Summer Tasks

Summer Tasks

Summer should be the time to relax and enjoy the fruit of all the hard work performed in the landscape over the previous winter and spring.  However, there are still some essential tasks that need to be completed during the summer.  Perform them in short energy bursts early in the morning or late in the evening.

1. Aerate Your Lawn

If your yard is starting to look weak and thin, even with fertilizing and proper moisture, it may need aeration.  Aeration, which is creating channels into your lawn, allows water and nutrients to reach the deep roots of your grass more efficiently.

To test if you need to aerate your lawn, shovel up a patch of grass to a depth of at least four inches.  If the layer of thatch is a half-inch thick or higher, your yard would benefit from aeration.  There are self-drive aeration machines and tractor-pulled devices you can rent to make quick work of large areas.  For smaller areas, simply punching multiple holes with a pitchfork will do the job.

2. Fertilize

Gardener fertilizing yard
Commercial landscape fertilizer applicators must obtain state certification.

Turf grass often displays a yellow color during the mid-summer rainy seasons due to the heavy rains flushing nitrogen away from plant roots. If your lawn is looking sad and yellow, chelated iron can often give a temporary green-up. Iron is not a replacement for nitrogen, but it can work well during our summer rainy season.

If you soil test revealed a potassium or magnesium deficiency, summer is a good time to make the last corrective application.  Potassium (K) is an essential macronutrient. Fertilizer bags typically show the percentage of potassium in a product as the third number displayed on the front of the bag (e.g., the “8” in 16-2-8). Potassium acts as a “vitamin” for turf grass, increasing root strength, disease resistance and cold hardiness.

Magnesium (Mg), also a macronutrient, is essential for the production of chlorophyll, necessary for photosynthesis, and also plays a part in the movement of carbohydrates from leaves to other parts of the plant.

3. Don’t Mow Too Short

It’s a natural inclination to want to mow your grass as short as you can, so you have the longest time until you have to mow it again. However, giving your grass a buzz cut every time you mow can hurt your lawn over time.

While some turf grasses can be mowed relatively short, like Bermudas and some Zoysias, most grass types shouldn’t be cut shorter than two-and-one-half to four inches high.  Mowing shorter than that can damage the growth point and leave it susceptible to disease and pest infestation.  It can also dehydrate the grass and lead to long term damage.

5. Water Infrequently but Deeply

One common mistake made by many is watering too often and too shallow.  When only given frequent shallow waterings, grass will begin to grow their roots upwards to take advantage of the small amounts of water, which makes weak and unhealthy.  The grass becomes even more dependent on water and very susceptible to disease and insect attack.

Try watering only once or twice a week, but for a considerably longer time so that the water can penetrate deeper into the soil and encourage downward roots.  Ideally, each irrigation zone is calibrated to determine the length of time it take to deliver ½ – ¾ inch.  Then set the system to run every 3-4 days for that number of minutes.  While checking the irrigation delivery system, make sure the rain shut-off device is working and set to the same ½ – ¾ inch.

6. Prevent Mosquitoes

Summer rains on a nearly daily basis lead to lots of standing water. In less than one inch of water, hundreds of mosquitoes can hatch 3 -5 days later. Not only are these blood-sucking pests annoying, but they can also transmit dangerous diseases like West Nile and Zika Virus.  Even without disease, their bites are painful and irritating.

To prevent mosquitoes, make sure no standing water is allowed to remain in your yard, either in low points or in empty containers like flower pots or wheelbarrows.  Any amount of stagnant water is the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.  Take a walk around the yard, dumping out water and disturbing the oak and magnolia leaves that are acting a collection cup.  Treat birdbaths and water features with floating “donuts” specifically designed to kill mosquito eggs.

While getting tasks done in quick morning trips to the yard, make sure to keep hydrated.  Heat exhaustion can happen fast.

Going bats for insect control

Going bats for insect control

The Case for Bats

Biological control is a pillar of integrated pest management.  It may seem a bit daunting the principle is simple.  All things in nature have predators including insects.  Biological control is simply building a conducive environment for the predators of undesired pests.  One animal not often thought of in this capacity is bats.  Insectivores by nature, these underutilized creatures have a big impact to your open spaces.  Their steady diet of moths (Lepidoptera), beetles (Coleoptera) and flies (Diptera, which includes mosquitoes) reduce insect pressure to your gardens and landscaping.

I know what you are thinking.  How effective can they possibly be?  Pregnant females consume up to two thirds of their body weight through the summer months while rearing pups.  Bats are small but keep in mind that these are not solitary animals.  In south Texas, a single large colony consumes enough insects to save cotton farmers an estimated $741,000 per year in insecticides.  That is just to illustrate the point as you won’t be able to attract huge colony.  There is no reason to believe a smaller colony will not provide similar services in your gardens.

Habitat

Now that your interest is piqued, how can you attract bats to your property?  Installing a bat house is the easiest way.  They are typically a two foot by one foot structure holding single or multiple chambers in which bats roost.  It provides shelter from predation and weather while providing a place to rear pups.  Though commercially available they may be built at home with minimal cost.  Place the bat house in a location with morning sun at least 12 feet off the ground.  Ensure there is enough airflow around the house to keep them cool, but that the structure is watertight.  Mount houses on poles next to buildings and you’ll have better success attracting residents.  With everything in place, it is time to discover who will most likely be your new neighbor.

bathouse on pole

photo: Joshua Criss

 

The Bats of North Florida

Florida is home to 13 species of bats statewide.  Of these, 11 may be found in the Panhandle but only 3 are common enough to be routinely seen.  The Brazilian free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) is the most common.  Medium sized with brown fur, they have a long tail, wrinkled cheeks, and roost in man-made structures.

Brazillian free tail bat

Photo: IFAS

Second most common are Evening bats (Nycticeius humeralis).  These dark brown to yellow bats have short ears with a broad hairless muzzle.  They are tolerant of other bat species often roosting in tandem with them.

Evening bat

Photo: IFAS

Finally, the panhandle is home to Southeastern Myotis (Myotis austroriparius).  Easily the smallest of these bats, they are dull gray to brown with a lighter belly and long hairs between their toes.  This species is the bat most likely to eat mosquitoes.

Southeastern Myotis

Photo: Jeff Gore, FWC

Finally, the panhandle is home to Southeastern Myotis (Myotis austroriparius).  Easily the smallest of these bats, they are dull gray to brown with a lighter belly and long hairs between their toes.  This species is the bat most likely to eat mosquitoes.

A Word of Caution

No article on wildlife would be complete without a word of caution.  Bats are wild animals and should be treated as such.  Never touch a bat on the ground as it most likely is not healthy.  Bats do not generally cause issues but have been known to be disease vectors.  Call a professional to collect the animal and never bring it into your home.

Bats can be a wonderful tool in controlling pests on your property.  Creating habitat can help reduce pesticide need and cost to the homeowner.  For more information on bats, see this Ask IFAS document, or contact your local extension agent for additional information on this and any topic regarding your gardens and more.

 

Trap Crops Help Combat Pests in the Garden

Trap Crops Help Combat Pests in the Garden

Use traps crops, such as sunflowers and sorghum, to lure pests away from your crop. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Use traps crops, such as sunflowers and sorghum, to lure pests away from your crop. Photo by Molly Jameson.

To be a successful gardener, it is important to have an integrated approach to handling obstacles in the garden.

Aphids were lured into this sorghum seed head, which then attracted mealybug destroyer larvae, which are excellent garden predators. Photo by Les Harrison.

Aphids were lured into this sorghum seed head, which then attracted mealybug destroyer larvae, which are excellent garden predators. Photo by Les Harrison.

These considerations include techniques such as planting disease resistant crop varieties, maintaining proper plant spacing, planting at the appropriate time, monitoring the garden and properly identifying insects and diseases, watering uniformly, and many more cultural and preventative measures that will aid in a garden’s success.

As we transition from the relatively mild and dryer days of late spring into the hot and humid punishing days of summer, we often encounter more and more problems in our gardens.

Insects are commonly one of the main challenges we face, as warm temperatures and high humidity promote the growth and expansion of insect populations. To keep pests in check, it is important to consider all our options. If we turn too quickly to chemical controls, we will often encounter insecticidal resistance over time and our beneficial insect populations will be negatively affected.

One alternative to chemical controls to help combat destruction of our crops is by planting trap crops. Trap crops are plants you grow that the insect pest prefers for food and egg laying over the crops you grow that you plan to harvest. These trap crops attract harmful insects, luring them away from your garden veggies.

Sunflowers can attract leaf-footed bugs away from tomatoes. Hand pick and squish any that you see for better control. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Sunflowers can attract leaf-footed bugs away from tomatoes. Hand pick and squish any that you see for better control. Photo by Molly Jameson.

One effective trap crop example, which has proven effective in research studies, is using the combination of sorghum and sunflowers to lure leaf-footed bugs away from your tomatoes. If left unchecked, large clusters of leaf-footed bugs will feed and mate on developing tomato fruit, leaving your tomatoes discolored and distasteful. For tomato growers, it is worth the effort to plant both sorghum and sunflowers about two weeks ahead of your tomato crop. The blooming heads of the sunflowers will lure the leaf-footed bugs in. Hand pick and squish both adults and nymphs off of the sunflowers to help cut back on their populations. As the sunflowers die back, sorghum heads start to emerge, giving you enough time to harvest your tomatoes while the leaf-footed bugs feed on the sorghum panicles.

Another effective trap crop example is to grow blue Hubbard squash at least two weeks ahead of cucurbit crops, such as zucchini, summer squash, or cucumbers. The blue Hubbard squash acts as the trap crop, luring cucumber beetles, squash bugs, and squash vine borers away from the crop.

Buckwheat flowers attract pollinators and predatory insects into the garden. Photo by Janis Piotrowski.

Buckwheat flowers attract pollinators and predatory insects into the garden. Photo by Janis Piotrowski.

Trap crops are also a great tool for drawing in pollinators and natural predators of insect pests into your garden. For example, sweet alyssum and buckwheat flowers attract wasps and hoverflies. The wasps will lay their eggs on caterpillar pests, and when the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae eat the caterpillars as they mature. Hoverflies will lay their eggs on the leaves of the trap crops, which will hatch and feed on mealy bugs and aphids. Additionally, bees will be attracted to the trap crop flowers, introducing more and more pollinators into your garden.

When it comes to being a successful gardener, it is important to have an integrated approach. When cultural and preventative gardening techniques are combined with biological control techniques, such as trap cropping, your garden will be more resilient to pests and diseases, and you will be less reliant on chemical control methods, which should be seen as a last resort.

Fruit Thieves: Roof Rats

Fruit Thieves: Roof Rats

We often think of plant pests to be only insects.  However, plant pests can also be fungal and bacterial diseases, weeds, and even rodents.  That’s right, rodents, like squirrels, mice, and rats!  One particularly annoying rodent pest of the garden is the roof rat (Rattus rattus, a.k.a. citrus rat, fruit rat, black rat, or gray rat).  Roof rats are native to southern Asia.  This is the same species that was responsible for carrying the bubonic plague around the world.  Roof rats are the most detrimental rodent pest to fruit crops in the state of Florida.  In addition to fruit crops, they feed on stored animal and human food.  Roof rats live in attics, soffits, walls, and outbuildings.  They also chew through wires, pipes, and walls.  Roof rats damage some fruit crops (like citrus and melons) by first creating a half dollar sized hole, then they hollow out the fruit.  In crops without a rind or peel, like peaches and tomatoes, they just eat large chunks.

Roof rat damage to tangerines.

Roof rat damage to tangerines. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

Adult roof rats are 12-14 inches long with tails longer than their body length.  In Florida they have been identified in three color phases: black back with gray belly; gray back with light gray belly; and brownish gray back with a white or cream colored belly.  Other than fruit damage, evidence of infestation includes 1/4-1/2 inch long droppings and rub marks left along travel trails.  Roof rats will travel up to 150 yards from their den for food and water.  They breed year-round and have litters of 5-8 pups with a gestation period of only 21 to 23 years.

An adult roof rat.

An adult roof rat. Photo Credit: Alabama Cooperative Extension System

A well-thought-out integrated pest management strategy is needed to control and potentially prevent roof rats on your property.  Integrated pest management is a strategy consisting of multiple tactics to control a pest.  These tactics include scouting (looking for evidence of the pest population); prevention; trapping and exclusion; biological control such as predators; and rodenticides and repellants.

  • Prevention – Roof rats are good climbers and swimmers.  It is important that fruit trees are planted away from the house, fences, and outbuildings.  Make sure to prune fruit trees away from these structures if they can’t be removed or transplanted to another location.  Also prune branches from touching the ground to help prevent rats from using trees for cover.  Sheet metal (18-24 inches wide) can be loosely wrapped around the tree trunk to keep rats out of the tree.
  • Trapping – Rat traps can be placed in several strategic locations.  Traps (triggers facing down) can be attached to the trunks of trees.  Traps can also be attached to the stringer boards on a fence.  Make sure that traps are only set from dusk to dawn to avoid killing non-target species like birds and squirrels.  Leave traps in place for at least a week before moving them because roof rats are cautious of new objects.
  • Rodenticides & Repellants – Poisons should only be used after all other control methods are exhausted.  Most products are very toxic to humans, pets, and wildlife.  If used outdoors, poison baits must be placed in tamper-resistant bait stations.
  • Biological Control – Rat snakes and king snakes are good natural predators for roof rats.  If you have more open spaces you may consider building a barn owl house.  Barn owls and hawks are also natural predators.  You may also consider getting a farm cat to help control the population.  Cats will kill juvenile rats, but have trouble catching adult rats.

Hopefully you will never have to encounter roof rats or other rodents invading your yard and house.  However, if they do come around more information is available in the publication “Pests in and Around the Southern Home“.

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!

Ground-Dwelling Bees

Ground-Dwelling Bees

While most people are familiar with the European honey bee, the domesticated insect that pollinates our crops and provides us with honey, there are plenty of other species of bees and their relatives out there. Most of them are harmless, spending their time quietly pollinating plants, including our crops. Their presence in the landscape, however, may cause some alarm, as it can be difficult for the untrained eye to distinguish between aggressive species and those that are innocuous.

The entrance to a miner bee burrow.

Homeowners may occasionally note small mounds of soil in sandy areas of their lawns. Sometimes sporting a small hole in the center, these are the nesting sites of solitary, ground-nesting bees or hornets. Miner bees or digger bees build underground chambers, usually in well-drained, otherwise bare areas of sandy soil. Multiple bees may choose to dig their nests in the same location, though each bee makes its own tunnel and they do not live communally. Each bee lays her eggs in the nest she has excavated. She gathers pollen to feed the young when they hatch, stocks the larder, and leaves. When the young emerge from the nest, they fly away and do not remain; they will dig their own nests when they are ready to reproduce. While there is no need to control these insects (they serve as fantastic pollinators), the mounds of soil they make may be aesthetically displeasing to some people. Keeping a healthy lawn with no bare patches can deter miner bees from nesting in an area. Irrigation sprinklers can also help to keep the ground moist; these bees prefer dry soil, so it may keep them away. Care must be taken not to over-water a lawn, however!

A cicada killer wasp. Photo credit: Division of Plant Industry

Another species of note is the cicada killer hornet. Also known as the giant ground hornet, these insects grow to a size of about an inch and a half in length. Instead of pollen, they capture cicadas to feed their young. Like the miner bee, though, they are not harmful. Females do possess a stinger which they use to hunt their prey. Males may try to warn people or animals away from their burrows by acting aggressive, but they have no stingers. Some may see the large size of the cicada killer and wonder if the so-called “murder hornet” has made its way from Washington state to Florida, but as of this writing it has not. Unless you are a cicada, you have nothing to fear.

One ground-dwelling hornet that does warrant some concern is the yellowjacket. These are communal hornets, living in hives that are often build underground. Yellowjackets are known for their bad attitudes, attacking anyone who disturbs the entrance to their nest. They can be beneficial, being predators of many other insects including plant pests. A colony located too close to human dwellings or areas of activity is most often a nuisance, however. Any attempts to control yellowjacket nests should be done at night when they are less active. Protective clothing is recommended even then. Large or difficult to reach nests may require the attention of a certified pest control company.

For more information on these topics, see our EDIS publications:

Miner Bees: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/in912

Cicada Killers: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/in573

Yellowjackets: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/IN238