A Landscape Combo for Native Fall Color:  Muhly Grass & Darrow’s Blueberry

A Landscape Combo for Native Fall Color: Muhly Grass & Darrow’s Blueberry

In the Panhandle, fall is the prettiest season for wildflowers.  Our roadsides and woodlands are covered with pinks, whites, yellows, blues, purples, and even a little red here and there.  Pretty as it may be, the beautiful wildflower look isn’t super appropriate for most yards.  It would look unkempt, a little “wild” if you will, would be hard to manage and is probably best enjoyed in natural areas.  However, we can bring some of the native colors of fall into our landscapes in a much lower maintenance, refined manner with two Panhandle species that pair excellently together, Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and Darrow’s Blueberry (Vaccineum darrowii).

Muhly Grass and Darrow’s Blueberry in a local landscape. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Muhly Grass, the native grass with the pinkish/purple panicles blooming right now, has gained much popularity in recent years, earning a reputation as a near pest/disease free, drought tolerant, attractive landscape plant.  Operating in lieu of more traditional low growing shrubs in landscapes, Muhly is an airy, greenish gray bunch grass growing about 3-4’ tall and wide, lending informal, coastal texture to landscapes most of the year and really shining in fall during its flowering season.  Once established, it never needs extra water, prefers little fertilizer, and only needs a rejuvenation prune (or burn – the Leonard preferred method.  It’s fun and mimics the role of fire in Muhly’s native ecosystems!) every couple of years to keep it looking tidy.

Unlike Muhly Grass, Darrow’s Blueberry has not caught on broadly in the landscape industry but is no less deserving.  This native blueberry species only grows a couple of feet tall, produces edible fruit that wildlife enjoy, and adds an unusual blue green color to landscapes via its tiny-leaved, evergreen foliage.  It prefers the same sites as Muhly and is part of the reason they pair so well together.  Our mostly sandy, well drained soils work just fine, but both plants can handle soils that are occasionally wet.  A bonus, Darrow’s also has tiny, bell shaped flowers in spring that attract all manner of beneficial bee species.  This makes it a must in any native pollinator garden!

As good as these species are alone, I think they are better together.  In my family’s yard, we created a loose screen of widely spaced (8’ apart) Muhly Grass specimens around a pool, in the spirit of giving the area a “coastal” airy feel, and interspersed Darrow’s Blueberry in between.

The pink Muhly Grass flowers pair nicely with the green blue foliage of Darrow’s Blueberry. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

The look has been outstanding, particularly in the late summer/early fall.  The pinky purple flowers of Muhly Grass complement the green-blue foliage of the blueberries nicely and provide easy, lasting color without having to worry about planting finicky annuals or perennials each season.

Landscaping with natives does not have to look wild and unkempt, nor does it have to be drab and unattractive.  Combining native yet showy plants like Darrow’s Blueberry and Muhly Grass makes for an unusual, refined, nearly no-maintenance feature in your landscape.  Look for these and other neat native plants at native nurseries and independent garden centers around the Panhandle.  If you’d like more information on native grasses, blueberries or any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office!  Happy Gardening!

 

Romaine: Lettuce of an Empire

Romaine: Lettuce of an Empire

Who doesn’t enjoy a fresh, crisp bowl of salad? Lettuce happens to be a vegetable that is easily grown in Florida for fall & winter gardens. In Florida, four types of lettuce are commonly grown: crisphead, butterhead, leaf, & today’s topic, romaine.

Photo courtesy of Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS.

An interesting, little known fact about romaine lettuce is that it was cultivated extensively by the Roman Empire. By the fourteenth century, the Catholic Hierarchy had moved from Rome to Avignon, France bringing their prized lettuce along with them. During this period, the plant was known as “Avignon” lettuce. In England, romaine is called “cos” lettuce named after the Greek islands from which the lettuce was originally distributed. Of course, in the U.S., the name we give, Romaine, refers to the time when it was grown extensively in the Roman Empire.

Romaine is grown both commercially and in backyard gardens across the state. Like all lettuce, this is a cool season vegetable. September through March is a generally the extent of the growing season. Romaine can be grown from seeds or by transplants. If you are going the seeding route, just remember these seeds are very small and should be sown shallow and in a tight pattern, with 12”-18” row spacing and a light sprinkle of soil over the top. Newly planted seeds may require burlap or straw to help retain soil moisture for successful germination. Once plants reach a few inches in height, rows can be thinned to where plants are 8” apart.

Romaine needs adequate soil moisture throughout the season. Mulching around plants to retain moisture and adding a complete fertilizer such as 8-8-8 will help ensure a good yield. Lettuce is vulnerable to the usual suspects of garden pests. However, gardening in cooler months helps combat that threat.

Romaine lettuce is fun and rewarding to harvest, as well. You can pick a few leaves off a plant or harvest the entire head.

For more information, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office.

Supporting information for this article can be found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, “Romaine – Lactuca sativa L.” by James M. Stephens, Emeritus Extension Vegetable Crops Specialist, UF/IFAS: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mv125

UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.

‘Patio Baby’: An Eggplant for Any Space

‘Patio Baby’: An Eggplant for Any Space

In my ongoing search for low-maintenance vegetable varieties that perform well in small spaces, like my raised bed garden, I decided to try a newish Eggplant variety called ‘Patio Baby’ this summer.  Developed by PanAmerican Seed and winner of the 2014 All-American Selections Vegetable- edible category, I was drawn to ‘Patio Baby’ due to the advertising claims made that it was a true miniature variety, perfect for growing in containers, only reaching 20” or so in height and producing both “early” and abundant fruit.  I’ve been very pleased with the performance of this extremely unique variety so far in my informal backyard trial and definitely think it deserves consideration in your garden too!

‘Patio Baby’ fruit ready for harvest in September 2020. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

The first observation when seeing a mature ‘Patio Baby’ is how small the plant is, leaves, flowers, fruit, everything.  Compared to a standard ‘Black Beauty’ variety, ‘Patio Baby’ plants measure maybe a third as tall and wide.  Where a “normal” eggplant fruit might be slightly larger than a softball and often have spines on their calyxes (the green part that connects the purple fruit to the stems), ‘Patio Baby’ fruit are roughly the size of a large chicken egg and totally spineless!  I find this smaller plant and fruit size to have several perks.  Vegetable plants that grow 2’ tall and wide are just about perfect for raised bed gardening.  If you don’t require a large quantity of eggplant, you won’t have to sacrifice an entire bed’s space to ‘Patio Baby’ like you would with the standard varieties. Also, ‘Patio Baby’ fruit won’t bend or break branches and are held strongly on the plants, with no need for staking, another bonus when space is at a premium.  Finally, I find it much easier to harvest, handle and prepare the small, spineless ‘Patio Baby’ fruit in the kitchen.  Think of them as a “personal pan” eggplant.  As I’m the only one in my house who eats much eggplant, I waste a lot less fruit cooking these little guys!

‘Patio Baby’ mature fruit. Standard house key used as a size reference. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

‘Patio Baby’ Eggplant also lives up to its reputation of being exceedingly easy and quick to grow.  I purchased a packet of ‘Patio Baby’ seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in June and planted three in a 20” diameter decorative pot next to my raised bed garden during the first week of July, behind summer squash that had recently expired in the heat of late June.  After sprouting, the plants grew strongly and, true to form for most Eggplant varieties, were bothered by no serious pest or disease issues other than the normal stinkbugs and occasional caterpillar that plague summer gardens in Florida.  Around 8 weeks from sowing seed in the soil, cute, egg-shaped fruit were ready for harvest!  Over the next three or four weeks, my single plant produced around 50 of the cute little fruit.  More than enough for me and plenty to share, the goal of my gardening endeavors.

‘Patio Baby’ produces lots of fruit in a small package! Photo courtesy of Daniel Leoanrd.

If you’ve run out of space in your raised bed garden, just want a single plant for your back porch or simply want to try a novelty vegetable variety, my experience this summer deems ‘Patio Baby’ Eggplant is an excellent option!  For an eggplant that is space-efficient, very early and heavy producing, and comes in a more easily harvestable, kitchen-friendly package, try ‘Patio Baby’.  For more information about raised bed gardening, vegetable varieties or any other horticultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office.  Happy Gardening!

Advice for Vegetable Garden Success

Advice for Vegetable Garden Success

The modern carrot is available in many sizes, colors, and flavor profiles thanks to thousands of years of plant breeding. Photo by Kelly Thomas.

The University of Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide is a wonderful resource for those who are getting started gardening and growing some edible plants.  As you look through the publication, you will see a chart for the different portions of Florida about when to start different fruits and vegetables.  Remember this is just a guide.  We may have to adjust some of our starting dates depending on local temperatures and other weather patterns.

A good example is that the guide states to start carrots beginning in August.  For many years now our August temperatures are just too hot for starting carrots. Portions of September in North Florida  may also be too warm for carrots. The ideal temperatures for growing carrots are 75 degree F. days and 55 degree F. nights.  We need to at least wait until our temps are in the low to mid 80’s before even trying carrot seeds.

When you plant your carrot seeds, they will need good moisture to germinate. Be patient. Carrots are not always the fastest to come up. It normally takes at least 7 days for germination to occur and can take a little longer at times.

Use the Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide as a way to help you plan for your next fun gardening experience.  Add in the expertise of your local county Extension Agent, along with local observations about current weather, and you will have success in your home garden.