Guest Columnist Cathy Hardin: The trials and joys of trees

A healthy and diverse native forest provides many benefits for environmental and human health. Photo credit, Cathy Hardin

Trees often are low on priority lists – unless you had tree damage as a result of Hurricane Sally. However, you might be surprised to learn that trees played a beneficial, if somewhat behind the scenes, role for good this year and every year. And celebrating the good, while not ignoring potential problems, is important when making decisions involving trees.

Often trees are disparaged, especially after a severe storm. Many trees fell during Sally, causing costly clean up and often significant damage. Some trees were damaged: causing hazardous conditions, opportunities for the tree disease and insect infestation, or simply aesthetically unpleasant disfigurement. Even without storms, trees require care, can interfere with utilities and foundations, and require extra clean up certain times of year. Yet, healthy well-maintained trees might reduce wind speeds and damage for property underneath or on the leeward (downwind) side of trees. Trees also significantly reduce erosion and absorb stormwater.

Bald cypress. Photo credit, Cathy Hardin

Trees often give more than they take. Many studies have been done on the effects of green space on a person’s well-being, including lowering blood pressure, speeding up recovery times, and lessening depression and anxiety. Other social benefits include lowering crime rates, increasing property values, creating beauty and space for recreation and relaxation, and lowering cooling bills. They provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. We haven’t even begun to mention the material benefits such as fruit, nuts, wood, and the 5,000 plus commercial products made from trees (wood, roots, leaves, and saps).

Author and county forester Cathy Hardin demonstrates proper tree planting at a past Arbor Day program. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

So, celebrate trees this year! Winter is a great time to improve existing trees and to plant new ones. Florida Arbor Day is celebrated the on the third Friday in January – January 15, 2021. National Arbor Day is the last Friday in April. In Escambia County, the UF IFAS Extension office is holding several Arbor Day related events, including a drive-through tree giveaway on January 23. Even if you are not able to attend a public event in your area, you still can get out and celebrate trees. Below are some ideas.

 

 

Existing Trees
• Care for storm damaged trees.
o Contact an arborist for evaluation of potential hazards
o Properly prune out broken limbs to create a smooth surface
o Some trees may not be able to be successfully treated and need removal
o Most trees will recover, but might need time and/or multiple treatments
• Learn about proper pruning techniques to take care of smaller trees yourself
• When hiring a professional is required, hire a reputable company with a certified arborist on staff. Ensure the company has both Personal and Property Damage Liability Insurance and Worker’s Compensation Insurance. Arborists certified by the International Society of Arboriculture can be found at http://www.isa-arbor.com/findanarborist/arboristsearch.aspx.
• Take care of tree roots. Don’t compact the soil by parking or piling things in the root zone. Use caution
when applying any chemicals (fertilizer, herbicide, pesticides) to the soil or lawn. Read the label to
ensure it will not harm your tree.

Florida yew. Photo credit, Cathy Hardin

New Plantings
• Decide what species of tree is right for you, considering the soil type, size of opening, climate, and eventual size of tree.
• Plant the tree at the right depth, not too deep or too shallow.
• Keep it simple. Soil amendments, fertilizers, and staking are usually unnecessary, especially for small native trees.
• Mulch lightly over the root zone, but not against the trunk.
• Water regularly until the tree is established. (Three gallons per inch of tree diameter weekly – applied slowly at the root ball)
• Celebrate!
• Take a photo of your favorite tree to post on social media. Tag the Florida Forest Service!

Longleaf pine. Photo credit, Cathy Hardin

• Take a hike in the woods or a nearby park.
• Have a picnic with friends or family by a tree.
• Be grateful for your tree and its benefits.
• Teach a child about trees. There are many activities that can be used. Check out Project Learning Tree Activities for Families – Project Learning Tree (plt.org) or the Arbor Day Foundation www.ArborDay.org for a few ideas.
• Plant a new tree.

For more information on the benefits of trees, visit healthytreeshealthylives.org or www.vibrantcitieslab.com. The Florida Forest Service, a division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, manages more than 1 million acres of state forests and provides forest management assistance on more than 17 million acres of private and community forests. The Florida Forest Service is also responsible for protecting homes, forestland and natural resources from the devastating effects wildfire on more than 26 million acres. Learn more at FDACS.gov/FLForestService.

Cathy Hardin is the Escambia County Forester for the Florida Forest Service and can be reached at Cathy.Hardin@fdacs.gov.

Stormwater Ponds 101

Stormwater Ponds 101

Well-maintained stormwater ponds can become attractive amenities that also improve water quality. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Prior to joining UF IFAS Extension, I spent three years as a compliance and enforcement field inspector with the local Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) office. It was a crash course in drinking water regulation, wetlands ecology, stormwater engineering, and human psychology. For about half of that time, I worked in the stormwater section with an engineer, certifying the proper construction and specifications of stormwater treatment ponds built for residential and commercial developments. During a construction boom in 2000-2003, my coworkers and I traversed back roads from Perdido Key to Freeport, trying to catch every new project and make sure it was done right. If they weren’t, it also fell to the 3 of us to make sure mistakes were corrected.

Since 1982, Florida Statutes have required that rainfall landing on newly constructed impervious surfaces (rooftops, streets, parking lots, etc.) must be treated before turning into runoff that leaves the property and ends up in local water bodies. The pollutants in stormwater runoff—heavy metals, fertilizer, pesticides, trash, bacteria, and sediment—are the biggest sources of water quality problems for the state, more so even than industrial and agricultural sources.

The most common stormwater ponds have sandy bottoms, grassed berms, and piped inlets with riprap to slow the influx of water. Photo credit, Michelle Diller

Therefore, new developments are required to treat that runoff. This may be accomplished by several means, including regional stormwater ponds. However, the most common are still curbs and gutters, which drain to an often-rectangular hole in the ground with a chain-link fence around it. Ideally, water pools into these dry ponds while raining, reducing flood risk and holding water long enough to allow it to soak into the soil. Most of the ponds in northwest Florida have sandy bottoms that percolate easily. Maintenance is required, however, and when heavier soils, trash, or muck accumulate they must be cleaned out to function properly. Depending on the geology of any given location, the ponds may need sand filters or “chimneys” added to allow water to soak into the native soil.

Admiral Mason Park, adjacent to the Veterans’ Memorial Park along Pensacola Bay, is an example of a regional City stormwater treatment facility that also serves as a park. Photo credit: Visit Pensacola

If an area is naturally low-lying, close to the water table, or has highly organic, water-holding soils, it may be necessary to construct a “wet” stormwater pond. In these, water stands to a level below an overflow device, and can become a water feature for the development. Many residential developers will sell lots around a stormwater pond as “waterfront property” and a well-maintained one really can be a nice amenity. However, at their core, these are stormwater treatment mechanisms. A wet pond functions differently than a dry one and is dependent on healthy stands of shoreline vegetation to take up extra nutrients, metabolize them, and render them into harmless compounds. Many of these ponds have fountains to aerate the water and keep them from becoming stagnant. The City of Pensacola and Escambia County have several great examples of these types of ponds that serve as regional stormwater detention and community amenities. These were constructed in lower-lying areas to handle chronic problems with stormwater in areas that were built up and paved many decades before stormwater rules came into effect. Many other innovative and newer stormwater treatments exist as well, including bioretention, rainwater harvesting, green roofs, and pervious pavement.

 

Fall Color in Florida Swamps

Fall Color in Florida Swamps

A blackgum/tupelo tree begins changing colors in early fall. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

It’s autumn and images of red, brown, and yellow leaves falling on the forest floor near orange pumpkins enter our minds.  However, Florida isn’t necessarily known for its vibrant fall foliage, but if you know where to look this time of year, you can find some amazing scenery. In late fall, the river swamps can yield beautiful fall leaf color. The shades are unique to species, too, so if you like learning to identify trees this is one of the best times of the year for it. Many of our riparian (river floodplain) areas are dominated by a handful of tree species that thrive in the moist soil of wetlands. Along freshwater creeks and rivers, these tend to be bald cypress, blackgum/tupelo, and red maple. Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is also common, but its leaves stay green, with a silver-gray underside visible in the wind.

The classic “swamp tree” shape of a cypress tree is due to its buttressed trunk, an adaptation to living in wet soils. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is one of the rare conifers that loses its leaves. In the fall, cypress tress will turn a bright rust color, dropping all their needles and leaving a skeletal, upright trunk. Blackgum/tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) trees have nondescript, almost oval shaped leaves that will turn yellow, orange, red, and even deep purple, then slowly drop to the swamp floor. Blackgums and cypress trees share a characteristic adaptation to living in and near the water—wide, buttressed trunks. This classic “swamp” shape is a way for the trees to stabilize in the mucky, wet soil and moving water. Cypresses have the additional root support of “knees,” structures that grow from the roots and above the water to pull in oxygen and provide even more support.

A red maple leaf displaying its incredible fall colors. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

The queen of native Florida fall foliage, however, is the red maple (Acer rubrum) . Recognizable by its palm-shaped leaves and bright red stem in the growing season, its fall color is remarkable. A blazing bright red, sometimes fading to pink, orange, or streaked yellow, these trees can jump out of the landscape from miles away. A common tree throughout the Appalachian mount range, it thrives in the wetter soils of Florida swamps.

To see these colors, there are numerous beautiful hiking, paddling, and camping locations nearby, particularly throughout Blackwater State Forest and the recreation areas of Eglin Air Force Base. But even if you’re not a hiker, the next time you drive across a bridge spanning a local creek or river, look downstream. I guarantee you’ll be able to see these three tree species in all their fall glory.

Meet the Author: Carrie Stevenson

Meet the Author: Carrie Stevenson

Carrie Stevenson is the Coastal Sustainability Agent for the UF/IFAS Escambia County Extension Office, and has been with the organization almost 17 years.  Her educational outreach programs focus on living sustainably within a vulnerable coastal ecosystem. She helps clientele better understand how to protect and preserve local ecosystems and water resources, wisely use our abundant rainfall and sunlight, and prepare and mitigate for flooding, coastal storms and climate impacts.

Growing up an avid reader and science junkie, a young Carrie aspired to find a career that allowed her to “be outdoors and wear jeans,” and in college sought to become a science writer. When National Geographic didn’t come calling, she found a position as a field-based environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. There, she handled compliance and enforcement cases related to stormwater and wetlands, spending days tromping through the swamps, wet prairies, and newly build subdivisions of northwest Florida. After joining UF IFAS Extension, she spent 6 years as a Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Agent before switching to Coastal Sustainability. Her expertise and articles focus on climate issues, stormwater, hurricanes, native plants, and wetlands.

A lifelong outdoors enthusiast, she enjoys biking, standup paddleboarding, and traveling to national parks with her family. She also has many favorite international outdoor experiences, ranging from hiking glaciers in Canada to snorkeling coral reefs in Belize and watching elephants drink from a South African river. A native of Mississippi, Carrie has lived with her husband in Pensacola since 1999. Carrie earned her master’s degree in Biology/Coastal Zone Studies from the University of West Florida in Pensacola and an undergraduate degree in Marine Science from Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama). She is the proud mom of an Eagle Scout and leads her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. She is a Fellow in the Natural Resources Leadership Institute (NRLI), past president of the Florida Association of Natural Resource Extension Professionals (FANREP), and member of IMPACT 100 Pensacola Bay.

Climate Change and Future Hurricanes

Climate Change and Future Hurricanes

A living shoreline project was implemented on this bay in Santa Rosa County to try and prevent further erosion. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

We have reached that time of year when the Atlantic starts cranking out storms, and they will continue to roll out as the dog days of summer progress. Over the last decade, many experts have speculated on how climate change and sea level rise might impact hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Two big issues are coastal erosion and flooding from storm surge and rainfall.

Those who live on the water or frequently visit area shorelines have probably noticed coastal erosion. While a natural part of a coastal ecosystem–and often exacerbated by heavy boat traffic–rising seas can also cause erosion. Sea level rise moves water slowly inland and washes away the roots of grasses and trees that once held the shoreline in place. Buildings and roads close to the water are impacted as well, with “sunny day flooding” on the roads and under pilings in many south Florida cities where water has moved in to stay. Large scale beach renourishment projects, living shorelines, and even road relocations (like the one at Ft. Pickens on Pensacola Beach) are all ways that local officials and property owners can respond to rising seas. However, these efforts always come with a big price tag. When that “line in the sand” is drawn beyond government and household budgets, there will come a point when we can no longer support protection of highly vulnerable coastal infrastructure. The closer a building is physically located to the water (whether built there intentionally or reached by rising seas), the greater the likelihood a hurricane will cause flooding damage from dangerous storm surge. Storm surge and heavy flooding cause 75% of the deaths in any given hurricane.

During a recent webinar, the appropriately named Dr. Chris Landsea of the National Hurricane Center answered several frequently asked questions on the impacts of global warming on hurricanes. Some of the predictions are surprising based on assumptions that have been put out in the media. He made a disclaimer that these are his predictions based on years of expertise and data analysis, and not an official proclamation by the National Hurricane Center. Following are a few of the points he made during his talk.

Dr. Chris Landsea of the National Hurricane Center recently met with floodplain managers around the Gulf Coast to discuss hurricanes.

Question: Will hurricanes get stronger based on increased temperatures?

Answer: The world average temperature has gone up 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 100 years. Based on data and computer modeling from the NOAA Geophysics Lab, typical hurricane wind intensity will increase slightly, by 3%. In this example, a storm with 100 mph average winds would be 103 mph by the end of the 21st century.

Question: Will we experience more tropical storms as the climate changes?

Answer: Dr. Landsea does not expect more tropical storms as the temperature increases. In fact, frequency may drop very slightly. While there may be more heat energy for hurricanes to feed on, the surrounding conditions will make it tougher for a storm to form. Those conditions may be atmospheric or include a vertical wind shear that tears up the storm.

Question: How will global warming affect rainfall during hurricanes?

Answer: Models and recent experience show that rainfall will increase by 10-20% during tropical storms. Global warming increases the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, and a hurricane can recycle this water into a constant loop of rainfall. Hurricane Harvey in Texas was one example of this situation, during which nearly 8 feet of rainfall fell, flooding neighborhoods. One of the aphorisms of climate change is “wet places get wetter, and dry places get drier.”

Dr. Landsea’s full presentation can be found online here, if you are interested in learning more. Keep in mind that these predictions can change based on land use, atmospheric carbon levels, and human practice change. For more on the work UF IFAS is doing on climate, visit this Florida Sea Grant Climate page.