April is Safe Digging Month

April is Safe Digging Month

Call 811 before you dig.  No one wants a weekend project to be the cause of internet, phone and cable outages. Worse yet, what if someone gets hurt from contact with natural gas or electrical lines?  That’s why it is so important to have buried utilities in the yard located and marked before digging.  Sunshine 811 coordinates each individual company to clearly mark where the service lines are located.  Homeowners are required by law to contact 811 three days before any soil removal is done.  The service is free.

Have information prepared before making the request.  Describe the work to be performed (e.g. fence install, landscaping, irrigation install), including the type of equipment that will be used. Specify the exact location on the property and how long the work will continue.  Finally, provide all the contact information (e.g. name, phone number, e-mail), should there be any additional questions.

Call 811 or request a single address ticket online.  Receive a ticket number and wait two full business days, not counting weekends or holidays.  Then contact 811 again.  Make sure that all the utilities have responded in the Positive Response System (PRS).  Sometimes that may mean that the company doesn’t have anything to make in the area.

If there are utility lines running through the yard, they will be marked with specifically colored paints or flags.  Red is used for electrical lines, orange indicates communication lines, yellow means gas, blue is used for potable water, purple is reclaimed water, and green indicates sewer lines.  White lines may be used to outline digging areas and pink are temporary survey marks.  This is the APWA Uniform Color Code.

Every effort is made to locate the lines as accurately as possible.  But, the safest thing to do is hand dig to expose the utility line before using any mechanized equipment.  Lines can vary up to 24” from the marked line and depths can be less than 5”.  Remember there may be access lines running through the property even if that service isn’t utilized at that address.

Keep safe this spring.  Call 811 before digging.

Landscaping with Native Plants

Landscaping with Native Plants

Landscaping with native plants brings opportunities and challenges while adding diversity and beauty to the home.  There are many factors that come into play to successfully grow plants.  As gardeners, we all want things to look exceptional for all to enjoy.  Native plants have evolved over long periods of time naturally in a given region without intervention, bringing much needed diversity to natural areas and landscapes.  A big plus for natives are the flowers presented for the local bee populations and other pollinators assisting in the continuation of the plant species potentially established over thousands of years.

Landscape of Native Plants.

Landscape of Native Plants. Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS Extension Santa Rosa County

Native plants have evolved in natural communities and are found to be interdependent not only plant to plant yet with soil type, soil microbial activity through bacteria and fungus, specific site location and others though biodiversity of these living communities.  Part of this community is often referred to as the soil web creating the connections of billions upon billions of organisms in the critical survival of the plants, insects and other animals we see.  The first steps when considering native plants for your landscape are to do your research and contact your local Extension office.  Some questions to consider may include: Does it grow best in well drained sand or wet soils or require high in organic matter?  Will full sun, part-shade to full shade be needed?

Coontie Palm in landscape.

Coontie Palm in Landscape. Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS Extension Santa Rosa

Plants that are native and non-native are often seen in the same landscape setting.  Consideration should be taken to determine if either of the groups are aggressive in expanding beyond the intended plant setting.  Before moving on, non-native is in reference to plants that are introduced to a plant community that came from a totally different plant location.  An example of that location being hollies from southeast Asia or South America or even a different area of the United States.  Many have been researched and observed for many years under managed situations before being introduced into the local landscape nursery markets.  Once in a while a plant is introduced that has not gone through a long rigorous study and can become naturalized outside of its normal plant zones and establish as an invasive species.  This highly adaptable aggressive habit can, and often will colonize a given location out competing the native plants.  Kudzu is a good example of an invasive exotic plant that is naturalized in the southeastern U.S.

As gardeners there are opportunities to have positive impacts on some of these diminished native habitat areas that can be threatened by growth of urban and rural areas in Florida.  Establishing native plants areas into the landscape with proper soil preparation, managed water needs and more gives that chance for this interdependent system of plants, animals and nonliving elements to remain established with big impacts.

Virginia Sweetspire.

Virginia Sweetspire. Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, UF IFAS Extension Santa Rosa County

Native plants can be a working part of the garden from wonderful flowers, season color change, leaf foliage of multiple sizes and shapes to feed the insects that feed the birds, leaves and nuts that feed so many other animals for us to enjoy seeing.  Balance is such a big part of being a successful gardener.  Remember not all native plants are suitable for landscape spaces, do your research and ask for assistance from the experts to determine if it is the right plant for the right place.

 

 

Saw palmetto

Saw palmetto

Saw palmettos provide crucial ecosystem services for the forests of Florida. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is a classic symbol of Florida. Found in upland habitats and just to the edge of wetlands, their brilliant green fronds stand out in the mostly brown pine flatwoods and oak hammocks to which they are endemic. The shrublike saw palmetto thrives in sandy soils, is highly salt tolerant, and is tough as nails. The plant’s root is one of the sturdiest in nature. Imagine the trunk of a palm tree laid horizontally and just underground—this is the plant’s base. This root system lends stability and tolerance to nearly every tough Florida growing condition, including drought, floods, and fire. Saw palmettos are extremely slow growing, and there are stands in south Florida in which botanists have found individual plants and clonal colonies several thousand years old. Saw palmettos are one of the few members of the palm family that thrive in the panhandle. While many palm trees are planted here, most are native to more southern climates with warmer winters and karst geology—a higher pH soil composed of limestone and often prone to springs and sinkholes.

The tough, serrated edges of the saw palmetto gave it its name. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The saw palmetto’s name comes from the serrated, saw-like edges of the stem. These are quite tough and can cut your skin and clothing if not careful. A very similar palmetto, the bluestem, grows in wetter soils. It can be differentiated from the saw palmetto because its stems are smooth—no serrated edges—and the whole plant has a bluish cast to it.

The saw palmetto has long been prized by humans for its practical uses. The “ethnobotanical” history of this plant has ties to Native American tribes who used the fronds for roofing and building material, brooms, fishing nets, and fans. The leaves were utilized for rope, and multiple plant parts for food and medicine. The dark blue/black fruit of the saw palmetto was considered an aphrodisiac and has been used to treat prostate problems for centuries. According to a UF publication on the saw palmetto, “Modern day development of a purified extract from the berries greatly improves symptoms of enlarged prostate. Florida is the biggest source and producer of saw palmetto products. With about 2,000 tons harvested from South Florida and exported to Europe each year, the fruit crop estimate is $50 million a year in the state.”

Saw palmetto berries are a staple of Florida wildlife diets. Photo credit: UF School of Forest Resources & Conservation

Besides the human uses, saw palmetto serves as a crucial component in the diet of native wildlife. Florida black bears, panthers, 20 other species of mammals, over 100 types of birds, 25 amphibians, over 60 reptiles, and countless insects depend on saw palmetto berries as part of their diet. The wild harvest of saw palmettos is regulated by the state to prevent overharvesting and negative impacts to the wildlife food supply.

Saw palmettos also make a great home landscape plant, as they can grow in a wide variety of conditions, provide wildlife food and habitat, and add visual interest. There are few plants more “low-maintenance” than an established saw palmetto. A mature one is so difficult to remove, that it’s best to leave it where it is anyway!

Go Bananas in Your Landscape!

Go Bananas in Your Landscape!

Bananas are a great choice for your landscape, whether as an edible fruit producer or simply as an ornamental, giving your space a tropical vibe.

Bananas are native to southeast Asia, however, grow well across Florida. Complementary plants that can be paired with bananas in the landscape are bird of paradise (banana relative), canna lily, cone ginger, philodendron, coontie, and palmetto palm, just to name some.

Bananas are very easy to manage during the warmer months. Bananas are water loving, and that’s putting it lightly. Planting in vicinity of an eave on your home is a good measure for site suitability. Roof rainwater will drastically increase the growth of the banana tree and decrease the need for supplemental irrigation. Banana trees will need full sun and high organic moist soils create the best environment. For nutrition, a seasonal one-pound application of 6-2-12 fertilizer is a good practice to sustain older trees. Young trees should be fertilized every two months for the first year at a rate of a half-pound.

Musa basjoo

Musa basjoo is one of the most cold hardy banana varieties. Photo Credit: University of Florida/IFAS Extension

If there is a con to banana trees, it’s their cold hardiness. Some varieties fair well and others some not so much. ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ (Musa acuminate) is a popular variety that is found in many garden centers in the state. It produces fruit very well, but it is not very cold hardy. ‘Pink Velvet’ (Musa velutina) produces fruit with a bright pink peel, but isn’t very cold hardy either. A couple of cold hardy ornamental varieties are the ‘Japanese Fiber’ (Musa basjoo) and ‘Black Thai’ (Musa balbisiana), which is by far the most cold hardy, with the ability to easily combat below freezing temperatures.

freeze damage on a banana tree

Freeze damage on a banana tree. Photo Credit: Ray Bodrey, University of Florida Extension – Gulf County

Regardless of cold hardiness, in many cases, banana trees will turn brown after freezing temperatures occur or even if the temperatures reach just above the freezing mark, but will bounce back in the spring. Until then, it’s important not to prune away the brown leaves or trunk skin. These leaves act as an insulator and help defend against freezing temperatures. Usually, the last freezing temperatures that may occur in the Panhandle are around the first of April. So, to be safe, pruning can begin by mid to late April. When pruning, be sure to be equipped with a sharp knife, gloves and work clothes. Banana trunk skin and leaves can be quite fibrous and the liquid from the tree can stain clothing and hands.

So, what’s the best variety of fruiting bananas? Most ornamental bananas do not produce tasty fruit. If you are looking for a production banana, ‘Lady Finger’, ‘Apple’, and ‘Ice Cream’ are popular varieties, but are better suited for the central and southern parts of the state.

For more information, contact your local county extension office.

Supporting information for this article can be found on the UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions website.

Also, for more information see the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, “Banana Growing in the Florida Home Landscape”, by Jonathan H. Crane and Carlos F. Balerdi.

UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.

Choosing a Tree for Your Landscape

Choosing a Tree for Your Landscape

American fringetree Chionanthus virginicus), a native deciduous small tree with delicate blooms in spring. Photo credit: Mary Salinas, UF/IFAS Extension.

January and February are ideal months for adding a tree or two to your landscape in the Florida panhandle. In the cooler weather, the ground stays moist for a longer time, which helps prevent drought stress and the drying out of the rootball. Also, the winds are generally milder, and the tree will have a chance to get established and anchored in before the wilder winds of summer roll in.

Before investing time and money in a tree, take a few minutes and be sure that the species you choose is right for your particular landscape.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Whether the area can accommodate the ultimate size of the tree, both height and width, and not grow into overhead wires, streetlights, or your house.
  • Are there any underground utilities or septic? A call to 811 can check on where your utilities are.
  • The hardiness zone for the tree. Be aware that zone 8 or 9 in the western United States is a different climate with respect to moisture than the same zone 8 or 9 in Florida.
  • Whether the tree can thrive in your soil – sandy, loam or clay, loose or compacted, high and dry, or wet and low.
  • The amount of sun it requires.
  • Whether you want native species that provide food and habitat for native birds and animals.
  • Salt-tolerance if located on the coast.
  • Wind tolerance, especially if located on the coast. Many fast-growing trees are brittle and susceptible to breakage.
  • Whether you prefer an evergreen or deciduous tree. Evergreen trees, like hollies, provide a natural screen all year while some deciduous trees, like maple and bald cypress, provide fall color.
  • Is the tree messy, dropping large seed pods, fruit, or leaves?
  • The color and shape of leaves and flowers and other ornamental qualities.
  • Whether the tree species has known disease or pest issues.

Florida red anise (Illicium floridanum), a small tree/large shrub for shady locations. Photo credit: Mary Salinas UF/IFAS Extension.

Once you choose what species of tree you will add to your landscape, here’s information on Selecting Quality Trees from the Nursery.

Optimum tree health and vigor also depends on the correct methods of Planting and Establishing Trees.

And this site has even more comprehensive information on trees and shrubs: University of Florida/IFAS Landscape Plants.

Upgrade Your Gardening with Quality Pruners!

Upgrade Your Gardening with Quality Pruners!

There is an old saying that rings true in pretty much any situation – “You get what you pay for.”  Gardening tools, especially pruners, are no exception.  We’ve all been there, fumbling around with a pair of rusty, dull, cheap garden pruners that just barely get the job done.  Unfortunately, they can also do considerable harm to the plants you’re trying to improve, as anything short of a nice, sharp, clean cut introduces the potential for insect/disease infestation and will produce a wound that takes much longer to heal, if it ever heals properly at all.  You wouldn’t want your doctor to start hacking away at you with a dirty, second-rate scalpel.  Don’t subject your plants to the same treatment!  While I’m not advocating blowing hundreds or thousands of dollars outfitting your garden tool shed with top of the line everything, investing in a pair of quality bypass hand pruners will pay dividends many years into the future and make your gardening experience much more enjoyable!

The classic Felco #4 bypass hand pruners. Photo courtesy of Walton County Master Gardener Andrea Schnapp.

Found in three designs, from old-fashioned anvil pruners that smush and smash their way to a cut, to ratcheting pruners that make short work of larger branches but tend to be cumbersome and complicated, to bypass pruners that produce clean cuts in a scissor-like manner, hand pruners accomplish many tasks in the landscape.  From cutting small limbs, to harvesting vegetables, to deadheading annual flowers and everything in between, there isn’t a more frequently used, versatile tool.  Therefore, it makes sense to buy a quality pair that will perform excellently, still be snipping long after your pruning days are over (if you take care of them), and that are comfortable enough you will enjoy using them.  When shopping for your pair of “forever” pruners, there are a few things to look for.

  • Only use bypass style pruners. Your plants will appreciate it.
  • Look for heavy duty pruners with frames made from quality aluminum or stainless steel; they won’t rust and won’t easily bend or break.
  • Buy pruners with replaceable parts. This is especially key because springs eventually rust and gum up and blades break and will eventually lose their ability to hold an edge over time (though you can and should resharpen them).

There are two commonly found brands that fit all three above criteria, albeit at different price points.  For a high quality “budget” blade, various models from Corona do an excellent job for the money ($20-30) and won’t hurt your feelings too badly if you happen to lose a pair.  Should you decide to splurge a little, Felco makes sharp, indestructible pruners, in multiple models around $50 to fit all size hands.  Felco has become the horticulture industry standard and you’d be hard pressed to find a nursery owner or landscaper that didn’t own a pair (or two).

Corona ComfortGel bypass hand pruner. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Regardless of which brand you buy (and there are many more than the two above listed) a pair of well-made pruners, if taken care of, should last a lifetime and make your gardening experience much more enjoyable for you and your plants!  If you have any questions about gardening tools or equipment or any other horticulture or agronomic topic, feel free to contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.  Happy Gardening!