Unknowingly we interact with many small creatures in our everyday lives. Spiders are one of these groups that are beneficial to the function of human activity. This group receives much publicity as being dangerous to people and our pets. While there is always a possibility of being bitten and having venom injected by a few types of spiders, most all others are harmless to people. The primary benefit of spiders is their propensity for catching insects outside and in the home that are identified as harmful to people. Spiders come in all shapes and sizes with many hiding away, never to be seen by people.
Spiders are often included in the same group as insects, but this is not true. They belong in the group arachnids and are closely related to ticks, scorpions and mites. Spiders have two body sections (cephlothorax and abdomen) and have eight legs while insects have three body sections (head, thorax and abdomen). Scorpions usually remain outdoors and may be found indoors during hot dry periods. They are nocturnal hunters of pests that include roaches. None of the scorpions native to Florida are capable of providing a lethal sting, but it is painful when it occurs, leaving a sore and swollen at the sting area. I was reminded of this after stepping on one in the late evening while moving around the kitchen with no lights on. If the person that is stung has allergic reactions to bee stings, observe them and take precautionary health measures needed.
The spider is an important predator of harmful insects and can be found about any where in and around the home, in the garden, and many other places in the great outdoors. An Extension Entomologist I knew from North Carolina State University always mentioned, when presenting to Master Gardener Volunteer classes, that at almost any time given time, we are within two to three feet of a spider, with most so small we never see them. They are great at keeping the beneficial and harmful insect populations in balance in nature.
If you decide to spray to manage your spider population, keep in mind that by reducing the number of spiders in the landscape, you can create a reverse problem with harmful insect populations increasing dramatically. If big webs are a bother, simply take a broom and knock them down. They will rebuild by the next day, but you may not need to be in that area for a while. Always be careful and wear gloves when working in the garden, especially areas that are dark and covered, such as irrigation valve boxes, wood stacks, and other similar places. These are prime locations where the Black Widow or Recluse spiders may be set up, waiting to ambush roaches and other insects. If you are bitten by either seek immediate medical care.
Finally, spiders are fun to observe in nature! One of the most interesting spiders to watch is observable during fall in Florida – the Yellow Garden Spider. They build large webs and often place a zig zap signature in the middle. This large spider catches many insects in the garden and landscape. With early morning sunlight and dew hanging on the web during the fall, it makes for a beautifully create piece of art. Enjoy nature and all the creative processes that occur from a safe distance – spiders included!
Begonias have long had a reputation of being either boring workhorses in annual planting beds and container gardens, like Wax Begonias, or finicky, greenhouse specialty types unsuitable for most people and landscapes, like Rhizomatous Begonias. However, in 2008, Benary Seeds introduced a new early flowering landscape/container Begonia series, all with huge, showy flowers and robust growth habits. They named the series ‘Big’ and changed Begonia’s negative narrative forever.
The first attribute that’s obviously different about ‘Big’ Begonias is that they are, in fact, much bigger than “normal” bedding begonias in every conceivable way. ‘Big’ grows to 18” high with a similar spread, roughly twice as large as conventional wax begonias. ‘Big’ also sports massive (for a Begonia) 1.5-2” flowers that don’t stop until the first fall frost ends the show. And since Begonia flowers appear in clusters, the combined effect of these much larger flowers grouped together is nothing short of spectacular. Even individual leaves are larger on ‘Big’, often hand-sized and coming in various shades of green and bronze, depending on the cultivar.
Speaking of cultivars, the ‘Big’ series has now expanded to include eight different selections, each with slightly different leaf/flower attribute combinations. For example, the ‘Big’ that I am growing this year is named ‘BIG Rose Bronze Leaf’. As you might expect, the plant has dark, bronzish-colored leaves and vivid, rose-pink flowers that together make for a striking combination. Others in the series include such creative names as ‘BIG Red Green Leaf’ and ‘BIG White Bronze Leaf’. Though the names of these cultivars leave much to be desired (come on Benary, step up your name game!), they are all outstanding plants.
Fortunately, growing difficulty doesn’t also increase with plant/flower size and all the plants in the ‘Big’ series are extremely easy to cultivate. ‘Big’ selections, like most other Begonias, prefer partial shade and consistently moist soil, though they can tolerate the occasional dry period due to their waxy leaves. The ‘Big’ cultivars with bronze-colored leaves can even tolerate full sun, which the ‘BIG Rose Bronze Leaf’ sited in a sunny area on my deck can confirm. As with most other long-season flowering annuals, I apply a slow-release, complete fertilizer at planting and then supplement throughout the season with liquid fertilizer to keep them looking their best!
If you’ve avoided Begonias in the past like I did because they just didn’t offer the “wow” factor of other annuals, it’s time to think again. Bigger and truly better in every way than most other begonias, the selections in the ‘Big’ series are definitely worthy of a spot on your patio or in your landscape – plant one today and enjoy eye-catching Begonia blooms all summer long. For more information on Begonias, flowering annual plants, or any other horticultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Happy Gardening!
With the arrival of spring weather in the Panhandle, many people have begun planning a vegetable garden. However, many gardeners that I talk to tell me more of their gardening frustrations than successes. I surmise the main reason for their frustration is simply doing what gardeners have done across centuries and all over the world, planting in the ground. That’s a great strategy in many places; unfortunately, in the Panhandle, we are not often blessed with great soil. We can overcome our poor soil conditions and be more successful by going above ground with raised beds!
Gardening in raised beds has three primary benefits for area gardeners: the ability to control soil conditions, reduce disease problems, and be space efficient. The first raised bed benefit is the most critical. Soil in and around much of the Panhandle is sandy in nature with little rich organic matter. To make matters worse, much of our native soil is either too well-drained and dries out rapidly or is the opposite and frequently stands in water – neither is conducive to garden success. We can alleviate all the above issues by creating our own perfectly draining, nutrient-rich soil environment inside a raised bed. One can either make their own soil concoction by experimenting with different ratios of compost, aged pine bark, peat moss, perlite, etc. or simply purchase bagged garden soil. I use either 100% mushroom compost or a 1:1 mix of mushroom compost & aged pine bark, but many soil component combinations work well.
Gardening in raised beds can also dramatically reduce the incidence of disease. Many of the most serious vegetable garden diseases like Bacterial Wilt and Late Blight in tomato are soilborne, surviving for years in the ground and only needing a splash of rainwater to transfer them onto your vegetable plants. Growing in beds with curated soil mostly alleviates this issue. Our sandy soils also tend to have damaging levels of difficult to control nematodes (microscopic round worms that feed on plant roots). Because nematodes prefer porous sandy ground, switching to raised beds with rich organic soils also removes that concern.
Finally, growing in raised bed gardens allows for a very efficient use of space. A typical raised bed is 4’x8’ in diameter, meaning you can site one nearly anywhere, regardless of how big or small your yard is. You don’t even need a yard space in some cases! If you have only a sunny porch or driveway, you can certainly mimic raised bed conditions with large containers. Most people are surprised by the amount of produce that you can pack into one or several 32 square foot raised garden beds, especially when you pay attention to plant mature size and group accordingly. The square foot gardening method is a great way to maximize raised bed produce yield.
If you have struggled in past years to produce a fruitful, high-yielding, mostly disease-free garden, your problem might be below your feet in the soil. As you plan your vegetable gardening activities this year, try gardening in raised beds and get ready for your best gardening season yet! For more information about vegetable gardening, raised bed construction, or any other horticultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office. Happy Gardening!
The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a plant synonymous with the holiday season. Growing in deciduous forests along the Pacific coasts of southern Mexico it becomes a woody shrub reaching 10-15 feet tall. In 1825 the ambassador to Mexico Joel Poinsett was taken by the red blooms and brought it home to the United States. He propagated and gifted the plant to friends and a few public gardens. Before long the nursery industry took notice and the plant was on its way to becoming the potted plants we see in stores. Today, an extensive breeding program has created a multitude of colors and leaf patterns available to consumers for the holiday season.
Poinsettia is a member of Euphorbiaceae commonly referred to as the Spurge family. The primary feature of this family is a milky sap or latex produced in the stem tissue. Some may be allergic to the latex, but to most it is at worst a mild irritant. This irritation conjoins a reputation of toxicity which may give some pause toward purchasing one. While a very mild toxicity does exist, you would need to consume very large amounts of the leaves to experience negative effects. That said, it is always best to dissuade consumption by pets and children with this and any other house plants. The flowers of this plant are somewhat unremarkable and appear in the middle of several red leaf structures. These leaves are actually bracts and are protective structures for the flower. As a tropical plant, frosts and freezes have a detrimental consequence for this plant, but in areas where there is little or no risk of cold it may be used in your landscape after the holidays. In these scenarios, it will grow much as in its native habitat into a shrub.
When kept inside, keep the temperature around 65F at night and 80F during the day. They need full sun and water only when the soil is dry. It is good practice to remove any water left in pot saucers as this plant performs poorly with wet feet. All-purpose fertilizers should used except while this plant is in bloom. When blooming the plant does not require fertilization. Placed outdoors in a protect area once freeze risk has passed. Keep in mind that the bracts are photosensitive. Around October, theses plants will need 14 hours of complete darkness daily to turn their customary red by Christmas. Keep them covered and completely blacked out as even porch lights will delay color change.
Poinsettias are a beautiful plant and certainly worth your efforts this holiday season. With some knowledge and a little effort, you may extend their life in our environment through much of the year. For more information on poinsettias, see this Ask IFAS document, or contact your local extension agent for additional information on this and any topic regarding your gardens and more.
Since 2005, multiple varieties of Diascia have added to the U.S. fall market of winter flowering plants. Its delicate flowers are far from being ordinary though. In the early part of the last century most British gardening encyclopedias listed just one diascia – Diascia barberae – derived from seed collected by Col. J. H. Bowker and sent by Mrs. Barber to Kew Gardens, England, in 1870. Annual and perennial diascias had, of course, already been discovered and classified by several botanists visiting South Africa much earlier. The dainty, little annual, Diascia barberae, is not a very showy flower, but one which will appeal to the true flower lover. The flowers are rosy pink with yellow-green spots in the throat. The flowers are lipped, being related to the Snapdragons, but have two spurs on the lower lips, and are sometimes called twinspur.
It was not until John Kelly was given a plant called Diascia cordata by Edrom Nurseries in 1971 that anything notable happened to diascias again. He took pollen from his Diascia cordata and applied it to one flower of Diascia barberae. Of the nine seeds he obtained, just one was worthy of attention. He named it Diascia ‘Ruby Field’ (not for the color of the flowers, but for a lady who devoted her live to the long-term care of deprived children). Despite the popularity of this new, hardy hybrid, little more happened with diascias for yet another decade.
The boom in the diascia trade began only recently. Today’s diascia offers larger flowers, larger plants with a more open growth habit and colors ranging from scarlet through salmon and coral into pink. They bloom throughout the cooler weather and may behave as a perennial in warmer sites. But, the uniqueness of their flower structure and ecological role are as fascinating as the flower is beautiful. The common name of twinspur refers to the two downwardly pointing spurs found on the back of the flower. The spurs contain an oil which is collected in the South Africa wild by Rediviva bees. The female bees have unusually long, hairy forelegs that are used to collect the oil to feed her larvae. However, the Greek origin of the Diascia name doesn’t refer to the spurs, but rather the two sacs found in the upper part of the corolla. The flower petals help the bees to orientate themselves to the oil glands of the spurs. While North Florida isn’t home to the Rediviva bee, we can grow Diascia and it is a wonderful opportunity to show the unique connection insects and plants can have. Look for other specialized flower structures and you will find other animals that fit them perfectly, even within the species found in the Panhandle.
I wish I had a nickel for every time in my Extension career that I’ve heard someone ask me what they can plant in a container or flower bed that will give them no-maintenance color. They just want to plant something, forget about it, and be able to enjoy flowers for months on end. My answer, every single time, is Annual Vinca (Catharanthus roseus), specifically any selection from the newish ‘Cora’ Series.
Often called Periwinkle in the Deep South, this native of Madagascar is the perfect warm weather flowering plant for the Panhandle for a couple of reasons. First, the flowering. Coming in a wide range of colors from white to purple to pink and all shades in between, there is a Vinca to match every garden’s look. These aren’t a one flowering flush and done type plant either, Vinca blooms nonstop. What’s more, gardeners don’t need to remove spent flowers (also called deadheading), as plants are self-cleaning and flower freely from the first warm days in April until frost ends the show. There are even several new selections in the Cora series that have a trailing habit, perfect for creating a continuous cascade of flowers from a hanging basket or tall container!
Also, as promised, the ‘Cora’ Vinca series is adaptable and nearly no-maintenance. It never outgrows its bounds, reaching only 12-18” in height and spreading about as wide. It is exceptionally drought and heat tolerant, taking 100-degree days and liking it. It has no major insect or disease pests to be concerned about if sited correctly in full sun and well-drained soil. Bottom line, the new ‘Cora’ Vinca varieties are close to bulletproof. Plant some today!