Mulch provides nutrients to soil and plants, reduces weed growth, controls soil temperature, and improves the look of lawns and gardens. It gives the landscape a neat, uniform appearance and is an excellent Florida-Friendly choice for hard-to-mow areas and shady spots. One should keep a 2- to 3-inch-deep layer of mulch on plant beds. Always leave at least 2 inches of space around tree trunks to prevent rot. Create self-mulching areas under your trees by allowing fallen leaves to stay in place. Though bark and wood chips are typically the most common mulch, other forms are just as beneficial. The following are the best overall mulches for Panhandle gardeners!
Bark and Wood Chips
Bark and wood chips are frequently used on flower beds and around small bushes and shrubs. As they decay, the material provides nutrients to the soil. Both materials are inexpensive and can be found at most gardening supply stores. Cedarwood chips are popular for their repellent properties, keeping fleas and other pests away.
Pebbles and Rocks
Pebbles and rocks are effective in retaining soil moisture and minimizing weed growth. They are excellent mulch alternatives for flower beds. Rocks are economical in cooler climates, where heat retained by rock mulch can extend the growing season. Since rocks do not decompose, they don’t provide nutrients to the soil. If you’re looking for a nutrient-rich mulch alternative, rocks are not a good choice. This can be easily remedied by fertilizing your landscape to provide more nutrients. If you decide to use pebbles or rocks, keep in mind that they can be difficult to remove if you switch to a different type of mulch a season or two.
Leaves and Pine Needles
Leaves and pine needles are an affordable nutrient-rich mulch alternative. Rake and gather fallen leaves each season and redistribute them above your soil. For the best results, one should shred the leaves. Let the shredded leaves dry before adding them to your garden to reduce bacteria growth and pest infestations. Pine needles decompose and add nutrients to the soil, just like other organic forms of mulch. They work best with plants that prefer acidic soil conditions, like holly gardenias, roses, and chrysanthemums. You can buy bundles of pine needles at your local gardening store or gather them from your own trees and spread them around your garden.
Grass clippings are a cost-efficient alternative to traditional mulch. However, they must be dried out or composted before use to prevent potentially damaging heat from affecting plants. If you treat your lawn with chemicals, don’t use grass clippings in your flower or garden bed.
Compost is an affordable mulch alternative and enriches the soil by adding essential nutrients. Apply compost above your garden or lawn in a thin layer. Compost improves the soil, adding nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen to your garden. One can make it yourself with discarded vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, dead leaves, and water.
Newspapers effectively keep weeds at bay, retain moisture, and regulate soil temperatures. Newspaper is equally functional compared to traditional mulches, but is not as visually appealing as other options. Moisten the newspaper slightly before laying it above the soil so that it stays in place. Then, add a thin layer of organic mulch on top. Apply five to eight sheets of newspaper at a time. If using newspaper without another mulch on top, shred it before applying it to your garden. Newspaper is biodegradable and will deteriorate like other mulches.
Yay, we are halfway through with August and our summer is winding down! This is the perfect time to start prepping for that fall garden. Growing a productive fall vegetable garden requires thoughtful planning and good cultural practices. This process consists of selecting a site, planning the garden, preparing the soil, choosing the seeds and plants, planting a crop, and nurturing the plants until harvest time. In the Florida Panhandle it can be a challenge to get cool season crops started; there is a balance in starting them early enough to allow them to mature (50-60 days) before a hard frost and getting them through the end of a hot summer.
August and September are the main planting times for a fall garden. There are several cool-season crops and a final crop of warm-season vegetables that can be planted. Some good warm season crops are lima beans, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. Going into September it will be a good time to establish strawberry plants. Some good vegetables to start growing just around the corner are broccoli, carrots, cabbage, collards, mustard, and Swiss chard. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/NorthFloridaGardeningCalendar Herbs that do well are cilantro, parsley, and lemongrass. Mint, oregano, and thyme should be planted in containers as they tend to spread. Mexican tarragon, mint, rosemary, and basil will also do well in September. See Herbs: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_herbs
Transplants from the local garden center will get the garden off to a fast start while seeds will offer more varieties to choose from. It is also important to think about your location. A vegetable garden can be in the ground, a raised bed, or even grown in containers. Your plants will need more than just a place to grow. They will also need sunlight, water, air, soil, fertilizer, and care. Most vegetables require at least 8 hours of sunlight. Keep an eye out for pest problems such as insects, diseases and weeds because they will continue to flourish in warm temperatures and high humidity. To help conserve soil moisture a layer of newspaper and mulch can be placed between the rows. Mulch also aids in weed control.
The result of a beautiful, successful vegetable garden is fresh produce to eat, share with neighbors, family, and friends and even the possibility to sell your harvest. With patience and practice your gardening skills will improve every year! Follow the above few tips and you will be well on your way to a great harvest! For more information about starting a fall garden or any other horticultural or agricultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Happy Gardening
The February Q&A on Growing Tomatoes offered valuable tips for the home gardener to be successful with tomatoes in 2022. Below are the reference materials related to specific questions that were asked.
Let’s start out with the panels favorite tomatoes including hybrids and heirlooms.
Evan: Supersweet 100, Sungold
Larry: Amelia, Brandywine, Cherokee Purple
Sam: Better Boy, Tasti Lee, Sweethearts
Matt: Mountain Magic, Mountain Rouge, Bella Rosa
Daniel: Black cherry and Big Beef
I’m thinking of trying hydroponic gardening on a few tomato plants this year. Do you think a 50/50 mix of perlite and vermiculite would be a good approach for a soil medium? I’d like to use 5-gallon buckets and keep maintenance to a minimum.
One big goal of establishing a home lawn and landscape is to enjoy an attractive setting for family and friends, while also helping manage healthy soils and plants. Soil compaction at these sites can cause multiple problems for quality plants establishment and growth. Soil is an incredibly important resource creating the foundation for plants and water absorption.
Photo courtesy: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS
Soils are composed of many different things, including minerals. In Florida, these minerals often include sand of differing sizes and clay in the northern area of the counties in the panhandle of Florida. Soil is also composed of organic matter, nutrients, microorganisms and others. When soil compacts, the air spaces between the sand or clay are compressed, reducing the space between the mineral particles. This can occur anytime during the landscape and lawn construction phase or during long term maintenance of the area with equipment that could include tractors, mowers, and trucks.
What can be done to reduce soil compaction? There are steps that can be taken to help reduce this serious situation. Make a plan on how to best approach a given land area with the equipment needed to accomplish the landscape of your dreams. Where should heavy equipment travel and how much impact they will have to the soils, trees, and other plants already existing and others to be planted? At times heavy plywood may be needed to distribute the tire weight load over a larger area, reducing soil compaction by a tire directly on the soil. Once the big equipment use is complete, look at ways to reduce the areas that were compacted. Incorporating organic matter such as compost, pine bark, mulch, and others by tilling the soil and mixing it with the existing soil can help. Anytime the soil provides improved air space, root will better grow and penetrate larger areas of the soil and plants will be healthier.
Even light foot traffic over the same area over and over will slowly compact soils. Take a look at golf course at the end of cart paths or during a tournament with people walking over the same areas. The grass is damaged from the leaves at the surface to the roots below. Plugging these areas or possibly tilling and reestablishing these sites to reduce the compacted soils may be necessary.
Photo courtesy: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS
Water absorption is another area to plan for, as heavy rains do occur in Florida. Having landscapes and lawns that are properly managed allow increased water infiltration into the soil is critically important. Water runoff from the site is reduced or at least slowed to allow the nutrient from fertilizers used for the plant to have more time to be absorbed into the soil and taken up by the plants. This reduces the opportunity for nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients to enter water areas such as ponds, creeks, lagoons, rivers and bays. Even if you are miles from an open water source, movement of water runoff can enter ditches and work their way to these open water areas, ultimately impacting drinking water, wildlife, and unwanted aquatic plant growth.
Plan ahead and talk with experts that can help with developing a plan. Contact your local Extension office for assistance!
Mycorrhizal fungi develop mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships with plant roots. Photo by Edward L. Barnard, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org.
If you have taken an elementary school science class, you have probably learned the basics of photosynthesis. In case you are a bit rusty, photosynthesis is the process by which plants capture sunlight to manufacture their food. They absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water from the soil. With these ingredients, they create carbohydrates, or sugars, that supply the energy to grow and develop.
As you can imagine, this energy is vital to the health of the plant. But fascinatingly, plants expel between 20 and 40 percent of these sugars from their roots into the surrounding area around the roots. The sugars that the plant releases, along with amino acids, organic acids, enzymes, and other substances, are called root exudates. The area just inside the root where the sugars are released, and the area just outside the root where the sugars end up, is called the rhizosphere.
But why would a plant waste this energy? This is because they derive benefits from the unique microbial population that inhabits the rhizosphere. Plant roots are limited by the amount of nutrients they can take up in the soil. By feeding microorganisms their sugars, they are essentially recruiting workers to help them scavenge for nutrients in areas that they cannot access on their own.
A microscopic image of mycorrhizal fungi in black walnut. Photo by Robert L. Anderson, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org.
Bacterial colonies, which are types of microorganisms, establish themselves within the rhizosphere and feed on the root exudates, allowing the bacteria to multiply. Along with the sugars they take in from the root exudates, they also take in nutrients from the soil. The waste that is produced by the bacteria is rich in bioavailable plant nutrients, which the plant then uses, creating a plant-microbe symbiotic relationship where everyone wins.
Another type of specialized microorganism, mycorrhizal fungi, also develops a symbiotic relationship with plants. Its meaning is within its name, as “myco” literally means fungus and “rhiza” literally means root. There are an estimated 50,000 fungal species that form these beneficial relationships with approximately 95 percent of plant families.
The mycorrhizal fungal hyphae, which are tiny fungal filaments one cell thick, do not have chlorophyll and are therefore not able to photosynthesize. Instead, the fungal networks have a large surface area that allows them to be particularly good at extracting nutrients from the soil. This enables them to access nutrients that plant roots would not be able to access on their own. The fungi drill into the plant root and trade these nutrients, along with water, with the plant in exchange for the sugary root exudates. In this way, both the fungi and the plant benefit from the relationship. Interestingly, these types of relationships will only develop once the plant releases particular root exudates that attract the microorganisms they are seeking. In essence, the mycorrhizal fungal hyphae will not associate with the root until they are invited.
Along with root exudates, root hairs and other plant cells accumulate within the rhizosphere as they grow and die throughout the plant’s life cycle. The combination of the root exudates, dead root hairs, and dead plant cells creates essentially a compost pile within the rhizosphere. This combination of substances establishes an environment where beneficial microorganisms can thrive, and a plant can maximize its nutrient uptake capacity.
Amazingly, there can be up to a billion bacteria and several yards of fungal hyphae living in just one teaspoon of soil! Of course, not all microorganisms are beneficial to the plant. But remarkably, plants have developed many ways in which they benefit, and ultimately thrive, in this diverse soil ecosystem.
As humans, we continue to learn more and more about these complicated and interesting interactions taking place in the soil beneath us. And the more we learn, the more we discover just how important these diverse ecosystems are to the health of the food web, and therefore, to the health of our planet as a whole.
For all my years in the classroom, I never let students say the “d-word” when discussing soil science. In some instances, we had a “d-word” swear collection jar of a quarter when you used the term and even today, I hesitate from spelling the word out in text due to feedback from all those I have corrected. In case you still need a clue on the “d-word”, it ends in irt.
As a horticulturist for 46 years, I have read, heard, and been told many secrets to growing good plants. I still hold firm that without proper knowledge of how soil works, most of what we do is by chance. Soil is a living entity comprised of parent material (sand, silt, and clay), air, water, organic matter (OM), and microorganisms. It is this last item which makes our soils come to life. If you have pets, then you know they need shelter, warmth, air, water, and food. From this point forward think of soil microorganisms as the pets in your soil. If you take care of them, they will take care of your plants.
Sandy soil without any organic matter at the Wakulla County Extension office.
There is a huge difference in habitat from a sandy soil to a healthy soil with a good percentage of OM (5% – 10%). In one gram of healthy soil (the weight of one standard paper clip), you can have bacteria (100,000,000 to 1,000,000,000), actinomycetes (10,000,000 to 100,000,000), fungi (100,000 to 1,000,000), protozoa (10,000 to 100,000), algae (10,000 to 100,000), and nematodes (10 to 100) (1). A teaspoon of healthy soil can contain over four billion organisms (2). These microorganisms are part of the soil food web and they form a relationship between soil and your plants. They help convert nutrients to useable forms and assist with other plant functions.
The question becomes how to take care of your soil pets. For years we have performed practices that compromise these populations. Growing up we put all of our grass clippings in the weekly trash. We know now how valuable those clippings are and to leave them be. Two practices still common today though are tilling and raking leaves.
Master Gardener Volunteer vegetable bed with organic matter added.
Tilling has a limited purpose. If I place a layer of organic matter on top of the ground, then tilling incorporates the OM which feeds my pets. Excess tilling of soil introduces large amounts of oxygen which accelerates the breakdown of OM thus reducing our pet populations over time. Another adverse result from tilling is disturbing the soil structure (how the parent materials are arranged) which can reduce pore spaces thus limiting water percolation and root growth. There is a reason agriculture has adapted no-till practices.
Raking leaves (supposedly the sign of a well-kept yard) is removing large amounts of OM. Do you ever wonder why trees in a forest thrive? All of their leaves fall to the ground and are recycled by the microorganisms. Each of those leaves contains macronutrients (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, sulfur, and magnesium) and micronutrients (boron, copper, chlorine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and zinc) which are necessary for plant growth. You would be hard pressed to find all those nutrients in one fertilizer bag. So recycle (compost) your leaves versus having them removed from the property.
We are in our off season and tasks such as improving soil health should be considered now for soils to be ready in spring. Remember a little organic matter at a time and never work wet soils. As your OM levels build over the years, remember to change your watering and fertilizing schedules as the soil will be better adapted at holding water and nutrients. Soil tests are still recommended before fertilizing.
If you would like more tips on improving your soil, contact me or your local county horticulture extension agents. For a more in depth look at caring for your soils, read The Importance of Soil Health in Residential Landscapes by Sally Scalera MS, Dr. A.J. Reisinger and Dr. Mark Lusk (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ss664).
Chapter 2: Soils, Water, and Plant Nutrients. Texas Master Gardener Training Manual.
The Importance of Soil Health in Residential Landscapes. 2019.