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, 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 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!
2020 has not been the most pleasant year in many ways. However, one positive experience I’ve had in my raised bed vegetable garden has been the use of a cover crop, Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)! Use of cover crops, a catch-all term for many species of plants used to “cover” field soil during fallow periods, became popular in agriculture over the last century as a method to protect and build soil in response to the massive wind erosion and cropland degradation event of the 1930s, the Dust Bowl. While wind erosion isn’t a big issue in raised bed gardens, cover crops, like Buckwheat, offer many other services to gardeners:
- Covers, like Buckwheat, provide valuable weed control by shading out the competition. Even after termination (the cutting down or otherwise killing of the cover crop plants and letting them decompose back into the soil as a mulch), Buckwheat continues to keep weeds away, like pinestraw in your landscape.
- Cover crops also build soil. This summer, I noticed that my raised beds didn’t “sink” as much as normal. In fact, I actually gained a little nutrient-rich organic matter! By having the Buckwheat shade the soil and then compost back into it, I mostly avoided the phenomena that causes soils high in organic matter, particularly ones exposed to the sun, to disappear over time due to breakdown by microorganisms.
- Many cover crops are awesome attractors of pollinators and beneficial insects. At any given time while my Buckwheat cover was flowering, I could spot several wasp species, various bees, flies, moths, true bugs, and even a butterfly or two hovering around the tiny white flowers sipping nectar.
- Covers are a lot prettier than bare soil and weeds! Where I would normally just have either exposed black compost or a healthy weed population to gaze upon, Buckwheat provided a quick bright green color blast that then became covered with non-stop white flowers. I’ll take that over bare soil any day.
Now that I’ve convinced you of Buckwheat’s raised bed cover crop merits, let’s talk technical and learn how and when to grow it. Buckwheat seed is easily found and can be bought in nearly any quantity. I bought a one-pound bag online from Johnny’s Selected Seeds for my raised beds, but you can also purchase larger sizes up to 50 lb bags if you have a large area to cover. Buckwheat seed germinates quickly as soon as nights are warmer than 50 degrees F and can be cropped continuously until frost strikes in the fall. A general seeding rate of 2 or 3 lbs/1000 square feet (enough to cover about thirty 4’x8’ raised beds, it goes a long way!) will generate a thick cover. Simply extrapolate this out to 50-80 lbs/acre for larger garden sites. I scattered seeds over the top of my beds at the above rate and covered lightly with garden soil and obtained good results. Unlike other cover crops (I’m looking at you Crimson Clover) Buckwheat is very tolerant of imperfect planting depths. If you plant a little deep, it will generally still come up. A bonus, no additional fertilizer is required to grow a Buckwheat cover in the garden, the leftover nutrients from the previous vegetable crop will normally be sufficient!
Past the usual cover crop benefits, the thing that makes Buckwheat stand out among its peers as a garden cover is its extremely rapid growth and short life span. From seed sowing to termination, a Buckwheat cover is only in the garden for 4-8 weeks, depending on what you want to use it for. After four weeks, you’ll have a quick, thick cover and subsequent mulch once terminated. After eight weeks or so, you’ll realize the plant’s full flowering and beneficial/pollinator insect attracting potential. This lends great flexibility as to when it can be planted. Have your winter greens quit on you but you’re not quite ready to set out tomatoes? Plant a quick Buckwheat cover! Yellow squash wilting in the heat of summer but it’s not quite time yet for the fall garden? Plant a Buckwheat cover and tend it the rest of the summer! Followed spacing guidelines and only planted three Eggplant transplants in a 4’x8’ raised bed and have lots of open space for weeds to grow until the Eggplant fills in? Plant a Buckwheat cover and terminate before it begins to compete with the Eggplant!
If a soil building, weed suppressing, beneficial insect attracting, gorgeous cover crop for those fallow garden spots sounds like something you might like, plant a little Buckwheat! For more information on Buckwheat, cover crops, or any other gardening topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Happy Gardening!
Milkweeds are appreciated for their beauty, but often we cultivate it for the benefit of the monarch butterflies who lay their eggs only on this plant genus. Avid butterfly gardeners want the monarch caterpillars to eat up the milkweed and become beautiful butterflies. Often instead, thousands of aphids show up and compete for space on the plants. These bright yellow aphids are known as oleander aphids.
Just how do aphids build up their populations so quickly? It seems that one day you have a small number on a few plants and then a few days later, thousands are all over your milkweed. Oleander aphids have a few advantages for quickly building their populations:
- All oleander aphids are female and do not need to mate to produce their young
- Aphids give birth to live young who immediately start feeding on the plant
- Aphids start reproducing when they are 4 to 10 days old and keep reproducing during their one-month life span
- When populations get heavy or the plant starts to decline, winged individuals are produced to migrate to new areas and plants.
What can or should you do to control this pest?
One option is to do nothing and let the natural enemies come in and do their job. One of the best is a very tiny wasp that you will likely never see. This parasitoid lays its eggs only inside aphids. The wasp larva feeds on the inside of the aphid and turns it into a round brown ‘mummy’ and then emerges when mature by making a round hole in the top of the aphid. Look closely with a hand lens at some of those brown aphids on your milkweed and you can see this amazing process. Another common predator I see in my own garden is the larvae of the hover fly or syrphid fly. You will have to look hard to see it, but it is usually there. Assassin bugs and lady beetles also commonly feed on aphids. The larvae of lady beetles look nothing like the adults but also are voracious predators of aphids – check out what they look like.
If you think your situation requires some sort of intervention to control the aphids, first check carefully for monarch eggs and caterpillars, keeping in mind that some may be very small. Remove them, shoo away any beneficial insects, and spray the plant completely with an insecticidal soap product. Recipes that call for dish detergents may harm the waxy coating on the leaves and should be avoided. The solution must contact the insect to kill it. Always follow the label instructions. Soap will also kill the natural enemies if they are contacted. One exception is the developing wasp in the aphid mummies – fortunately, they are protected inside as the soap does not penetrate. Oils derived from plants or petroleum can serve the same purpose as the insecticidal soap.
You also can squish the aphids with your fingers and then rinse them off the plant. If you only rinse them off, the little pests can often just crawl back onto the plant.
There are systemic insecticides, like neonicotinoids, that are taken up by plant roots and kill aphids when they start feeding on the plants. However, those products also kill monarch caterpillars munching on the plant and harm adult butterflies, bees, and other pollinators feeding on the nectar. So those products are not an option. Always read the product label as many pesticides are prohibited by law from being applied to blooming plants as pollinators can be harmed.
In the end, consider tolerating some aphids and avoid insecticide use in landscape.
A common question for gardeners at the end of the season is if one should till the soil or use no till practices. Opinions vary regarding this question, even among Extension Agents. However old crops harbor insects, both good and bad. This phenomenon was noticed on some recently cut back tomato plants. The intention was to cut the leftover spring garden tomatoes back to encourage fall production. Instead, a host plant for mealybugs was provided.
Mealybugs are soft-bodied insects that possess a covering of flocculent, white, waxy filaments. They are about 1/8 inch in length and usually pinkish or yellowish in color. Mealybugs have piercing-sucking mouthparts which they use to siphon fluids from the leaves, stems, and sometimes roots of many ornamental and vegetable plants. Mealybug damage produces discolored, wilted, and deformed leaves.
One very common example of an insect pest likely to claim residence in your garden’s crop residue, are squash bugs. They like to overwinter on squash, cucumber, and other cucurbit crop residue. If you choose to not till your garden and leave a portion of last seasons crop in your garden, then you should consider applying an insecticide to your spent crop at the end of the season. A product containing a pyrethrin or pyrethroid as an active ingredient would be a good broad spectrum insecticide to control any pest that may reside on plant residue. More information on pyrethrins and pyrehtroids can be found at the EPA webpage: Pyrethrins and Pyrethroids. If you choose to apply an insecticide, it is important that you follow the information on the label regarding pollinator protection. Another option is to plant a trap crop on the edge of your garden to help attract pest insects away from your desired crops. More information on trap crops can be found in the EDIS Publication: Intercropping, Pest Management and Crop Diversity.
So the answer to the till or no till question is…it depends. It is really up to the gardener. Yes, the residue from crops will add nutrients and organic matter to your soil, but it could also increase pest pressure in your garden. If you don’t plan to remove crop residue and don’t plan to till, then keep an eye out for what could be hiding in your garden.
Oleander caterpillars, which are active on some oleanders during summer, can provide a number of gardening lessons.
The adult moth is striking in appearance. The bluish to purplish moth has white dots on its black wings. The moths resemble wasps as they fly in and around oleander shrubs.
It’s the orange caterpillars with black spots and black hairs that cause problems for some gardeners.
Caterpillars are the larval stage of butterflies and moths. In order to enjoy watching butterflies and moths feeding on the nectar of flowers, some of the caterpillars must survive to become adult butterflies and moths. This is lesson number one.
Oleander caterpillars usually only feed on oleander plants. Oleanders are native to areas of Europe and Asia. This is lesson number two.
Oleander caterpillars benefit by us planting their food source in Florida.
This relationship between pest and plant is referred to as the key plant, key pest concept. Some other examples include St. Augustinegrass and chinch bugs, gardenias and whiteflies, crape myrtles and crape myrtle aphids, azaleas and azalea caterpillars, camellias and tea scale, roses and black spot, pecans and pecan scab, squash and squash vine borers.
Understanding this concept can be helpful in designing a “low maintenance” landscape.
When you plant roses, you plant everything that goes with roses, including the time and money required to maintain them. This applies to St. Augustinegrass, pecan trees, squash and oleanders. This is lesson number three.
Oleander caterpillars can temporarily damage the appearance of oleanders. But they cause no long-term damage for the plant. This is lesson number four. The damage is aesthetic. Oleander caterpillars can consume great numbers of leaves. However, if the plant is otherwise healthy, new leaves will be produced and the plant will continue to grow. The damage is temporary; there will be no evidence the plant ever had a problem.
To spray or not to spray for oleander caterpillars has to do with a person’s tolerance level.
If you can’t tolerate having oleander caterpillars around and the temporary aesthetic damage they cause, consider the use of Bacillus thuringiensis. It is sold under a number of brand names and many times is referred to as Bt. This bacterium only controls caterpillars so it is friendlier for the beneficial insects. When using any pesticide, always follow the label directions and precautions.
Here are links to UF/IFAS Extension publications with more info.