Who’s Digging Up My Yard‽

Who’s Digging Up My Yard‽

Lawns and landscapes are greening up this time of year, and it’s not just plants showing signs of activity. All sorts of creatures are out there living their lives, and some of them are doing some digging.

From little piles of dirt to big mounds and long tunnels, it can be frustrating to figure out what is disrupting your carefully tended lawn or ornamental bed. Luckily, there are differences between the possible culprits. Here are some of the possibilities (see the associated links for more information and control methods):

  • A miner bee hole. Photo: Evan Anderson

    Miner Bees (and other ground nesting bees and insects) – Miner bees are harmless, solitary bees that tunnel into the soil. Not to be mistaken for yellowjackets, each bee digs her own small nest to lay her eggs in. Multiple such bees may be attracted to the same location, but they do not form hives and aren’t aggressive. Small mounds of soil may form around the entrances to their nests, but these will vanish after a rain.

  • Mole cricket tunnels. Photo: N. Leppa

    Mole crickets – These are crickets that dig small tunnels just under the surface of the soil. Several species live in Florida, one of which is native and is not a pest. Non-native species can become pests of turfgrass.

  • Moles – Small mammals (not rodents) that produce raised tunnels along the surface of the ground. They forage for insects among the roots of plants, and while their presence does have some benefits, many homeowners dislike their aesthetic contributions to the landscape. If you can overlook their tunnels, they do help aerate soil and eat pests like mole crickets, grubs, ant larvae, caterpillars, and slugs.
  • Pocket Gophers – Sometimes called “sandymounders” or “salamanders” by old-timers, these are small rodents that dig tunnels beneath the ground. Active especially in cooler months, they make a series of mounds of soil in a line along their tunnel as they excavate. They feed on roots, bulbs, and tubers, though their sand-mounding is often more a problem than their feeding.
  • A fire ant mound in the landscape. Photo: B. Drees

    Fire Ants – A single ant isn’t particularly threatening, but fire ants have found that thousands of rage-filled friends make a good deterrent. They build large mounds of soil to help regulate temperature and moisture in their nests, which can be quite unsightly in the landscape. Disturbing these mounds will unleash hordes of stinging ants, so beware; while they don’t necessarily do any harm to plants, they aren’t terribly friendly neighbors.

  • Squirrels -These tree-dwelling rodents may nest up in the boughs, but often come down to the ground to look for food. In doing so, they may dig small holes as they forage for nuts, seeds, and fungi. The holes they dig are typically shallow and usually not too much of a problem.
  • Armadillos – Nocturnal and heavily armored, the armadillo forages for insects in the ground. While it may sound beneficial to have an animal removing all the pest insects around, they aren’t careful about the damage they do while they feed. A hungry armadillo can dig numerous 3-5 inch wide, 1-3 inch deep holes in a lawn overnight, and may also burrow under structures, driveways, and patios.
  • Yellowjackets – Yellowjackets are a bit of an honorable mention for this list, due to the fact that their digging often goes unseen. These ground-dwelling hornets leave no mounds or raised tunnels to identify their nests by. Instead, a small hole is often the only indication they are present, until a person or pet disturbs them. Then…surprise! It’s time for stinging, screaming, and crying.

For animal pests, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission maintains a list of nuisance wildlife trappers at https://public.myfwc.com/HGM/NWT/NWTSearch.aspx. For insects, you may need to contact a local pest control specialist or company. For help in identifying a problem, contact your local Extension office.

Full Moon Fever: Wolf Spiders and Werewolves

Full Moon Fever: Wolf Spiders and Werewolves

The Carolina wolf spider (Hogna Corolinensis) is the largest wolf spider, measuring up to 22-35 mm. It is the state spider of South Carolina, the only state that recognizes a spider as a state symbol. Photo by Eugene E. Nelson, Bugwood.org.

The Carolina wolf spider (Hogna Corolinensis) is the largest wolf spider, measuring up to 22-35 mm. It is the state spider of South Carolina, the only state that recognizes a spider as a state symbol. Photo by Eugene E. Nelson, Bugwood.org.

Halloween coincides with a full moon this year, so you may want to be on the lookout for hungry werewolves. In your garden, you may also be on the lookout for a much smaller, yet just as frightful, type of wolf. Well – wolf spider, that is!

But have no fear, just as the little werewolves of the neighborhood will be sated by a handful of sweets, a wolf spider will be satisfied once it finds its meal of choice. Wolf spiders are predators, feeding primarily on insects and other spiders. Much like a werewolf, wolf spiders prefer to stalk their prey at night. This is good news for gardeners – as it means you’ll have an insect hunter working for you while you sleep.

Wolf spiders are in the family Lycosidae, and there are over 2,000 species within this family. Lycos means “wolf” in Greek, inspired by the way wolves stalk their prey. Although, unlike wolves who hunt in packs, wolf spiders are very much solitary. These spiders do not spin webs; instead, they keep to the ground, where they can blend in with leaf litter on the soil floor. Some wolf spiders even dig tunnels, or use tunnels dug by other animals, to hide and hunt.

Although most spiders have poor eyesight, wolf spiders have excellent vision, which they use to spot prey. Photo by James O. Howell, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org.

Although most spiders have poor eyesight, wolf spiders have excellent vision, which they use to spot prey. Photo by James O. Howell, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org.

Wolf spiders have eight eyes that are arranged in three rows. This includes four small eyes in the lowest row, two very large eyes in the middle, and two medium-sized eyes off to either side on top. Some of their eyes even have reflective lenses that seem to sparkle in the moonlight. Using their excellent eyesight and sensitivity to vibrations, they stealthily stalk prey such as ants, grasshoppers, crickets, and other spider species. Female wolf spiders, which are bigger than males, may even take down the occasional lizard or frog.

No matter the meal, many wolf spiders pounce on their prey, hold it between their eight legs, and roll with it onto their backs, creating a trap. They then sink their powerful fangs, which are normally retracted inside the jaw, into the victim. The fangs have a small hole and hollow duct, which allows venom from a specialized gland to pass through during the bite. This venom quickly kills the prey, allowing the wolf spider to eat in peace.

Although wolf spiders could bite a person if threatened, they prefer to run away, and their venom is not very toxic to humans. If you do get bitten, you may have some swelling and redness, but no life-threatening symptoms have been reported. Werewolves on the other hand? For these, you’re on your own!

Cicadas:  Loud and Large but not Much of a Pest in Florida

Cicadas: Loud and Large but not Much of a Pest in Florida

Adult cicada on tree branch

Adult cicada on tree branch, Photo credit: Lyle Buss, UF Entomologist

“What is that noise,” asked the visitors to Middle Georgia when I was a teenager. They were visiting during the summer from El Paso, Texas. I asked, “What noise?” The reply, “That loud noise in the trees.” I responded, “Oh, those are cicadas.’ There are sounds that are so common that sometimes you quit hearing them.

Before the visitors left for El Paso, I made sure to show them the brown, dry shells (exoskeletons) of cicadas that are not difficult to find attached to the trunk of a Georgia pine tree during summer. Cicadas leave their nymph exoskeletons on the trunks of trees and sometimes shrubs when they shed them to become mature flying adults.

You may not have ever seen a cicada but you’ve undoubtedly heard one if you live in Florida. These insects make a loud buzzing noise during the day in the spring and summer. Male cicadas produce their distinctive calls with drum-like structures called timbals, located on the sides of their abdomens. The sound is mainly a calling song to attract females for mating.

Cicadas spend most of their life underground as nymphs (immature insects) feeding on the sap of roots, including trees, grasses as well as other woody plants. They can live 10 or more years underground as nymphs. In some parts of the United States, there will be news reports of when periodical cicadas are expected to emerge from the ground. Periodical cicada species mature into adults in the same year, usually on 13- or 17-year life cycles. Their numbers can be enormous as they emerge, gaining much local attention. However, cicada species in Florida emerge every year from late spring through fall and in much smaller numbers as compared to the periodical cicadas.

Cicada emerging from exoskeleton

Cicada emerging from exoskeleton, Photo credit: Lyle Buss, UF Entomologist

There are at least nineteen species of cicadas in Florida, ranging from less than a ¼ inch to over 2 inches in length. Some people might be frightened by their size and sounds but thankfully cicadas don’t sting or bite. They are a food source for wildlife, including some bird species and mammals.

Very rarely, I’ll have someone ask about small twigs from trees found on the ground as a result of the female cicada’s egg-laying process. But because this is usually such a minor issue with practically no permanent damage to any tree, cicadas really aren’t considered to be a pest of any significance in Florida.

For more information on cicadas, contact the University of Florida Extension Office in your County. Or visit the following UF/IFAS web page. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in602

Overcup Oak – The Best Landscape Tree You’ve Never Heard Of

Overcup Oak – The Best Landscape Tree You’ve Never Heard Of

7 year old Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata) on the edge of a wet weather pond in Calhoun County. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Haunting alluvial river bottoms and creek beds across the Deep South, is a highly unusual oak species, Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata).  Unlike nearly any other Oak and most sane people, Overcups occur deep in alluvial swamps and spend most of their lives with their feet wet.   Though the species hides out along water’s edge in secluded swamps, it has nevertheless been discovered by the horticultural industry and is becoming one of the favorite species of landscape designers and nurserymen around the South.  The reasons for Overcup’s rise are numerous, let’s dive into them.

First, much of the deep South, especially in the Coastal Plain, is dominated by poorly drained flatwoods soils cut through by river systems and dotted with cypress and blackgum ponds.  These conditions call for landscape plants that can handle hot, humid air, excess rainfall, and even periodic inundation (standing water).  It stands to reason our best tree options for these areas, Sycamore, Bald Cypress, Red Maple, and others, occur naturally in swamps that mimic these conditions.  Overcup Oak is one of these hardy species.  Overcup goes above and beyond being able to handle a squishy lawn, it is often found inundated for weeks at a time by more than 20’ of water during the spring floods our river systems experience.

The same Overcup Oak thriving under inundation conditions 2 weeks after a heavy rain. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

The species has even developed an interesting adaptation to allow populations to thrive in flooded seasons.  Their acorns, preferred food of many waterfowl, are almost totally covered by a buoyant acorn cap, allowing seeds to float downstream until they hit dry land, thus ensuring the species survives and spreads.  While it will not survive perpetual inundation like Cypress and Blackgum, if you have a periodically damp area in your lawn where other species struggle, Overcup will shine.

Overcup Oak is also an exceedingly attractive tree.  In youth, the species is extremely uniform, with a straight, stout trunk and rounded “lollipop” canopy.  This regular habit is maintained into adulthood, where it becomes a stately tree with a distinctly upturned branching habit, lending itself well to mowers and other traffic underneath without having to worry about hitting low-hanging branches.  The large, lustrous green leaves are lyre-shaped if you use your imagination (hence the name, Quercus lyrata) and turn a not-unattractive yellowish brown in fall.  Overcups especially shines in the winter, however, when the whitish gray, shaggy bark takes center stage.  Overcup bark is very reminiscent of White Oak or Shagbark Hickory and is exceedingly pretty relative to other landscape trees that can be successfully grown here.

Overcup Oak leaves in August. Note the characteristic “lyre” shape. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

Finally, Overcup Oak is among the easiest to grow landscape trees.  We have already discussed its ability to tolerate wet soils and our blazing heat and humidity, but Overcups can also tolerate periodic drought, partial shade, and nearly any soil pH.  They are long-lived trees and have no known serious pest or disease problems.  They transplant easily from standard nursery containers or dug from a field (if it’s a larger specimen), making establishment in the landscape an easy task.  In the establishment phase, defined as the first year or two after transplanting, young, transplanted Overcups require only a weekly rain or irrigation event of around 1” (wetter areas may not require any supplemental irrigation) and bi-annual applications of a general purpose fertilizer, 10-10-10 or similar.  After that, they are generally on their own without any help!

Typical shaggy bark on 7 year old Overcup Oak. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.

If you’ve been looking for an attractive, low-maintenance tree for a pond bank or just generally wet area in your lawn or property, Overcup Oak might be your answer.  For more information on Overcup Oak, other landscape trees and native plants, give your local UF/IFAS County Extension office a call!

Summertime figs

Summertime figs

Ripe figs are a deep shade of pink to purple. Larger green figs will ripen in a few days. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Summer is full of simple pleasures—afternoon rainstorms, living in flip flops, and cooling off in a backyard pool. Among these, one of my favorites is walking out my door and picking handfuls of figs right from the tree. Before we planted our tree, my only prior experience with the fruit was a Fig Newton—I’d never eaten an actual fig, much less one picked fresh. Now, they are my favorite fruit.

Native to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, figs were introduced to Florida in the 1500’s by Spanish explorers. Spanish missionaries introduced these relatives of the mulberry to California a couple hundred years later. Figs are best suited to dry, Mediterranean-type climates, but do quite well in the southeast. Due to our humidity, southern-growing figs are typically fleshier and can split when heavy rains come through. The biggest threats to the health of the trees are insects, disease (also due to our more humid climate) and root-knot nematodes.

Fig trees can grow quite large and produce hundreds of fruit each year. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Our tree started out just a couple of feet tall, but 15 years ago we replanted it along a fence in our back yard. It grew so large (easily 25 feet tall and equally wide) that it hangs over our driveway, making it handy to grab a few as I head out for a walk or hop in the car to run errands. The tree is in full sun at the bottom of a slope, and seems to be a satisfied recipient of all the runoff from our backyard. This position has resulted in a thick layer of soil and mulch in which it thrives. In the last year, we pruned it down to an arms-reach height so that we could actually get to the figs being produced.

We usually see small green fruit start to appear in early May, becoming fat and ripe by the second half of June. The tree produces steadily through early August, when the leaves turn crispy from the summer heat and there’s no more fruit to bear. The common fig doesn’t require a pollinator, so only one tree is necessary for production. The fiber-rich fig is also full of calcium, potassium, and vitamins A, E, and K. As it turns out, the “fruit” is actually a hollow peduncle (stem) that grows fleshy, forming a structure called a synconium. The synconium is full of unfertilized ovaries, making a fig a container that holds both tiny flowers and fruit in one.

The insides of a fig show the small flowering structures that form the larger fruit. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

With the hundreds of figs we’ve picked, my family has made fig preserves, fig ice cream, baked figs and of course eaten them raw. We typically beg friends and neighbors to come help themselves—and bring a ladder—because we can’t keep up with the productivity. The local birds and squirrels are big fans, too. Often you can tell you’re near our tree from around the block, as the aroma of fermenting fruit baking on the driveway is far-reaching.

No matter what you do with them, I encourage planting these trees in your own yard to take full advantage of their sweet, healthy fruit and sprawling shade. As Bill Finch of the Mobile (AL) botanical gardens has written, “fresh…figs are fully enjoyed only by the family that grows them, and the very best figs are inevitably consumed by the person who picks them.”

 

Pawpaw – A Fruit with an Identity Crisis

Pawpaw – A Fruit with an Identity Crisis

The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a native edible that is often overlooked and misunderstood.  Not only does it produce a delicious fruit that looks like a mango and tastes like a banana, but it is also an aesthetic landscape plant.  This fruit is slowly gaining popularity with younger generations and a handful of universities (Kentucky State University and the University of Missouri) are working on cultivar improvements.

A pawpaw tree in the woods.

A pawpaw tree growing in the woods. Photo credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

The pawpaw is native to the eastern United States (USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5-8), however it’s closest relatives are all tropical such as the custard apple, cherimoya, and soursop.  The pawpaw, along with these fruits, are known for their custard-like texture which may be a unpleasant for some consumers.  Pawpaws are relatively hardy, have few insect pests, and can still produce fruit in partial shade (although they produce more fruit when grown in full sun).

Pawpaws perform best in moist, well-drained soils with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0.  They are found growing wild in full to partial shade, but more fruit are produced when trees are grown in full sun.  However, pawpaws need some protection from wind and adequate irrigation in orchard settings.  Trees can grow to between 12 feet to 25 feet tall and should be planted at least 15 feet apart.  In the Florida Panhandle, flowers bloom in early spring and fruit ripen from August to October depending on variety and weather.

Young pawpaw fruit

Young pawpaw fruit growing on a small tree. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension at Santa Rosa County

A number of improved cultivars of pawpaws have been developed that produce more fruit with more flavor than native seedlings/saplings.  The University of Missouri has conducted trials on the following pawpaw cultivars:  ‘Sunflower’; ‘PA Golden’; ‘Wells’; ‘NC-1’; ‘Overleese’; ‘Shenandoah’; ‘Susquehanna’; and ’10-35′.  Most of these cultivars performed well in southern Missouri, however yields may differ in the Florida Panhandle.  The full results of the trial can be found in the “Pawpaw – Unique Native Fruit” publication.

Pawpaws can be propagated by seed or cuttings.  Unlike most fruit trees, pawpaws are usually true to seed meaning that saved seed produces a tree with similar characteristics to the parent tree.  To save seeds, place fresh seeds in a bag of moist peat moss and refrigerate for 3 to 4 months before planting.  To vegetatively propagate, take cuttings (pencil thin in diameter) in the winter and store in a refrigerator until early spring.  Cuttings should be chip budded onto seedling rootstock during the spring.  Please visit this publication from the University of Nebraska for more information on chip budding.

Pawpaw fruit are ready to harvest when they are slightly soft when gently squeezed.  Fruits picked prior to being fully ripe, but after they start to soften, will ripen indoors at room temperature or in a refrigerator.  Already-ripe fruit will stay fresh for a few days at room temperature or for a few weeks in the refrigerator.  To enjoy pawpaw fruit throughout the year, scoop out the flesh, remove the seeds, and place the flesh in freezer bags and freeze.

Whether you want to add more native plants to your landscape or you are a rare and unusual fruit enthusiast, pawpaw may be the tree for you.  They can be utilized as a focal point in the garden and provide delicious fruit for your family.  For more information on pawpaw or other fruit trees, please contact your local Extension Office.