Integrated Pest Management for Healthy Landscapes

Integrated Pest Management for Healthy Landscapes

The mercury is starting to rise, and the days are getting sunnier. Likely, you are beginning to or have been fantasizing about the potential of your landscape. Visions of multicolored flowers or rows of vegetables lined up waiting to be picked are synonymous with these visions, but they are not free from planning or work. You are not the only one waiting and hoping your gardens become flush with flowers. A veritable army of insects are looking to your landscape for their next meal. Some of these are good, providing critical pollination services, but some seek only to devastate your plants by consuming the leaves or sucking the sap out directly. It’s important to know who these culprits are and to understand the strategies within integrated pest management used to overcome or avoid the damage they bring.    

Aphid nymph
Aphid nymph UF/IFAS Photo: J. Criss

The Bad Guys

First, let’s examine the perpetrators. Insects, like all subdivisions of animals, come in many forms. Those seeking to feast on your plant life are herbivores. They cause damage in several ways, and to understand them, a gardener should start by understanding the mouthparts of these creatures. Damage from chewers such as the Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera) will be obvious as parts of the leaves will be skeletonized or left with large holes. Others are much more subtle, utilizing hypodermic-style mouths to remove the sugary photosynthates. The damage caused by these insects is much more subtle. It may present as pathogenic, including but not limited to misshaped or discolored leaves, damaged buds, fruit drops, and blackened leaves from sooty mold (Capnodium citri). Insects in this category include stinkbugs (Pentatomoidea) and aphids (Aphidodea). At this stage, you’re probably convinced that gardening in Florida is pointless, but have no fear; there are strategies to overcome these threats.


Defending your gardens and landscapes begins with scouting. It seems very simple, but getting into your gardens daily will alert you to burgeoning issues well before they become major concerns. Get out there and look through stems, on the undersides of leaves, and for discoloration. It is much easier to remove leaves covered with stinkbug eggs than the adults once they’ve hatched.

Southern Green Stink bug eggs
Southern Green Stink Bug eggs UF/IFAS Photo: James Castner

First Steps

Next, investigate your gardening practices. Keep plants stress-free with appropriate fertilization and irrigation; these plants will fare better with any insects escaping your scouting efforts. Remove stressed and diseased plants as well as any which have been harvested. This will deny habitat to herbivorous insects. These combined practices are collectively known as cultural controls and are among the best for preventing insect issues. Any insect still appearing through these controls may be removed by hand. This is considered a mechanical control and is the least environmentally taxing, though it is the most labor-intensive methodology.

Ask Nature to Help

Biological controls are next in this hierarchy. Although they may seem confusing, they are nothing more than letting nature take care of itself. This article focuses on herbivores, but the insect world is diverse and includes predatory species. Creatures such as ladybugs (Coccinellidae) and lacewings (Chrysoperia sp.) actively hunt and consume those pests in your gardens, keeping you from this task. This method is not limited to Insects.  Numerous animals, such as frogs, birds, nematodes, and even household pets, can fill this role. Fungi and bacteria have also been found to fill this role, as anyone who has applied Bacillus thuringiensis, commonly called BT, has discovered. This control method is the most environmentally friendly and involves the least amount of physical labor.

Green lacewing
Green Lacewing UF/IFAS photo

Chemical use in Landscapes

Finally, chemical controls are a viable method to control insects in your landscape. These should be used as a last resort when the controls listed above are just not working. When used, make sure you follow the label provided on the product you’ve purchased and that it is the appropriate product designed to control your specific pest. The concern with this control is that pest species may adapt to the chemical, thus rendering it ineffective. When applied, ensure it is done minimally, both in volume and across square footage thus minimizing risk to off-target species.

Controlling pests in your garden can seem a daunting task. The multipronged approach utilizing the above control methods is known as integrated pest management.  Following this methodology will keep your plants pest free and your landscape healthy.  For more information on integrated pest management, see these Ask IFAS documents, or contact your local extension agent for additional information on this and any topic regarding your gardens and more.

Herb Gardens: A Tasty Way to Learn

Herb Gardens: A Tasty Way to Learn

As spring approaches, the time to plan and implement gardens is at hand. If you have wanted to get into this hobby but have been intimidated by the avalanche of information, consider an herb garden. This collection of plants is grown primarily for their aromatic properties and culinary use but are robust making them optimal for getting your feet wet in gardening. They may be grown in a variety of spaces including in-ground, containers, and as companion plants in existing gardens. They are very forgiving with similar growth condition requirements and may be propagated easily from cuttings or seeds. Moreover, herbs have a place in supporting the beneficial insects in your landscape.

What is an Herb, and How do they Grow                            

Herb is a broad term applied to a group of plants whose leaves or stems are used for various purposes. This is an important distinction as they must be differentiated from spices, which find their origins in a plant’s non-leafy structures. It is important to note that some plants, such as cilantro, may be considered both. In this case, the leaves are a culinary herb, but the seeds are a spice called coriander. These are subtle, but important distinctions.

Many culinary herbs fall into the Lamiaceae family, commonly called the mint family. They run the gamut of life cycles as annuals, biennials, and perennials giving the grower a range of plants from which to choose. You’ll do best by mixing these life cycles to optimize successional plantings to provide a constant supply of herbs for your kitchen.

As with all gardening, everything begins with soil testing. Knowing the pH and texture of your soil will inform your management practices. Aim for a slightly acidic soil with a pH of around 6.5 and a loamy texture. I can hear you all out there, what does loamy texture mean? Soil consists of sand, silt, and clay.  Loamy refers to soil with an equal proportion of these particles. It is desirable in gardening as it lends to a balance of moisture retention and drainage while providing nutrient-holding capability. These are desirable traits for any growth medium.

What Herbs Should I Grow

At this point, you are probably getting anxious for me to tell you what the easiest herbs to grow happen to be. Below are three herbs that will make you wonder why you delayed entering into this hobby.

One of the easiest and most useful is rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus). This woody perennial is drought tolerant and pest resistant, making it wonderful for new and old gardeners. It prefers well-drained soil and may need some protection in the winter. This plant is easy to shape and propagates best via cutting. Rosemary flowers in the winter to spring time frame serving as an early season support for pollinators such as bees. Plant this herb in the spring, and be sure not to overwater or use too much fertilizer.

Rosemary bush
UF/IFAS Photo: J. Criss
Rosemary Flower
UF/IFAS Photo: J. Criss

Basil (Ocimum spp.) comes in a wide variety of cultivars. The wide selection is likely due to this herb’s presence in multiple cultures covering at least three continents. This herbaceous annual prefers morning sun with some afternoon shade and well-draining soil. Plant from seed or cutting after the last chance for frost has passed. Harvest leaves for culinary use and keep the plant in vegetative growth by pinching the flower stalks through the summer. Once you’ve had all you need for the year, go ahead and let the flowers bloom. Pollinators will swarm these plants, and you will receive all the seeds you need for next year’s planting.

African Blue Basil
UF/IFAS Photo: J. Criss

Finally, among the easily grown herbs is oregano. This herb is split into two main cultivars in Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens) and European oregano (Origanum vulgare). They differ in taste but are often used the same way. This herb prefers full sun and is a hardy perennial that will self seed. It may be propagated from cutting, seed, or division.

Oregano in the Santa Rosa Extension Garden
UF/IFAS Photo: J. Criss

Those outlined here are but a few of the options for herb gardens. Herbs are a wonderful way to get your feet wet in gardening. Being easy to grow and propagate, they will provide a masterclass in plant care and flavorings for your dinner. Use herbs in your garden to feed yourself, as a pollinator benefit, or to attract predatory insects to your garden. For more information on herb gardens, see these Ask IFAS documents, or contact your local extension agent for additional information on this and any topic regarding your gardens and more.

Potato: A Lot of Tuber in a Little Space

Potato: A Lot of Tuber in a Little Space

Looking to add a nutritional powerhouse to your early season garden this year? One plant that is often thought to be difficult to grow in Florida will surprise many home gardeners. This plant has a long, storied history, having been introduced extensively worldwide, and has invigorated and decimated entire populations. I speak, of course, of the humble potato (Solanum tuberosum), which performs well in our cooler North Florida winter. This member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family can trace its origins to the Andes mountains, where it was discovered by European settlers and brought back to their countries of origin. From there, the potato found success as a food crop and was reintroduced worldwide. This tuber is a big producer, and worthy of a spot in your home garden.


The first objective with potatoes is to find a variety that will perform well in our sandy soils and climate. Russets are thought to be the gold standard in potatoes, and while some may be suitable, they are not optimal for Florida gardens. Instead look for some of the later entrants to this market. Several white and red varieties are available which mature quickly and can tolerate environmental conditions in the panhandle. White varieties suitable for this region are ‘Lachipper’ and ‘Sebago’, while the red varieties known to do well here are ‘Red Lasoda’ and ‘LaRouge’. These are compatible with our environment and as such perform well here.

Potato varieties
UF/IFAS photo: C. Hutchinson

Growth Practices

A well-draining, slightly acidic, and loose soil will provide the best environment for maximum yield. As with all gardening, it’s best to have your soil tested well before you plant and make any pH adjustments required early. Potatoes grow from “seed” which are essentially smaller potatoes grown specifically to produce more plants. It’s best to acquire these from a reputable seller and avoid grocery store leftovers, as their variety and disease resistance is questionable. Growth happens from the “eye” of the seed, which may be planted with or without growing roots.  Cut the seeds into smaller pieces, ensuring there is at least one eye per piece, and allow them to sit in a cool, dark environment for a few days to callous over. They are now ready to plant and should be four inches deep, spaced eight inches apart in three-foot rows. Potatoes require two fertilizer applications, emphasizing nitrogen and potassium specifically, as these pass through the soil easily with irrigation. Apply half of the fertilizer at planting with another application approximately 30-40 days later. Application rates vary and are based on yield goals as well as soil test results so check with your local extension agent to discuss application rates. Keep the potatoes evenly moist but make sure not to flood the rows. Finally, there is a unique methodology with potatoes in that you’ll need to add soil to the top of the row when the potatoes poke through. This is called hilling and is crucial to keep the tubers from turning green and producing a toxin known as solanine.

Potato plant with tubers
UF/IFAS photo: C. Christensen

Harvest Time

Your potatoes should be harvestable in about 90-105 days, depending on variety and environmental factors. You’ll be able to tell the plant has matured as the vines will begin to die back naturally. Modern practices have augmented this to include a vine kill which may be performed mechanically or through chemical application. This will force the tubers to mature, allowing the gardener greater control of harvest times and helping to avoid the risk of late-season pathogens. Vine kills are performed between 80-90 days after planting with tubers remaining in the ground for an additional 21 days. All of these time frames are dependent on variety but will produce a more usable and easy-to-store tuber.    

Potatoes after digging
UF/IFAS photo: C. Christensen

Potatoes are a worthy addition to the garden and can provide a lot of nutrient-dense food in a small space. There are a few tricks to growing these tubers, but for what they give back, you’ll find it a very rewarding experience.  For more information, see these Ask IFAS documents. As always, please contact your local extension agent for additional information on this and any topic regarding your gardens and more.

Autumn Color is but a Plan Away

Autumn Color is but a Plan Away

The long summer days are beginning to wane, the mercury is starting its slow march down the thermometer, and your landscape displays all the signs of winter. It’s the time of year that many gardeners dread. Fear not, my fellow parishioners of the soil. I’m here to tell you that there is hope for your landscape. With a little planning, your home can remain beautiful as there are blooms aplenty even into the autumn months here in Florida.

Deciduous Trees

Established deciduous landscape plants begin their annual cycle by sloughing off their leaves, but this doesn’t mean they have no value. After months of standing boldly in your yard, many begin to lose their chlorophyll and turn eye-catching hues of orange and purple. Trees such as bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) create a fantastic fall display as they march into winter slumber. Maples (Acer spp.) will similarly provide a beautiful show once the cold weather hits. Plant these trees in your landscape while observing the “right plant, right place” philosophy and you will provide a low-maintenance pallet of annual colors for decades.

Bald cypress showing fall color
Bald Cypress beginning to display fall color.
UF/IFAS photo: J. Criss

Perpetual Perennials

Next, perennial plants are the lynchpin in many landscapes, filling in the space between your trees and inground annuals. Choosing those with bright, warm colors will make your yard stand out against your neighbors. Remember, when planting, some plants will not survive the first frost. One plant prone to this style of dieback is fire spike (Odontonema strictum). Here, you will find bright red blooms underpinned by large, striking green leaves. Don’t be dissuaded by the frost-tender nature of this plant, it is an excellent specimen and supports pollinators later into the season. Salvia (Salvia spp.)  is another superb specimen for some color later in the season. This again will die off upon the first frost but, until then, will provide bright flowers with grey-green foliage that is striking in any garden. For those seeking an evergreen autumn bloomer, look no further than the leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum). This sometimes overlooked and shade-loving member of the aster family provides yellow flowers through the fall and unique round leaves throughout the rest of the year.   

Fire spike in bloom
Fire Spike in bloom.
UF/IFAS photo: J. Criss
Leopard plant in bloom
Leopard plant in bloom. UF/IFAS photo: J. Criss

Annuals for Brilliant Color

Finally, let us peruse flowering annuals. The advantage here is the vibrant colors they bring, but they are short lived and will need to be rotated out in a few months. Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is a prime example of a versatile plant fitting this bill. They have a spreading habit, making them excellent as a cold weather ground cover or a beautiful trailing potted plant hung on your porch. If sprawling isn’t your cup of tea, investigate calendula (Calendula officinalis) for a splash of yellow in an upright ray-style flower. Remember that these cold weather annuals will not tolerate heat or humidity, so plant them in the fall when things cool off. They will do well in the ground directly or with a pot-in-pot system. The latter will allow easy switches should the plants begin to falter. If planted directly in-ground, prepare your site accordingly. Soil testing will dictate fertilization needs and adding organic matter will ensure adequate water retention.    

Yellow Calendula bloom
Yellow Calendula bloom Photo by Rob Duval. (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Gardening in Florida is always a tough row to hoe. We are fortunate in that we can provide color in our landscapes throughout the year, but to do so one must understand our dynamic environment. Florida will throw you some curveballs, but with a little planning and some understanding you’ll be well on your way to thriving gardens. For more information, see this Ask IFAS document for trees, this ASK IFAS for perennials, or this ASK IFAS for annuals. As always, please contact your local extension agent for additional information on this and any topic regarding your gardens and more.

Thriving Landscapes in Low Water Conditions

Thriving Landscapes in Low Water Conditions

It has been dry as a bone lately, and your landscape is beginning to reflect that fact. Before you call it the dreaded “D” word you should understand that these dry periods are part of our yearly weather cycle.  This year, we are drier than usual which means we are indeed in a drought. This can be alarming as you’ve doubtless spent tons of time and money on your landscape and want it to thrive. Irrigating as much as possible may seem attractive but is not necessarily the best strategy. Let’s first look into a few questions. What happens to your plants when Mother Nature turns off the waterworks? What can be done to prevent the mass die-off of our landscape plants?

Drought Response

Before we delve too deeply into the subject, it’s worth taking a few lines to discuss what happens to plants in periods of drought. Many will close the tiny pinpricks in their leaves known as stomata to prevent water loss. This is known as a drought avoidance strategy, and while seemingly foolproof also prevents moisture absorption while shutting down photosynthesis. If this condition persists, the plant will begin to lose the macronutrient carbon and sugars. When a lack of water becomes long term, the plant will perish as it lacks resources.

Close up of black eyed susan flower
UF/IFAS photo: J. Criss

Other plants utilize a drought tolerance strategy. Unlike the avoidance strategy, these plants leave their stomata wide open despite the lack of moisture in the soil. The advantage here is that photosynthesis never stops. They’re banking on a return of water before they perish from dehydration. Most of your landscape plants utilize the first of these strategies. Your gardening habits and strategies are crucial to keep your plants thriving even in our extreme heat.

Gardening Practices

The practices you implement in your gardens are what we refer to in this business as “cultural practices.” You may have heard of these at lectures on Integrated pest management, but they are just as applicable in landscape management.

Irrigation is easily the most crucial of these practices as improper watering is the number one killer of plants. Deeper watering delivered less frequently encourages deeper rooting and higher drought tolerance. Irrigation should occur early in the morning just before sunrise to prevent evaporation and mitigate fungal issues as plant water use begins at sun rise. Frequency and volume are the next critical factors in watering. Turf grasses need 1/2 to 3/4 inch of water, but only when they present the three signs of wilt including folded blades, a bluish-grey hue, and lingering footprints. Bedding and landscape plants are a little trickier as they don’t have standardized signs of wilt. You’ll need to pay close attention for loss of vigor in the leaves which are likely to be subtle. When these signs present, apply enough water to reach their root zone. A great way to extend the time between irrigation events is to amend soils with organic matter and to utilize mulch. These retain moisture keeping your plants less thirsty.

Irrigation system on athletic field
UF/IFAS Photo T. Jones.

Fertilization can be another far more detrimental to plant growth than you think. While it’s true that your plants need nutrition for vigorous growth, only those deficient in the soil are limiting factors. This is simply not possible to create a fertilization strategy without soil testing. Your extension office can facilitate testing, which should occur at a minimum every three years. Balance these deficiencies with your plant’s needs to create a healthy landscape.

Pruning is the final practice to look at for healthy landscapes. Turfgrasses need to be cut at a height conducive to their growth. This varies for each grass type, so make sure you know yours. Landscape plants may also need species specific pruning practices such as deadheading to maintain healthy growth.

To Sum Up

The key takeaway from this article is that stress free plants are more capable of tolerating less than ideal growth environments. Familiarize yourself with the needs of your plants and provide them with what they need to thrive. Very often this means less intensive maintenance practices. For more information, see this  Ask IFAS document, or contact your local extension agent for additional information on this and any topic regarding your gardens and more.