It has been dry as a bone lately, and your landscape is beginning to reflect that fact. Before you call it the dreaded “D” word you should understand that these dry periods are part of our yearly weather cycle. This year, we are drier than usual which means we are indeed in a drought. This can be alarming as you’ve doubtless spent tons of time and money on your landscape and want it to thrive. Irrigating as much as possible may seem attractive but is not necessarily the best strategy. Let’s first look into a few questions. What happens to your plants when Mother Nature turns off the waterworks? What can be done to prevent the mass die-off of our landscape plants?
Before we delve too deeply into the subject, it’s worth taking a few lines to discuss what happens to plants in periods of drought. Many will close the tiny pinpricks in their leaves known as stomata to prevent water loss. This is known as a drought avoidance strategy, and while seemingly foolproof also prevents moisture absorption while shutting down photosynthesis. If this condition persists, the plant will begin to lose the macronutrient carbon and sugars. When a lack of water becomes long term, the plant will perish as it lacks resources.
Other plants utilize a drought tolerance strategy. Unlike the avoidance strategy, these plants leave their stomata wide open despite the lack of moisture in the soil. The advantage here is that photosynthesis never stops. They’re banking on a return of water before they perish from dehydration. Most of your landscape plants utilize the first of these strategies. Your gardening habits and strategies are crucial to keep your plants thriving even in our extreme heat.
The practices you implement in your gardens are what we refer to in this business as “cultural practices.” You may have heard of these at lectures on Integrated pest management, but they are just as applicable in landscape management.
Irrigation is easily the most crucial of these practices as improper watering is the number one killer of plants. Deeper watering delivered less frequently encourages deeper rooting and higher drought tolerance. Irrigation should occur early in the morning just before sunrise to prevent evaporation and mitigate fungal issues as plant water use begins at sun rise. Frequency and volume are the next critical factors in watering. Turf grasses need 1/2 to 3/4 inch of water, but only when they present the three signs of wilt including folded blades, a bluish-grey hue, and lingering footprints. Bedding and landscape plants are a little trickier as they don’t have standardized signs of wilt. You’ll need to pay close attention for loss of vigor in the leaves which are likely to be subtle. When these signs present, apply enough water to reach their root zone. A great way to extend the time between irrigation events is to amend soils with organic matter and to utilize mulch. These retain moisture keeping your plants less thirsty.
Fertilization can be another far more detrimental to plant growth than you think. While it’s true that your plants need nutrition for vigorous growth, only those deficient in the soil are limiting factors. This is simply not possible to create a fertilization strategy without soil testing. Your extension office can facilitate testing, which should occur at a minimum every three years. Balance these deficiencies with your plant’s needs to create a healthy landscape.
Pruning is the final practice to look at for healthy landscapes. Turfgrasses need to be cut at a height conducive to their growth. This varies for each grass type, so make sure you know yours. Landscape plants may also need species specific pruning practices such as deadheading to maintain healthy growth.
To Sum Up
The key takeaway from this article is that stress free plants are more capable of tolerating less than ideal growth environments. Familiarize yourself with the needs of your plants and provide them with what they need to thrive. Very often this means less intensive maintenance practices. For more information, see this Ask IFAS document, or contact your local extension agent for additional information on this and any topic regarding your gardens and more.
Throughout the year, people with citrus trees of any sort may notice some damage to the leaves. Chewing damage, which leaves pieces of the leaf missing, is a common sight. The likely culprit for this type of damage is an insect that is very common in our area, but seems to have multiple personalities!
The adult form of this peculiar creature is the giant swallowtail butterfly, Papilio cresphontes Cramer. A large black-and-yellow butterfly, it is found throughout the country east of the Rocky Mountains, and is present in north Florida most months of the year. Adults spend their days as many other butterflies do, flitting from flower to flower in search of nectar. They are attracted to a wide variety of blossoms, pollinating as they go.
The giant swallowtail butterfly. Photo courtesy of Donald Hall, University of Florida
Females lay tiny round eggs individually on the surface of plant leaves. Though their larvae may eat numerous types of leaves, one of their favorites seems to be those of citrus trees. This means that though the adults may be considered beneficial as pollinators, their caterpillars are often thought of as pests.
Bird poop or caterpillar? The orange dog caterpillar is, in fact, a caterpillar.
Similarly, the beauty of the adult butterfly is quite different than the appearance of their younger selves. The caterpillar of the giant swallowtail, often called the ‘orange dog’ caterpillar, relies on camouflage to keep itself safe. Even with this it displays multiple personalities, so to speak. Larvae of any age may be mistaken as bird droppings on a leaf. Their irregular patches of white and brown make them look like the leavings of a passing avian, which predators are probably likely to pass over. Older caterpillars have another trick up their sleeve, with markings on their head that mimic the head of a snake. Disturb one enough and it may even flash a forked, bright orange protuberance called the osmeterium, which may resemble the tongue of a snake. This gland also emits a musky odor to make the insect even less attractive to potential predators.
Snake or caterpillar? The osmeterium might look like a snake’s tongue, but don’t be fooled. Photo courtesy of Donald Hall, University of Florida
Whether wearing a beautiful, ugly, or scary face, these insects are here to stay. Thankfully, they don’t often do enough damage to citrus trees for homeowners to worry about. Young trees in danger of being defoliated may need some protection, but an established tree can lose a leaf or three with no issues.
If control is called for, hand-picking the caterpillars is a viable option, as long as the tree is small enough to reach the branches. A product called Bt, short for Bacillus thuringiensis, is another option. Applied to the leaves, this insecticide only affects caterpillars, and shouldn’t harm other pollinators.
Weeds can be the bane of the gardener’s existence and Extension Agents get a lot of questions on how to manage them throughout the year. Whether you are growing edibles, ornamentals, or turfgrass you have probably encountered a plant out of place which is basically the general definition of a weed. Just like with any other landscape challenge the first thing you need to do when dealing with weeds is accurate identification. Understanding the life cycle of the pest (weed in this case) you are targeting will be key for the most effective control with minimal inputs. Your local Extension office can assist with weed identification, and you can find a list by county here.
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Below are the links that were shared during the episode in the order discussed if you would like to follow along:
You’re in the right hands if you want to grow pumpkins in Florida. While growing pumpkins can be tricky in Florida’s hot and humid climate, you can successfully grow Sunshine State pumpkins with the proper planning and care. Pumpkin is a popular vegetable in the cucurbit family. It shares this family with members of summer and winter squash. The pumpkin varieties differ from those called squashes by having coarser, more intensely flavored flesh and rinds that are softer at maturity than the winter squashes but harder than the summer squashes. Pumpkins refers to certain varieties of C. pepo L., C. moschata Duch. ex Poir., C. mixta Pang., and C. maxima Duch. Local tradition and common usage may dictate that a particular variety is called a squash in one area of the country and a pumpkin in another.
Pumpkin Varieties Choosing the right pumpkin variety is a major decision when growing pumpkins in Florida. Not all pumpkin varieties are suited to Florida’s warm and humid climate. Seminole Pumpkin is a native pumpkin variety well-suited to the state’s warm and humid environment. Traditionally grown by the Calusa, Creek, and Miccosukee peoples, Seminole pumpkins remain one of the tastiest and most reliable for Florida gardens. Seminole pumpkins are known for their hardiness and resistance to disease and pests. The Big Max variety is known for producing giant pumpkins that can weigh up to 100 pounds or more. Big Max pumpkins do well in Florida’s warm climate but may require extra care to prevent pests and diseases. The Jack-o-Lantern variety is the classic Halloween pumpkin for carving and decorating. Look for types suited to warm climates, such as “Funny Face” and “Big Moon.” The Pie Pumpkin variety is best used for cooking. If you plan to use your pumpkins for cooking, look for pie pumpkin varieties such as “Small Sugar” and “Early July.” These pumpkins are smaller and sweeter than carving pumpkins and are ideal for making pies, bread, and other baked goods.
Most pumpkin varieties need around four months to reach maturity. Pumpkins should be seeded by early July to be ready for Halloween. Spring pumpkins planted in March or April can be stored for use in October and November (though long storage is difficult in Florida). Early August seeding provides a fall crop for late November. Choose a sunny spot with well-drained soil for your pumpkin patch. Pumpkins can be grown in small gardens or containers if you need more space. Plant your pumpkin seeds about 1 inch deep and should be placed 6 feet in either direction, except for the bush types. Plant 3-4 seeds per hill, then thin when the plants are 2-4 inches tall.
Once your pumpkin seeds have sprouted, it’s time to start caring for your plants. Pumpkins need consistent moisture to grow, so be sure to water them regularly. Aim to give your plants about 1-2 inches of water per week. Water thoroughly after planting to help the seeds settle in. Climbing varieties like Seminole can be trellised for more space while using slings to support larger fruits. Use a balanced fertilizer to help your pumpkins grow strong and healthy. Apply the fertilizer according to the package instructions. Pumpkins do well with large amounts of compost. Place compost under each hill before seeding. Side dress with a handful every three weeks or as needed. Keep an eye out for pests such as squash bugs and cucumber beetles, which can damage your plants. If you notice any signs of pests or disease, treat your plants with a pesticide or fungicide as needed.
Like other cucurbits, pumpkins need bees for pollination to produce fruit. Bees are the primary pollinators for pumpkins, so make sure to plant flowers and other plants that attract bees to your garden. Each plant holds male and female flowers, and knowing the difference between them is essential. Male flowers have a long, thin stem and no fruit behind the flower. Female flowers have a swollen, bulbous base that will eventually become pumpkins. It’s essential to have a good balance of male and female flowers to ensure a proper fruit set. If large-size fruits are desired, keep only two fruits on the vine. Once two fruits are the size of baseballs, remove all others as they form.
Harvest and Storage
Pumpkins are ready to harvest when the skin is hard, and the stem is dry and brown. Cut the stem about 2 inches above the pumpkin. After harvesting, allow your pumpkins to cure in a cool, dry place for 10-14 days. Curing helps the skin to harden and protect the pumpkin from pests and diseases. Once your pumpkins are cured, store them in a cool, dry place with good air circulation. Avoid storing them on concrete or damp surfaces, which can cause them to rot. Pumpkins keep for a few weeks, but long-term storage of 1–4 months is challenging in Florida. Store them in a dry (70% RH) and cool (50–60°F) place where possible.
When you hear the word “pollinator”, what is the first insect that comes to mind? If I had to guess, you would probably say honey bee. European honey bees play an important role in agriculture as pollinators and honey producers, but there are hundreds of native pollinators often overshadowed by the beloved honey bee you should know about, too!
One such group of pollinators native to Florida are sweat bees. Sweat bees get their unfortunate name from their nutritional requirements of salt that are sometimes sourced from sweaty humans. They rarely sting but are capable, and they can certainly be annoying to people when they lick salt off their skin. This behavior tends to get more attention than their important role as pollinators.
A subgroup of sweat bees are furrow bees. Furrow bees nest in the ground or rotting wood and may be solitary or eusocial. In-ground nests are composed of branching tunnels in sandy soil at a depth between 8 inches and 3 feet with a small entry roughly the size of a pencil. Within the tunnels, the mother creates individual cells stocked with nectar and pollen and lays an egg. The larva feeds on these provisions and pupates underground eventually emerging as an adult. The life cycle can vary from a few weeks to a year or more depending on species and environmental conditions.
Furrow bees are generalist feeders which means they will visit many different flowers, so diverse landscapes are attractive to them. In my northwest Florida garden, I see them often on sunflowers, Black-eyed Susan, coneflower, cosmos, tithonia, zinnia, and tickseed.
The Multicolored Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) was introduced from Asia and intentionally and quickly established itself over the entire United States.
The Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle (MALB) adults can be distinguished from other lady beetle species by a pair of white, oval markings behind the head that form a black M-shaped pattern. Most adults have nineteen black spots on their forewings, but variability is common and spots may be missing. Adult MALBs consist of several color patterns (morphs), varying from solid orange to red with black spots.
This species is often mistaken for the seven spotted lady beetle (Coccinella septempunctata), which was introduced from Europe. Both species are usually found feeding on the same insect host and plants.
Both species tend to overwinter in large numbers. However, the Seven Spotted Lady Beetle overwinters under rocks, abandoned shrubs and forest edges. In contrast, the MALB is attracted to light and often aggregate and overwinter in dwellings, entering through cracks or crevices.
Due to the onset of winter and scarcity of food, MALB is more noticeable November to January in north Florida. As a result, they are a nuisance during the flight period, aggregating in walls and other parts of dwellings.
Once they enter your dwelling and experience warmth, they fly around and annoyance progresses. They produce a yellow, viscous, foul-smelling defensive substance when disturbed. The defensive substance usually leaves spots on furniture and the foul odor lingers in the air.
Seal building or caulked entry point to prevent infestation.
If beetles get inside your dwelling, a black light trap can be used.
Vacuum cleaners can be used to remove them, though, while effective, it will result in some spotting and foul odor.
In conclusion, though a nuisance, lady beetles are considered to be valuable natural enemies and should be tolerated and conserved when possible.
Supporting information for this article can be found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publications: