New Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Science Outreach Publications

New Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Science Outreach Publications

The Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Science Outreach Team is proud to announce four new outreach items that are applicable throughout the US and showcases marine microplastics and homeowners’ insurance:

Reducing Health Advisories in Our Coastal Waters; Part 1 Septic Maintenance

Reducing Health Advisories in Our Coastal Waters; Part 1 Septic Maintenance

Health advisories are issued by state and local health departments when levels of fecal bacteria become too high for the public to safely enter the water.  Sewage can be a source of these fecal bacteria.  They can harbor pathogenic organisms that can cause of a variety of health problems.  State and local health departments routinely monitor local waterways, particularly where people recreate, to assure the level of fecal bacteria is not unsafe.  It is understood that the presence of fecal bacteria in waterways is normal, animals do go the bathroom, but excessive levels can be unsafe. 

Closed due to bacteria. Photo: Rick O’Connor

In the Pensacola Bay area, most of the human recreation areas near the barrier islands rarely have health advisories issued.  Once every few years there is an issue at the sewage treatment facility on Pensacola Beach and an advisory is issued, or a sewage line is broken either near Santa Rosa Sound or Big Lagoon with the same results.  But is very rare. 

However, our local bayous are different.  The neighborhoods are densely populated with old or outdated infrastructure, and how we manage these systems can cause problems as well.  We are going to do a three-part series on what property owners can do to help reduce the number of health advisories issued in waterways where they are more common.  In Part 1 we will look at how to maintain your septic system. 

Septic systems were commonly used decades ago when city limits, and treatment facilities, were smaller.  Many communities within our counties are on a septic system, and it falls on the property owner to properly maintain them. 

Most understand how the system works, but for those who are not familiar – here are the basics. 

  1. When you flush your commode, take a shower, or wash your clothes, the wastewater leaves your house through a series of pipes and empties into a septic tank buried in your yard.  These tanks are usually made of concrete and there are different sizes.  A typical tank will be about 8 feet long x 4 feet wide x 6 feet deep and hold around 1000 gallons (again, sizes vary).  The solid material settles to the bottom where it is broken down by living microbes.  The oils and fats float to the surface forming a scum layer.  The remaining wastewater settles in the middle of the tank and drains into a drain field through a series of perforated pipes. 
  2. The drain field should be made of less compacted soils to allow percolation into the surrounding environment.  There is some physical, chemical, and biological treatment of the wastewater as it percolates, but only if the drain field is properly designed and located.  For obvious reasons you should not (and most communities will not allow) have your drain field next to an open or public water system.  In Florida it is required that the loose uncompacted soils must be no less than 24 inches above the wet/water table. 
A conventional septic system is composed of a septic tank and a drainfield, where most of the wastewater treatment takes place. Image: US EPA

It has been found that if the septic system is placed in the correct location and maintained properly, it does a good job of removing pathogens from the wastewater.  However, it was not designed to remove nutrients, which can still leach into waterways and cause algal blooms.  And the presence of pharmaceuticals and household chemicals are not always removed, which can cause problems for aquatic wildlife.  But to reduce health advisories they can work. 

So…

How do we maintain our septic system so that it functions properly?

  1. Watch what you pour down your drain.  As mentioned above, many household chemicals and pharmaceuticals are not removed and become environmental problems when they leach from the drain fields into the local environment.  Fats, oils, and grease (and even milk) can solidify and form the scum layer at the top of the septic tank.  These solids can clog the lines running to the septic tank, or the drain field lines themselves.  They can create back flows and could cause untreated sewage to back flow into your home.  Our local utility offers the FOG Program.  In this program you can visit a local dispensing site (these can be found at ECUA’s website and there is one at the Escambia County Extension Office) to obtain as free 1-gallon plastic jug.  Pour your bacon grease, oils, etc. into these containers.  When full, return them to the dispensing location and swap out for a clean empty one.  The service is free.    
  2. Watch how much water you use.  As mentioned, septic tanks come in different sizes and are designed for a certain amount of water.  “Flooding” of the system can occur if you are using more water than your system is designed for and this could include flooding of semi, or untreated, sewage. 
  3. The scum and solid layers of the tank need to be pumped out.  It is recommended the septic systems are pumped once every 3-5 years, depending on the size of the tank.  A pump out may cost you several hundreds of dollars, but a tank replacement is going to be in thousands – it is a good investment and will help reduce health advisories in local waterways. 
  4. Do not drive over your septic system, or drain field, with heavy vehicles.  This could crack the tank and/or compact the soils within the drain field. 
The FOG gallon containers are found in these metal cabinets placed around the county. Photo: Rick O’Connor
1-gallon container provided free to dispose of your oil and grease. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Studies have shown that a properly designed, properly placed, and properly maintained septic system will work well in reducing the presence of pathogenic fecal bacteria in our local waterways for up to 50 years.  Note: like all things, even a good septic tank does have a live span.  If you do not know the history of your septic system, we recommend you contact a certified professional to come do an assessment. 

As always, if you have additional questions, do not hesitate to contact your county extension office. 

This Holiday Season Enjoy a Fresh Florida Grown Christmas Tree

This Holiday Season Enjoy a Fresh Florida Grown Christmas Tree

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.

Christmas tree farm. Photo Courtesy UF-IFAS Photo Database

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.

Turning Leftovers into Valuable Fertilizer with Worms!

Turning Leftovers into Valuable Fertilizer with Worms!

Nutrients found in food waste are too valuable to just toss away. Small scale composting and vermicomposting provide opportunity to recycle food waste even in limited spaces. UF/IFAS Photo by Camila Guillen.

During the summer season, my house is filled with family and friends visiting on vacation or just hanging out on the weekends. The kitchen is a popular place while waiting on the next outdoor adventure. I enjoy working together to cook meals, bbq, or just make a few snacks. Despite the increased numbers of visitors during this time, some food is leftover and ultimately tossed away as waste. Food waste occurs every day in our homes, restaurants, and grocery stores and not just this time of year.

The United States Food and Drug Administration estimates that 30 to 40 percent of our food supply is wasted each year. The United States Department of Agriculture cites food waste as the largest type of solid waste at our landfills. This is a complex problem representing many issues that require our attention to be corrected. Moving food to those in need is the largest challenge being addressed by multiple agencies, companies, and local community action groups. Learn more about the Food Waste Alliance at https://foodwastealliance.org

According to the program website, the Food Waste Alliance has three major goals to help address food waste:

Goal #1 REDUCE THE AMOUNT OF FOOD WASTE GENERATED. An estimated 25-40% of food grown, processed, and transported in the U.S. will never be consumed.

Goal #2 DONATE MORE SAFE, NUTRITIOUS FOOD TO PEOPLE IN NEED. Some generated food waste is safe to eat and can be donated to food banks and anti-hunger organizations, providing nutrition to those in need.

Goal #3 RECYCLE UNAVOIDABLE FOOD WASTE, DIVERTING IT FROM LANDFILLS. For food waste, a landfill is the end of the line; but when composted, it can be recycled into soil or energy.

All these priorities are equally important and necessary to completely address our country’s food waste issues. However, goal three is where I would like to give some tips and insight. Composting food waste holds the promise of supplying recycled nutrients that can be used to grow new crops of food or for enhancing growth of ornamental plants. Composting occurs at different scales ranging from a few pounds to tons. All types of composting whether big or small are meaningful in addressing food waste issues and providing value to homeowners and farmers. A specialized type of composting known as vermicomposting uses red wiggler worms to accelerate the breakdown of vegetable and fruit waste into valuable soil amendments and liquid fertilizer. These products can be safely used in home gardens and landscapes, and on house plants.

Composting meat or animal waste is not recommended for home composting operations as it can potentially introduce sources of food borne illness into the fertilizer and the plants where it is used. Vegetable and Fruit wastes are perfect for composting and do not have these problems.

Composting worms help turn food waste into valuable fertilizer. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones

Detailed articles on how vermicomposting works are provided by Tia Silvasy, UF/IFAS Extension Orange County at https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/orangeco/2020/12/10/vermicomposting-using-worms-for-composting and https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/media/sfylifasufledu/orange/hort-res/docs/pdf/021-Vermicomposting—Cheap-and-Easy-Worm-Bin.pdf Supplies are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Please see the above links for details.

A small vermicomposting system would include:

• Red Wiggler worms (local vendors or internet)

• Two Plastic Storage Bins (approximately 30” L x 20” W x 17” H) with pieces of brick or stone

• Shredded Paper (newspaper or other suitable material)

• Vegetable and Fruit Scraps

Red Wiggler worms specialize in breaking down food scraps unlike earthworms which process organic matter in soil. Getting the correct worms for vermicomposting is an important step. Red Wigglers can consume as much as their weight in one day! Beginning with a small scale of 1 to 2 pounds of worms is a great way to start. Sources and suppliers can be readily located on the internet.

Worm Home - Constructed of Two Blue Storage Bins

Worm “homes” can be constructed from two plastic storage bins with air holes drilled on the top. Additional holes put in the bottom of the inner bin to drain liquid nutrients. Pieces of stone or brick can be used to raise the inner bin slightly. Picture provided by UF/IFAS Extension Leon County, Molly Jameson

Once the worms and shredded paper media have been introduced into the bins, you are ready to process kitchen scraps and other plant-based leftovers. Food waste can be placed in the worm bins by moving along the bin in sections. Simply rotate the area where the next group of scraps are placed. See example diagram. For additional information or questions please contact our office at 850-784-6105.

Diagram to explain how to place food waste in a worm bin

Placing food scraps in a sequential order allows worms to find their new food easily. Contributed diagram by L. Scott Jackson

Portions of this article originally published in the Panama City News Herald

UF/IFAS is An Equal Opportunity Institution.

Perennial peanut: a sustainable, low maintenance groundcover

Perennial peanut: a sustainable, low maintenance groundcover

The bright yellow perennial peanut flower is not only pretty, but edible! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

It’s bright yellow, makes its own fertilizer, and tastes like peanut butter. On my morning walks around the track at our office, I have noticed lately that the perennial peanut (Arachis glabrata) is growing lushly, fulfilling its role as a low maintenance groundcover. The plant thrives in hot weather, full sun, and humidity, so we have nearly reached peak growing conditions for this South American native.

Perennial peanut was brought in from Brazil almost 90 years ago as a valuable hay crop and livestock forage. It is still used regularly for these purposes. However, as years of experience have borne out, there are no insect, disease, or unwanted invasive issues with the plant. The lush green groundcover has been used in the past few decades as a popular turfgrass alternative. It is drought and salt tolerant, and can thrive in low-nutrient, sandy soils.

Perennial peanut is a drought-resistant, salt-tolerant, erosion-managing groundcover. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Its bright yellow blossoms are delicate and almost orchid-like in shape, standing upright on a thin stem. As mentioned earlier, the flower is also edible and has a very light peanut flavor. The foliage, a deep green with compound leaves, lies close to the ground. Its spreading rhizomes serve as an excellent erosion control method, holding even easily washed out sandy soils in place.

Like its more well-known cousin, the perennial peanut is a legume, which means it can “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, transforming it into a form the plant can use. For a homeowner, this means you do not need to add nitrogen fertilizer. If phosphorus levels are naturally high enough in the soil (as is often the case in south Florida), only small amounts potassium-magnesium sulfate may be needed.

Perennial peanut is a great choice in open areas. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Perennial peanut is best utilized in open spaces without high foot traffic. If you’d like to see it, come out to the Escambia Extension office; there’s a large swath of it between our main building and the demonstration garden near the walking path. If you are interested in planting or maintaining it, check out these documents from UF IFAS Extension or watch this informative video from a colleague!

 

Green Infrastructure can Reduce Flooding and Improve Water Quality in the Florida Panhandle

Green Infrastructure can Reduce Flooding and Improve Water Quality in the Florida Panhandle

Flooding and poor water quality are common issues of concern in the Florida Panhandle. Our frequent heavy rains cause water to quickly run off rooftop, parking lot, and driveway surfaces; this runoff water carries with it the chemicals deposited on land surfaces between rain events by direct application (such as landscape fertilizers) as well as through wind and circulation, a process referred to as atmospheric deposition. Surface water that runs off our developed urban and residential landscape is usually routed into stormwater drains and sewers, and then into stormwater detention ponds or directly into surface streams. 

Dry stormwater pond in Escambia County.
Photo: Matt Deitch

Conventional methods for dealing with stormwater runoff is through the use of stormwater ponds. Stormwater ponds allow water to slowly infiltrate into the soil before moving to streams or wetlands via shallow groundwater pathways. Typically hidden behind shopping centers or in the back of residential subdivisions, stormwater ponds attenuate flooding by delaying the time when water reaches the stream and are intended to improve water quality through microbial processes (such as denitrification) or plant uptake, particularly focusing on reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that reaches nearby streams. However, the efficacy of stormwater ponds is highly variable (many do not function as intended), and they often are visually unattractive aspects of a community.  

A backyrad rain garden after installation near Navarre FL.
Photo: Nikki Bennett

Stormwater managers in other parts of Florida are increasingly utilizing a suite of management features termed “green infrastructure” as alternatives to stormwater ponds to reduce floodwaters and improve water quality before it enters nearby streams and wetlands. Green infrastructure, which includes features such as rain gardens, green rooftops, rainwater cisterns, bioswales, and permeable pavers, is designed to slow water down and reduce pollutant concentrations by mimicking natural processes of infiltration and biological uptake at its source—off the rooftops, driveways, roads, and parking lots where stormwater first concentrates. As a result, green infrastructure reduces surface runoff that occurs during storm events, leading to less flooding downstream. With the magnitude of peak flow reduced, stormwater runoff is also likely to carry lower amounts of pollutants downstream. In addition to their capacity to reduce flooding and improve water quality, green infrastructure can have many other benefits. It is often visually appealing, with vegetation typically selected to be visually attractive, appropriate for local conditions, and requiring low maintenance.

Rain garden at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Health Care System facility.
Photo: US Air Force

With our frequent rainfall, moderately developed urban areas, and expanding communities, the Florida Panhandle is ideal for using green infrastructure to reduce flooding and improve water quality. Features such as bioswales, rain gardens, and permeable pavement can be added to new development to mitigate stormwater runoff; they can also be added to existing neighborhoods to reduce flooding where roadside areas or other shared spaces allow. In addition to mitigating the effects of rainfall, green infrastructure can also improve property values because of their visual appeal. For green infrastructure techniques to be effective, they require widespread use throughout a neighborhood rather than at a handful of locations; so if it sounds like green infrastructure would benefit your community, talk with your neighbors and reach out to UF IFAS agents to discuss how it could be added to your community!