Cogongrass is one of our larger invasive species here in the Panhandle, and spring is a good time to detect and treat it. If you know or suspect your property may have cogongrass, spring is the best time to hunt it down and locate the spots and infested areas. It is also a great time to patrol your property boundaries as well to see if you have any that may be coming onto your property from a neighbor or right of way. Cogongrass seems to love fencerows and right of ways as it spreads easily on equipment through its tough rhizomes. One of the best ways to prevent large infestations from taking over portions of your property and creating a significant control cost is to catch it early. The key to this is to identify and mark small spots before they expand; and then follow up with herbicide treatment once to twice a year. Spring is an excellent time to go and scout for cogongrass and get a jump on this invasive for several reasons.
One feature of cogongrass that is very distinctive is the seed head. In spring cogongrass flowers and puts up a cottony white seed head. These seed heads look like an elongated fluffy white tuft on a tall stalk. Once you have seen them for the first time you will instantly recognize this invasive grass. If cogongrass has been mowed, it can sometimes be hard to spot especially in a pasture. In spring the seed heads will quickly draw your attention to an area infested with this grass. It is very distinctive, and you do not see other grasses with this type of seed head the same time of year.
Other distinguishing features of cogongrass include a bright green color sometimes with red edges. In the spring the new growth of cogongrass is very prominent and stands out due to its bright color and usually faster growth compared to other grasses. The midrib of the grass blade is also usually offset to one side, another identifying feature. If you have a shovel handy you can dig up a small amount and you will notice thick rhizomes with sharp pointed tips. Once you learn to identify cogongrass and know what you are looking for; you can go out on your spring cogongrass patrol to identify any areas of infestation.
Once you have identified an infestation you need to do three things: mark the impacted area with a flag or other noticeable method, record the location (by description or GPS), and develop a treatment plan. Marking and recording the location of cogongrass infestations, especially a small spot that is new, is critical to the success of control efforts. Cogongrass is tough and requires multiple treatments with herbicide to effectively control it and hopefully eliminate the infestation. This means you need to know where a patch is, be able to relocate and monitor it, and consistently treat the same spot to ensure you achieved complete control. Cogongrass control is easier when the spot is small and has not become well established. With small spots it can be difficult to locate the spot again the next year, especially after a round of herbicide treatment, so good marking combined with a GPS location or description is essential. Once you have gone back to a spot several years and the spot has not come back after treatment; you can consider the spot controlled. If you stop treatment and monitoring before cogongrass has been controlled for several years, the infestation will return from remaining rhizomes and spread all over again.
Consistent treatment with effective herbicides is the best way to ensure cogongrass is controlled on your property. If you locate some while scouting this spring be prepared to start a treatment program. Cogongrass responds to herbicides with the active ingredients glyphosate or imazapyr. These can be used alone or in combination. The spring and fall are the two treatment windows that are most effective. If you treat in the early spring when new growth is vulnerable you can sometimes prevent seed heads from maturing. You can also get some control that can help prevent heavy growth over the summer, which can be an advantage if you have to mow or maintain the area. Spring treatment is usually best accomplished with glyphosate alone, imazapyr alone or a mixture of both can be used.
Once we progress into summer, treatments with herbicide will mostly top kill the grass and do not provide effective control. Treatment in the fall with imazapyr alone or in combination is the most effective treatment method. If you identify infestations in the spring you can mark them and come back in the fall to get the most bang for your buck with treatments. You can apply a spring and fall treatment in one year if you want to accomplish some control in the spring, but this method is not necessarily more effective than the fall treatment alone. When using imazapyr herbicide you should be aware that this is soil active and has the potential to damage surrounding vegetation and hardwood trees that are in and near the treatment area. Pines are tolerant of imazapyr but can be damaged if high rates are used, and longleaf pine is more sensitive than others. When treating cogongrass with imazapyr be aware that damage to other vegetation could occur. If the cogongrass is in an area with hardwood trees or other sensitive vegetation glyphosate alone is a good alternative herbicide treatment. When using any herbicide be sure to read and follow the label correctly, follow all label directions, and wear proper protective equipment. There are several IFAS EDIS publications on cogongrass control which provide more detailed information: for control in pasture areas follow this link SS-AGR-52/WG202: Cogongrass (Imperata cylindrica) Biology, Ecology, and Management in Florida Grazing Lands (ufl.edu) and for control in forested areas follow this link FR342/FR411: Biology and Control of Cogongrass (Imperata cylindrica) in Southern Forests (ufl.edu) . If you identify cogongrass on your property these publications will help you develop a treatment plan to control it. Early detection and treatment when infestations are small is key to getting this nasty invasive under control. Take advantage of this spring to identify, mark, and treat any cogongrass that may be getting a foothold on your property before it becomes a major infestation.
It is National Invasive Species Week, a time where everyone involved in natural resources, agriculture, and related fields works to raise awareness about this issue. It is an issue that costs huge sums of money to control and address, impacts economic sectors, and requires constant inspections at ports of entry to prevent new invasives from expanding the problem. Unfortunately for us, invasive species do not recognize international borders or state and local boarders for that matter. The same is true about property boundaries, which makes controlling them on the landscape difficult. They do not politely stop at the property line. So, what are we to do about the infestation when it crosses a boundary?
In Florida there is no law that requires someone to treat or remove an invasive species from the landscape. Laws do exist that prohibit the importation of species and that prohibit propagation and planting of know invasive species. Cost share programs, grants, and other efforts exist to assist private property owners and public land managers with invasive control programs and encourage the control and eradication of invasives across Florida’s landscape. Across Florida, organizations called Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas (CISMA’s) exist to help coordinate efforts and provide educational outreach. The CISMA that covers Walton and the surrounding counties is the Six Rivers CISMA, and this outstanding organization even crosses state boundaries to include adjoining Alabama counties. This cross-state collaboration is an outstanding example of working across boundaries to accomplish a common goal. You can learn about the Six River CISMA and it’s efforts to invasive species through their website (LOCAL PRIVATE LANDS ASSISTANCE – Six Rivers Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (floridainvasives.org) ). Our outstanding University of Florida IFAS extension service provides research and education across the state to help inform control efforts and coordinate through a network of experts from research professionals to local county extension agents. All of these efforts are making great progress in the control and management of invasive species.
One issue still stands out as a major challenge in taking on invasives, and that is that the ability to do control stops at a property line. This is especially true for some of our worst invasives like cogongrass, Japanese climbing fern, Chinese privet, and tallow tree; just to name a few. While animals move and you can trap or remove them as they come across your property; plants stay in place and often spread in an area. If that area happens to be right along a boundary, something like a fence row, the infestation often spreads across the property line. Add to that the fact invasive species, because of the disturbance and vegetation changes, often thrive and colonize in areas like fence rows and you have a major issue. That plant doesn’t see that posted sign and the property owner must stop any treatment effort at that point. Legally a landowner cannot cross a property line, and is liable for doing so especially when mowing, burning, or spraying herbicides. Putting herbicide on a neighboring property, even if it was accidental drift, is a major no go and can land the two parties in court. At best in this situation a property owner has a good relationship with neighbors and can work something out to control the infestation. If not, the treatment must stop where the ownership stops.
Why is it a problem that a treatment stops at the property boundary? Well, cogongrass is a great example. Cogongrass is a major problem in Walton County, and across the Panhandle in general. The western panhandle and southern Alabama are considered the epicenter of this invasive, and in Walton County it is spreading like wildfire. That’s somewhat literal too as this invasive grass massively increases fire intensity and spreads. My fellow extension agent from Gulf County, Ray Bodrey, just wrote a great article about this grass and the issues it is causing. I won’t duplicate his effort and expound on how to identify it. You can see his article here NISAW: A Spreading Menace in Gulf County, known as Cogongrass | Panhandle Outdoors (ufl.edu). Needless to say, if two county agents list it as one of the top issues, then we need to focus on it.
This grass spreads rapidly and easily, especially along roadsides, right of ways, and fencerows. You might wonder why that is? Well it happens to love to hitch a ride on equipment or move in contaminated fill dirt. Add to that it is tough to kill and takes multiple years of herbicide treatment to do the trick; and you have what has been identified as the Gulf Coast’s worst invasive. In fact, it is usually listed as one of the worst invasive species worldwide. Tack all that together and throw the fact that you cannot always work across a boundary and you’ve got quite the intractable issue. And that is just our top offender, we still haven’t touched tallow tree and the other of Six River CISMA’s “Dirty Dozen”.
What can be done then if invasives are such a herculean task that requires cross boundary management? We have several options, many of which I mentioned earlier in the article. Lots of work is being done right now by everyone from private landowners to local governments and even at the federal level. Here in Walton County the local public works has an active program to report and control cogongrass in the roadway and other county right of ways. They use in house and contract teams to report, track, and treat cogongrass infestations. This is a great effort and shows a great proactivity on the part of the county government. The program will go a long way in the congongrass control effort, but it still must stop at the right of way. If the infestation goes onto private property, it is then on the private property owner to have a control plan. Without some good communication the property owner may not even realize the problem is there.
Cogongrass is a good example of why it pays for a private landowner to treat an infestation too. This grass has no forage value and chokes out any other crops, lowering agricultural yields and values. It ruins yards, turf grass, and golf courses along with dulling and damaging mowing equipment. It contaminates fill dirt and borrow pits and then spreads to areas as development and construction occurs. If you are in the fill dirt business, clients that know usually reject soil that is contaminated or could be contaminated with cogongrass rhizomes. Forest landowners suffer major impacts from this invasive grass as it makes reforestation next to impossible, increases wildfire risk, makes using prescribed fire difficult at best, reduces timber yields, and ruins the habitat value for wildlife. An unchecked cogongrass infestation can ruin land values and it will do that as it spreads across onto other property.
This loss of land value is not just conjecture either. An article published in the Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics from research performed by scientists from the University of Florida and the University of New York found that cogongrass infestations in slash pine forests reduce the return on investment and the land value. The study (Alavalapati et al 2007) looked at the impact of cogongrass infestation on rates of return and land values in several situations: no threat of infestation, infestation uncertain with no management, infestation uncertain with treatment by one landowner, and infestation uncertain with treatment by all landowners. The study found that cogongrass negatively impacts rental rates and the land value. To assess the land value, they used a forestry measurement called the Land Expectancy Value, which is a formula that uses the expected productivity of the land, input costs, and expected timber value to determine how valuable timberland is. The study found that the land value can be decreased by up to 50% on timberland. The study also found that the annual net returns per acre are decreased by between $17.00 and $25.00 depending on the infestation and management scenarios. Those are big economic and land value impacts, and that is just for forested lands. The big finding was that the scenario that resulted in the biggest loss of land value and returns was when only one landowner was treating. Alavalapati et al 2007 found that when control measures are undertaken by all landowners in an infestation zone the impacts are lowest and the most value is preserved. They suggest that the study results show the best outcomes will be when collaborative efforts are used. While the study only looked at cogongrass, the methodology and results are applicable to other invasive species. Working across that property line has real economic benefits as well as all the ecological and landscape benefits that come from invasive species control.
Practical experience shows that this collaborative approach works as well. Since 2004 the Georgia Forestry Commission and the State of Georgia have implemented a cogongrass task force. Georgia recognized the severity of the issue early on, to some degree from seeing what was occurring in Florida and Alabama. They also recognized the state could not completely prevent cogongrass from entering the state but could be proactive at control and eradication. They launched a collaborative effort lead by the Georgia Forestry Commission, where landowners and others would report congongrass and the infestation would be identified and treated at no cost to the landowner. The program was structured where they could work with other landowners at an infestation site as well. The program also implemented a tracking and follow up program, which tracked the infestation until it was eradicated or became inactive. In 2007, 72 Georgia counties had detections, but as of 2021, 34 of those 72 have no active cogongrass and 85% of all known cogongrass spots in Georgia are inactive (2021-Dirty-Dozen-List.pdf (gatrees.org). That is a huge success and something that can be replicated in other states. This program took federal and state funding, state and local government involvement, coordinated tracking, and reporting and detection from landowners. It could not have happened without this collaborative effort that reached across boundaries.
Could we see something like this in Walton County or across the Panhandle? Absolutely, we could definitely build a collaborative effort on one or more invasives. Cogongrass is a great place to start, and even though it is so difficult to eradicate we have evidence that a program can be successful. What it takes is reaching across boundaries and the “Think Global, Act Local” approach, or as the Florida Invasive Species Partnership puts it “Think Locally, Act Neighborly”. Florida does not have a statewide coordinated cogongrass control effort like Georgia, but the nature of the issue in Florida is very different. Given the size and scope, a Florida eradication program would likely look much different. But why wait for a statewide program like Georgia? It would be much easier to replicate a cooperative program on invasive species at the county level. It will take working across boundaries and communicating across communities and ownerships; but we know it works. The bottom line is that inaction will result in a growing and extending problem, spreading across more and more ownerships and areas. Invasives are not just an ecological or environmental problem either, they impact land values and our economy too. The information we have shows that when control efforts are sporadic and individual; economic impacts are actually higher because landowners controlling the invasive incur costs while infestations persist in an area. To keep our land base productive and valuable we have to work together and take community efforts. This is everything from identifying and tracking infestations to control and monitoring. If it can work with cogongrass, it will work with the other major invasives as well. Most of our greatest achievements as Americans, things like making it through the Great Depression, building the Transcontinental Railroad, or winning World War II, have been through collaborative efforts. Invasive species control is going to be the same thing, and research and results on cogongrass show reaching across boundaries works. Invasives move across boundary lines; so we need to work across them to be successful. A collaborative cogongrass effort would be a great start, and then we can expand.
References and Resources
Alavalapati, J. R. R., Jose, S., Stainback, G. A., Matta, J. R., & Carter, D. R. (2007). Economics of Cogongrass Control in Slash Pine Forests. Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics, 39(s1), 61–68. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1074070800028947
I get calls every year about planting pines, stand establishment, and related requests. I also get many calls from landowners who have planted pines recently (10 years or less) and are wondering what to do going forward. Ideally, they are from landowners that have well thought out plans and just need some assistance with the finer details or are experiencing some unexpected issues. Unfortunately, I do often get calls from landowners that are just at a loss and are planting or managing with no real plan for now or the future. These landowners have great goals and intentions, but they are new to forest ownership and the long-term nature of forest management comes as a bit of a surprise. I love helping these landowners out though because often I can catch them early and get them on the right track. Establishing a forest stand right from the beginning and managing it well in the early establishment phase is critical to success. Mistakes can often stick around and be felt a decade or more in forestry; it is just part of forest ownership and management.
In over a decade of forest management practice I cannot stress to landowners and forestry professionals the critical importance of getting initial planting and establishment right. This is not the time to have a vague plan or to cut costs or corners. What you do now may well haunt you and impact your goals and investment return for over 30 years. In row crop agriculture you can often make corrections year to year, but in forestry missing competition control or a thinning can impact growth for the entire rotation. Considering that on average a landowner will get to see two rotations of timber in their lifetime, the margin for mistakes and missed opportunities is very slim. This is why it is so important when establishing a forest or reforesting after a final harvest that the planting plan and early management plan be well thought out and executed.
Winter is forestry planting season, and it is in full swing right now. Peak planting is usually in the months of December and January, but forest planting usually runs from November to the end of February or first of March. This is the opposite of most other agricultural and plant establishment operations because trees are best planted while they are dormant. Winter is the best time because when trees are dormant, they focus energy on root growth, and thus a newly planted seedling will focus on establishing it’s root system and be ready to start growing in spring. You may be wondering about pines and evergreens since they keep their foliage, but this is true for them as well. Pines have a dormant period in winter that is induced by weather and the amount of low temperature chill hours. They do not lose their needles but continue to photosynthesize. They do not actively grow new foliage or start renewed growth until spring. This is why winter is the best time to plant both forest and urban trees of all types and why Florida celebrates Arbor Day on January 20th (check your local county information for your local celebrations).
If you are conducting reforestation operations this winter, as many are, now is a great time to update your forest management/stewardship plan. If you are planning to plant trees or reforest in the near future, or if you are planning to harvest timber soon, now is a great time to work on a reforestation and stand establishment plan. If you are not working with a consulting forester it is highly encouraged you work with one to help with your reforestation, planting, and forest management needs. These highly trained professionals are equipped to help you make the best forest management decisions and can assist with locating contractors and forestry service providers. Using a consulting forester makes reforestation and management much easier for a landowner and results in better outcomes. Use of a consultant is not required though, so if you are a do-it-yourself landowner you will want to make sure all your ducks are in a row well before planting time comes around. The key to that is a good planting and stand establishment plan. UF IFAS has a great new EDIS publication out and available for landowners on planting southern pines in Florida. You can access the article here FOR385/FR456: Planting Southern Pines in Florida (ufl.edu) . For those who aren’t aware; recovering forests in the Hurricane Michael impact zone has become one of the largest reforestation and recover projects in the state’s history. If we get those reforestation efforts right now; it will pay big dividends for our landowners and communities in the future. The same goes for normal year to year reforestation efforts across the state as well.
A good reforestation or tree planting plan has several components. The core components are: type of regeneration natural vs. artificial, site and stand preparation, seedling establishment/planting, survival and early stand assessment, and early management of vegetation and fertility. For this article we will focus on artificial regeneration, which is when nursery grown seedlings are planted on the site. This is by far the most prevalent method, and it provides the most control over density and seedling quality. This also allows the use of genetically improved seed stock, which can greatly enhance forest productivity and value at end of rotation. Most pine planted in the southern United States now uses genetically improved seed stock. This is the result of decades of careful selection, testing, and deployment; much like agricultural crops like corn, cotton, etc. A landowner planting trees today has access to some of the best site preparation and reforestation seedling stock ever available, and taking advantage of it pays huge dividends. Here are the steps you can take as a landowner to get your plan outlined.
Determine the timeline for reforestation and plan accordingly.
Determine the species, density, seed source, genetic improvement level, and nursery availability of your desired seedlings.
Determine the site preparation required to ensure planting success
Determine the planting method; reserve planting labor and seedlings required to accomplish planting
Have planting contractor and nursery logistics coordinated for day of planting
Establish a follow up survival assessment period and have a plan to correct a full or partial planting failure.
Follow up on monitoring your stand and have plans for control of competing vegetation and other early stand treatments.
The work does not stop once you have the trees planted and the young stand is established. One of the biggest mistakes made in forest management is a “Plant Them and Forget Them” approach to timber management. This is a near guarantee to have issues especially in Florida with its fast vegetative growth, heavy competing vegetation, and propensity to hurricanes and wildfires.
Once you have your stand established by executing your reforestation plan; you want to move into forest management and stewardship for the long haul. This means you will need a Forest Management or Forest Stewardship plan to get a handle on what your young forest needs going forward. The plan is usually written to cover a 5-to-10-year period and then it is reassessed and revised.
A landowner with 20 acres or more can enroll in the Forest Stewardship Program through the Florida Forest Service and receive a Forest Stewardship Plan written by the county forester or a consultant. Forest Landowners with 160 acres or more are encouraged to use a private consultant to develop a plan. Landowners that use a consultant can receive funding through the program to help cover the cost of the plan. For more details and to enroll in the Forest Stewardship Program contact your county forester and follow this link Forest Stewardship Program / Programs for Landowners / For Landowners / Forest & Wildfire / Home – Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (fdacs.gov) . Once you have your plan and complete the program you get a great Stewardship Forest sign to advertise your commitment to being a good land steward.
The old adage “Fail to plan, Plan to fail” unfortunately often holds true for reforestation and forest management. Failed planting operations and missed opportunities can cost a landowner significantly. To ensure the success of your reforestation efforts and early timber management; get a plan and have one for the long haul. When planned out well, tree planting operations usually go smoothly and are successful. Followed up with a good forest management plan this covers the critical early establishment period and will ensure a successful forest management operation. Getting a plan together is a minimal cost compared to a failed planting or reduced growth and yield. Using a private consulting forester of your choice and working together with a forestry professional can get you off to the long-range project that is timber management. If you are planning on planting trees now or in the future; plan well and follow up. Years from now you will enjoy seeing your goals and objectives come together.
This Holiday season stay real and go local with a fresh locally grown tree. It may come as a surprise to many, but Florida has thriving local Christmas tree farms around the state. Just because Florida is a warm climate in the deep south does not mean Christmas trees are not grown here. Even though Florida is known for palms and citrus, Christmas trees are produced here. While the varieties of trees grown may not be the fir and spruce so often associated with a live tree; the Christmas tree varieties available are excellent trees for your Holiday decorating. Many of the varieties grown are native and have been used by locals going back to Florida’s early settlements. They also offer the experience of going to a farm directly to pick out and cut your perfect tree. It does not get any fresher than that, and the experience of going to a local farm is definitely a highlight of the season. It takes a large amount of care, trimming, and shaping over years to produce the 4 to 8 ft. trees that are popular in many homes. Farmers work year-round to bring a great product and Holiday experience to their local communities and beyond.
The Florida Christmas Tree Association, a statewide network of Christmas tree growers, maintains a farm list you can use to find local tree farms (Florida Christmas Tree Association (flchristmastrees.com). The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services also maintains an interactive map of local tree farms which you can access at the Christmas Tree Farms in Florida- Christmas Tree Farms in Florida – Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (fdacs.gov). With several tree farms across the Panhandle, make a drive out to a farm convenient for you and hand pick your tree. Be sure to pack some gloves, a saw, and maybe a holiday picnic. It is a good idea to check the weather and call the farm before you go to determine what activities, hours, and other amenities they may have.
Once you get out to a Christmas tree farm, you will need to find that perfect tree. Here are some tips and info to make your search easier.
First and foremost, measure the space you are going to put the tree in to determine what size tree you will be looking for. Having more tree than you have space and height is sure to be a difficult struggle when you get the tree home. Next, determine what tree species you prefer. At Florida Christmas tree farms you are likely to find the following types of trees:
Eastern Red-Cedar- This is a handsome native tree that has long been used for traditional Christmas trees. It has a good form and excellent fragrance, with bright green foliage and lighter branches. These trees do well with lighter ornaments but will hold some larger ornaments.
Sand Pine- This is a native pine that grows well here and can be pruned to make a great Christmas tree. They have stiff branches and fairly short needles which work well for larger ornaments. They have an excellent pine scent as well.
Virginia Pine- This species is similar and related to sand pine, but its native range is further north. It is the mainstay of southern Christmas tree farms across the southeast. It has nice foliage, stout branches for large ornaments, and the outstanding pine scent many people love.
Leyland cypress- This tree is a hybrid between Monterey cypress and Alaska cedar and is very fast growing. It is popular as a Christmas tree and has handsome sprays of foliage that are deep green. The branches are light and soft, which makes it easy to decorate but can be a challenge for heavy ornaments. They have a nice light scent, which can be good for those that are more sensitive to strong evergreens.
Arizona Cypress- This is a heat and drought tolerant tree that has become more popular with growers in recent years. It is somewhat like both red-cedar and Leyland cypress, but it often has a unique blue green color. The branches are lighter and tend to do better with lighter ornaments.
Based on the information for the common trees grown in our area, pick a tree that suits you. There is certainly one for all needs, and the best part is you can look the trees over well at a farm.
Once you find your ideal tree it is time to cut and get it home. Once you have it home keeping it fresh and green all season long requires some care. It is important to make sure your tree always has water and does not go dry. Once a tree dries out it will stop taking up water and start to lose needles. Get the tree in water as soon as you can, then check and add water daily. Be sure that the water level is deep enough in the stand that the cut surface is submerged. A well-watered tree will stay fresh and supple throughout the Holidays. Be sure to keep your tree away from major heat sources for safety and to slow the drying process.
By selecting a real tree from a Florida tree farm, you will be reducing your environmental footprint as well. Real trees are a renewable resource and each year a tree farm plants several trees to replace each tree harvested. When you factor in getting a tree from a local Florida Christmas tree farm reduces fuel and emissions from transportation; your locally grown tree just got more environmentally friendly. Once the season is over you can recycle or reuse your Christmas tree in multiple ways. Use them in soil stabilization projects, erosion control, or in a pond as a fish aggregator. They can also be turned into mulch to be used in the landscape. Check in your local area to see what pickup and drop off options are available for your tree after the season is over.
Enjoy the Holidays this year and all the benefits that come from a fresh cut tree. Buying from a local tree farm supports local agriculture and your local community, and the experience builds memories and connections. The tree may only last the season, but the memories and experiences will last a lifetime. Whether you start a new tradition or continue an old one, the product and experience offered by a real Christmas tree from a Florida tree farm is a great addition to your Holiday Season.