Grow Your Own Christmas Tree

Grow Your Own Christmas Tree

Christmas is among my favorite holidays.  The religious significance, music, lights, amazing food, fellowship with family, and giving and receiving gifts all lend something special to the season.  However, the tradition that arguably gets the most attention is selecting and putting up a Christmas tree!  Those that participate in the festivities and put up a Christmas tree have three options:  purchasing an artificial tree, purchasing a real tree, or growing your own.

While I like the convenience of a pre-lit tree as much as anyone, artificial trees don’t do a whole lot for the environment or sustainable US agriculture.  They are almost exclusively produced overseas and contain non-biodegradable plastics.  Not the best.  If you select option two and choose to purchase a real tree, you’ll help support a sustainable US agriculture industry!  According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are ~25-30 million Christmas trees sold annually in the US and 350 million more currently growing on Christmas tree farms waiting their turn!  Purchasing real Christmas trees also ensures that the over 100,000 Christmas tree farm workers remain employed, and the 1/3 million acres US Christmas tree farms comprise will remain non-developed “green spaces”!

But for the green-thumbed Christmas enthusiast that’s willing to put in a little time and effort, there is a third choice – growing your very own Christmas tree right at home!  In the Panhandle, there are several species, Florida natives and not, that make wonderful Christmas trees and are easy to grow!

Red Cedar makes a fine Florida Christmas tree!

Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) – This Florida native is the classic southern evergreen.  Growing quickly to the desired heights of 4’-10’, emitting a “Christmas tree smell”, and possessing dark, dense foliage, Red Cedar makes an excellent Christmas tree!  Red Cedar performs very well in most soils but does not like wet feet and will not tolerate continuously saturated areas.

Leyland Cypress (x Cupressocyparis leylandii) – A hybrid of Alaskan Cedar and Monterrey Cypress, Leyland Cypress is recognized as one of the most popular Deep South grown Christmas trees for good reason.  Leylands grow exceptionally fast, are a desirable forest green color, and have a naturally conical shape!  Though not recommended as long-term landscape trees in Florida due to disease susceptibility, Leylands do very well in short Christmas tree rotations.

Thuja ‘Green Giant’ – ‘Green Giant’ is a cultivar of Thuja and is similar in appearance to Leyland Cypress.  Though not quite as deep green in color as Leyland, ‘Green Giant’ also grows rapidly (up to 3’-4’ annually), tolerates many soil conditions, and has no serious insect/disease issues.

Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica var. arizonica) – Arizona Cypress is the Christmas tree for those who would normally choose to be different by purchasing a blue, silver, or white artificial tree!  Famous for its striking blue/silver foliage, Arizona Cypress is native to the American Southwest but thrives in the drier sandy soils found in many parts of the Panhandle.

Sand Pine (Pinus clausa) – The quintessential “Cracker Christmas Tree”, Sand Pine is native to the deep sandy ridges of Florida.  Normally thought of as a scrubby, low-value tree, when shaped a little, the short-needled Sand Pine makes an excellent Christmas tree!  Obviously preferring a dry, sandy site but capable of growing nearly anywhere, Sand Pine has no pest or disease issues and grows fast!  If you want a true, old-school Florida Christmas tree, Sand Pine is it.

Regardless of the species you choose, implementing the following few maintenance tips and expectations will lend best results:

  • Cut/remove J or circling roots before planting.
  • Plant just higher than ground level.
  • Refill the hole with native soil from the site.
  • Regular irrigation for the first several months of their lives is necessary and trees will benefit from supplemental fertilizer applications twice a year (spring and mid-summer).
  • Shaping trees each summer with hedge shears to achieve the desired dense, compact shape will allow for a uniform tree with no “holes”.
  • Plant several trees per year to ensure a nice tree come December, just in case.
  • Florida grown Christmas trees will NOT have the exact look of fir or spruce. Adjust expectations accordingly.
  • Most Florida grown Christmas trees do NOT have rigid branches and cannot support heavy ornaments. Again, adjust expectations accordingly.

While Christmas tree species that perform well in the Panhandle will not have the exact look of a classic fir or spruce sourced from the Carolinas, they certainly mimic the look and there is something to be said for walking outside and harvesting your own tree to put presents under!  For more information on growing your own Christmas trees or other horticultural topics, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office!  Happy New Year!

 

Up Your Gardening Game with Sweet Onions

Up Your Gardening Game with Sweet Onions

For many people in the Panhandle, gardening season begins when the weather warms in spring and nurseries start setting out tomato transplants.   While I understand the allure of the yummy summer veggies and spring/early summer are the most traditional times to garden, cultivating a winter garden in the Panhandle unlocks many tasty options.  Among these cool-season garden veggies is a classic southern staple that is among the easiest and most rewarding of all vegetables to grow, sweet onions!

‘Texas Super Sweet’ Onions almost ready for harvest in a Calhoun County garden. Photo courtesy of Joe Leonard.

Sweet onions are very popular in the culinary world for their mild flavor and soft texture and are among the most widely grown group of onions across the world, but the most famous of them, Vidalia’s, hail from Georgia!  Despite its fame, the “Vidalia” onion is actually nothing more than a trademarked name for a specific variety of sweet onion that was bred in Texas (‘Yellow Granex’ and its derivatives), grown in a 20-county region in South Georgia with excellent onion-growing soil, and made famous by excellent marketing from the Vidalia Onion Committee.  While they can’t be called Vidalias legally, you can absolutely grow your very own Vidalia type sweet onions at home here in the Florida Panhandle!

Sweet Onions are most easily grown at home if purchased in the fall as “sets”.  Sets are small bulbs that have been started, harvested, dried to prevent rotting during storage, and shipped to garden centers ready to be “set” out in home gardens.  Sweet onions may also be grown from seed but take much longer and have a lower success rate.  When browsing onion set varieties for purchase at garden centers or in seed catalogues, make sure to purchase a short-day “Granex” type like “Texas Super Sweet” or similar.   It is critical to remember that sweet onions are classified by how many hours of daylength they require to produce bulbs.  The three classifications are Short, Mid, and Long-Day.  Since sweet onions require cool weather to develop properly, Floridians must grow short-day varieties to compensate for decreased daylight hours in the winter.  In the less hot Northern states, long-day sweet onions are grown in the summer, where they’ll be able to soak up 15-16 hours of daylight.  Therefore, for best results in the Panhandle, select ONLY short-day onion varieties.

‘Texas Super Sweet’ Onions that have been harvested and are ready for use! Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Once you’ve selected your onion sets in the fall, they can be planted in the garden anytime from early October to mid-December.  Individual bulbs should be planted about an inch deep in well-drained garden soil with high organic matter content (mushroom compost, composted manure, or other rich organic matter works) and spaced 4-6” between plants and about a foot between rows.  Onions in general, and sweet onions in particular, are heavy feeders and require ample nutrition to meet their potential!  To meet these fertility needs, I apply a slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote or a Harrell’s product at planting and supplement that with either a quick release granular or liquid fertilizer monthly during the bulb enlargement phase.  Sweet onions also have a shallow root system and require frequent watering to develop properly and avoid splits, doubles, and small bulbs.  Don’t let your onion bed dry out!

Finally, sweet onions planted in late fall/early winter are normally ready to harvest in April and May.  However, rather than relying on a calendar, begin harvesting your onions when the tops start to turn yellow and fall over, this indicates maturity.  After harvesting, allow your onions to “cure” with tops and roots still attached for a couple of weeks outside in a shaded, protected area.  Once they’ve had an opportunity to “cure”, remove tops and roots and store the cured bulbs in a cool, dry place (a dark pantry in an air-conditioned room or the refrigerator crisper drawer work fine) and use at your convenience!

While they can’t be called Vidalias, sweet onions grown at home are oh so rewarding and very tasty!  Provided they are planted in quality soil, receive plenty of water and fertilizer, and are harvested/stored correctly, sweet onions will provide a delicious, home-grown culinary treat throughout the year!  For more information about growing onions in the home garden or any other horticultural/agricultural topic, contact us at the UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension Office.  Happy Gardening!

Cold-hardy Bromeliads for North Florida

Cold-hardy Bromeliads for North Florida

Bromeliads are a type of succulent that are valued for bold foliage and colorful, exotic and long lasting flowers. Members of the bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae) originate in the tropical Americas in habitats ranging from rain forests to deserts. Bromeliad species are very diverse and include tree-dwellers like Spanish Moss as well as terrestrial plants like Pineapple.

Most colorful bromeliads are not winter hardy in the Florida Panhandle. However, two bromeliads in particular are cold hardy, vigorous, and provide colorful, exotic flowers in fall and winter in North Florida: Matchstick Bromeliad and Queen’s Tears. These two are easy to grow, tough, low maintenance plants and are fondly regarded as passalong plants here in North Florida.

 Matchstick Bromeliad (image by K. Thomas)

 Matchstick Bromeliad

The genus Aechmea contains many cold hardy bromeliads of which the most widely available is the Matchstick Bromeliad, Aechmea gamosepala. This small-growing Aechmea forms rosettes of nearly-spineless, stiff, medium green leaves about 8 inches tall and wide. Each tightly clustered rosette of foliage forms a “tank” which holds water for the plant to absorb during dry weather. In late Fall and Winter, each rosette can produce a colorful scape of flowers held just above the foliage. Long, narrow flowers are attached up and down the spike and are pink/purple with blue tips, looking somewhat like psychedelic matchsticks. This bromeliad is one of the most cold hardy, tolerating temperatures as low as 20°F for short periods. Best of all, Matchstick Bromeliad quickly forms offsets of foliage rosettes that are easily separated, planted and shared.

 

 Queen’s Tears (image by G. Knox)

 Queen’s Tears

The genus Billbergia also contains many cold hardy bromeliads and one of the most popular is Queen’s Tears, Billbergia nutans. Queen’s Tears blooms in mid-winter with arching stems bearing bright pink bracts and tipped with fantastic dangling flowers of green petals edged in blue around a long column of yellow stamens. Allegedly, the beautiful flowers drip nectar when disturbed, thus providing the common name of Queen’s Tears. This bromeliad consists of slender, grey-green, leathery foliage that forms long, narrow rosettes 10 to 18 inches tall, giving the plant a graceful and arching habit. Truly one of the most cold hardy bromeliads, Billbergia nutans reportedly tolerates temperatures in the low teens, making it hardy in USDA Hardiness Zone 8a. Plants of Queen’s Tears grow quickly and form numerous offsets that can rapidly fill a pot to the point of almost bursting. This quality makes it easy to separate clumps to share with all your friends and family, and giving the plant its other common name of “friendship plant”.

Some other Billbergia species are almost as hardy, and some of these feature spotted or variegated leaves. Other bromeliads with good cold hardiness are Dyckia, Neoregelia and Vriesea species.

Care and Culture

Bromeliads are easy to grow and often tolerate some neglect. Most are adapted from part sun through shade, and are tolerant of drought and low moisture conditions. Bromeliads grow best in containers or well-drained soils but also may be mounted on boards, fences, trees or palm trunks. Most have limited root systems because their foliage rosettes form a “cup” that collects, holds and absorbs water as well as debris that breaks down into nutrients for the plant. Bromeliads have low nutrient requirements but will grow faster with light applications of fertilizer (to the roots, not in the foliage tanks). Though these two bromeliads are cold hardy down to 20°F, it’s best to grow them in protected areas so as to avoid damage from freezes that are colder than expected.

For more information:

Bromeliads at a Glance: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep337

Bromeliad Society International: BSI | Bromeliad Society International

 

Protect Your Winter Garden and Landscape Plants with Frost Cloth

Protect Your Winter Garden and Landscape Plants with Frost Cloth

Use frost cloth to completely cover cold sensitive plants. Be sure to make complete contact with the ground and use heavy objects to keep the fabric secure. Photo by Jonathan Burns.

Use frost cloth to completely cover cold sensitive plants. Be sure to make complete contact with the ground and use heavy objects to keep the fabric secure. Photo by Jonathan Burns.

 

One major aspect that separates North Florida from South Florida is the discrepancies in air temperature. Although the differences are relatively small when comparing Florida with northern states, they can mean a world of difference in the plant world.

Even hardy cauliflower leaves can be damaged by cold winter nights in the Florida Panhandle. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Even hardy cauliflower leaves can be damaged by cold winter nights in the Florida Panhandle. Photo by Molly Jameson.

In most of North Florida, our USDA plant hardiness zone is 8b, which means average minimum winter temperatures are between 15 and 20° Fahrenheit (F). We therefore can experience hard freezes, which happens when temperatures are below 28°F for over five hours. These types of conditions are capable of “burning” the leaves of even the toughest winter vegetables.

Fortunately for our winter gardens, average minimum winter temperatures are in the lower 40s, high enough not to damage winter garden crops. When we do have lows close to or below freezing (32°F), there is one very cost-effective method that can help keep crops and landscape plants protected. This is the use of a material called frost cloth.

Frost cloth can moderate air temperatures six to eight degrees. Photo by Turkey Hill Farm.

Frost cloth can moderate air temperatures six to eight degrees. Photo by Turkey Hill Farm.

Frost cloth, which can be purchased at most plant nurseries, is a breathable polyester fabric that is light weight and heat retentive. When used correctly, it can moderate air temperatures about six to eight degrees. This is typically all that is needed to get us through our mild North Florida winters. It is also relatively inexpensive, and if cared for, the same cloth can be used for many winter seasons.

Large blankets or bedsheets can be used as frost cloth substitutes, but whether you are using actual frost cloth, or something pulled from the linen closet, it is very important to use it correctly to be effective. The cloth must touch the ground at all points, as it works by trapping heat that radiates from the soil. It also increases the humidity around the plant, aiding in temperature moderation.

"Lollipop" trees will allow the heat from the ground to escape, giving the tree no cold protection. Photo by Jonathan Burns.

“Lollipop” trees will allow the heat from the ground to escape, giving the tree no cold protection. Photo by Jonathan Burns.

For sensitive landscape plants and fruit trees, it can be more difficult to fully cover the plant with the frost cloth to trap the heat, but it is just as important. When driving around town on a cold night, I inevitably encounter a few “lollipop” trees. This is when the foliage of the tree is wrapped in frost cloth, but the cloth does not reach the ground, and is typically tied off at the upper trunk of the tree. All heat moving upward from the soil will go right around the cloth, giving the tree essentially no protection.

Wire or PVC hoops can be used to help secure frost cloth and keep the cloth from damaging sensitive plant stems and leaves. Bricks, sticks, soil, or garden staples should be used along the perimeter of the frost cloth to prevent nighttime gusts from blowing the cloth off your garden beds or landscape plants. In the morning, remove the cloth once air temperatures reach about 50 to 60°F.

To learn more about cold protection, check out the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, Cold Protection of Landscape Plants (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/MG025).

Video: Evergreen Shrubs in the Fall

Video: Evergreen Shrubs in the Fall

Fall is the season for leaf color changes on many plants, but we are often concerned when we see evergreen plants with brown leaves. Learn what is normal browning for evergreens and when to seek more help from UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.

The North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide

The North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide

As you garden this fall, check our the North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide, compiled by UF/IFAS Leon County Extension.

As you garden this fall, check out the North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide, compiled by UF/IFAS Leon County Extension.

 

Getting into vegetable gardening, but don’t know where to start?

Even experienced gardeners know there’s always more to learn. To help both beginners and advanced gardeners find answers to their questions, the UF/IFAS Leon County Extension Office put together the North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide. It incorporates multiple resources, including articles, planting calendars, photos, and UF/IFAS EDIS publications.

The North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide covers the many aspects of vegetable gardening, including how to get started, site selection, insects and biodiversity in the garden, soil testing, composting, cover crops in the garden, irrigation, and more.

You can click here to view the digital version of the guidebook. We also have physical copies of the guide available at the UF/IFAS Leon County Extension Office (615 Paul Russell Rd., Tallahassee, FL 32301).

Happy fall gardening!