eastern tent caterpillar have taken up residence. But what about webs on a tree trunk?
If you come across a tree trunk coated in silk, chances are you’re looking at the work of a bark louse. Also known as psocids or tree cattle, these little insects eat all the stuff that sticks to a tree’s bark. Lichen, moss, algae, and dead bark can all end up as meals for a hungry bark louse. The good news is that while lichens don’t hurt trees, neither do bark lice!
Bark lice spin their webbing as protection from predators. They often produce large quantities of webbing, because there are often large quantities of bark lice present. The name ‘tree cattle’ comes from the fact that they form these large colonies, and move in a manner similar to cattle in groups. While swirling swarms of creepy-crawlies rarely make people feel at ease, don’t worry about these. Acting as a sort of clean-up crew, they will do their work, grow and mature, and move elsewhere by themselves.
There are often several generations of bark lice each year in Florida, so they may reoccur. No control is needed for these insects, though if leftover webbing is considered aesthetically unpleasing it can be removed by spraying with a sharp jet of water. For more information about bark lice, see our EDIS publication at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/IN553.
Unlike areas with cooler climates, North Florida’s weather is a bit of a rollercoaster. Where the traditional four seasons allow for one growing season, the panhandle’s temperature changes create two growing seasons – spring and fall. During the winter, temperatures fall too low to keep plants happy, so those who expect to grow tropical plants in Florida may be disappointed. During the summer, the heat and humidity climb to levels that even plants can find stressful! Many of our vegetable crops simply can’t handle the extremes and wither away.
There are a few edible plants we can grow, however, that don’t seem to mind the hot weather. If you simply can’t live without a productive garden during the summer, you might consider trying these:
Also called Southern peas, black-eyed peas, or field peas, these are known for their ability to produce a crop despite the harshest of conditions. Actually a bean rather than a pea, they take 65 to 125 days to grow to full maturity, depending on variety. Because they are a nitogen-fixing legume, they have also been used as a cover crop.
Malabar Spinach. Photo Credit: James M. Stephens, UF/IFAS
Popular in Asian countries, Malabar spinach is actually a vining plant unrelated to true spinach. It grows quickly and is edible both raw and cooked, though some people may not appreciate its mucilaginous texture. Similar to okra’s sliminess, this quality does make it useful for thickening soups. Malabar spinach may be propagated from seed or by cuttings, which root easily. The plant also produces berries which, while not toxic, have very little flavor and tend to stain whatever they touch.
A traditional Southern favorite, okra takes the heat and keeps producing. Related to cotton and hibiscus, it grows pods that are ready to harvest after 60-70 days. Seeds have a tough exterior and need to be soaked overnight before planting. Harvest every couple of days at least for best results, as pods that grow too large become tough and fibrous.
Though they may need extra attention paid to them due to their attractiveness to pests, Seminole pumpkins are a great option for a summer planting. Similar to butternut squash, these cucurbits aren’t your traditional carving pumpkin, but they make great eating. Give them plenty of room to spread out in a sunny space. They take 120 days after planting before they’re ready to harvest, and their thick skin allows them to be stored for a long time after.
Does well in sandy soil? Check. Doesn’t mind the heat? Check. Sweet potatoes are great for our neck of the woods. Start out with disease-free slips for best results, and pick varieties such as ‘Beauregard’ that do well in our area.
Related to cowpeas, yardlong beans grow on a climbing vine. The beans themselves, as the name suggests, are contained in a pod that can reach 36 inches in length. These can be picked and cooked much like green beans while the pods are still tender.
When people think of livestock, honeybees may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Bees are, however, a very significant part of agriculture. It is estimated that 30% of the crops we use for food are pollinated by honeybees. That’s around $15 billion of crops! On top of that, these hardworking insects also produce honey, wax, and other products that we can use.
For those who want to get into the world of beekeeping, it can be a challenge to absorb all the information that’s out there. Thankfully, there are resources out there to assist. If you or someone you know are interested in apiculture, you might try:
The American Beekeeping Federation maintains a website with tons of information on beekeeping at https://www.abfnet.org/. From there you can join the federation, find local groups, and find nationwide educational opportunities and resources for beekeepers.
Local Resources. While digital sources of information can help, nothing can take the place of simply having other beekeepers to go to for answers. Local beekeeping organizations are a great place to start. Listed by county, here are some from across the panhandle:
For anything growing in the ground, soil is a very important thing. Soil gives plants a place to anchor their roots so they don’t fall over, holds water and nutrients for them to use, and supports a wide variety of living things that contribute to plant growth. Whether you want to grow a lawn, garden, or landscape bed, knowing a little about your soil can make a big difference in the quality of your plants!
There are a lot of terms that relate to soils. Some helpful ones to know include:
A chart of soil textures. Credit: Natural Resource Conservation Service
Soil particle sizes / soil texture. A soil that is composed of large particles is sandy, a soil with tiny particles is clayey, and a soil with mid-sized particles is silty. Multiple sizes of particles can mix together to form a soil, which is why you may see soils referred to with terms like, “sandy loam” or “silty clay loam”. This mixture of particle sizes gives a soil its texture.
Soil acidity / pH. The pH of a soil refers to its level of acidity. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14. Low numbers mean the soil is acidic, while higher numbers mean it is basic, or alkaline. 7 is neutral, and many plants grow best in a slightly acidic soil (around 6.5). Some plants, like blueberries and azaleas, prefer a more strongly acidic soil (4.3-5.5). If the soil pH is too far from the plant’s preferred level, it may not be able to take up the nutrients it needs even if they are present in the soil. To raise the pH or make the soil less acidic, we can add garden lime; to lower the pH or make it more acidic, we can add sulfur (though this is not as long-term a solution).
Organic matter. All the living things out there die at some point, and when they do, other living things break them down as food. Fungi, bacteria, tiny insects, and more are all out there working to make sure you aren’t wading through piles of dead things. Instead, all that decomposed and partially decomposed plant (and animal) matter become part of the soil. Organic matter is part of a healthy soil, and helps it hold onto water and nutrients that plants can use.
Compost. When you make a pile of dead plant matter and help it decompose on purpose, you’ve made compost. By controlling the material you put into a compost pile as well as the amount of water and oxygen it gets, you can speed up the decomposition process and end up with organic matter to use in your garden.
Mulch. Mulch is any substance that sits on top of the soil. Wood chips, bark nuggets, pine straw, or even synthetic mulches like sheets of plastic are used to help keep weeds from growing and retain soil moisture.
Sandy soils can grow gardens, though they may need a little more attention!
To gather information about the soil, it can be a good idea to do a soil test. Your local Extension office can help you figure out how to do this. Once you do, you’ll receive information on your soil pH, what plant nutrients are in the soil, and recommendations on how much lime and fertilizer you’ll need to add for the year. Test your soil before you add any major amendments such as lime or fertilizer. This will help you add the right amounts at the right time – too much fertilizer, for example, can harm plants or run off into surrounding water bodies, causing environmental damage.
You can find more information on soil testing here, or visit your local Extension office. Soil tests can take up to two weeks to return a result, so plan ahead!