Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Meet the Beetles

Common name: air potato leaf beetle (suggested common name)
scientific name: Lilioceris cheni Gressitt and Kimoto (Insecta: Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae: Criocerinae)

In the first paragraph you have been formally introduced to the air potato leaf beetles and their proper names. I was privileged enough to personally meet some air potato leaf beetles, whom I shall call John, Paul, George and Ringo. Okay, well, I met more than four of them, but we’ll just repeat those four names for simplification purposes.

John, Paul, George and Ringo and their friends came to me via the County Extension office in a yellow submarine. No wait, it was a plastic container with a nice screen on the top. They had spent a few days in the dark, experiencing the US Postal System. By the time I met them, they were adjusting to the daylight, and busily munching on some air potato leaves in the container."It's been a hard day's night," they told me.

County Extension Horticulture Agent, Bill Lester explained to me that beetles were released in June, in four locations around the Chinsegut Manor House in Lake Lindsey, in northern Hernando County.  In approximately four months, he has gotten reports of air potato leaf damage in all areas of the county. 

My mission was to take the beetles to Masaryktown, at the central, southern edge of the county, to help assure widespread county coverage."Baby, you can drive my car." I suggested, but they wanted me to drive.  Upon release, John, Paul, George and Ringo and their friends were a little slow to come out of their container with its built in salad bar. Eventually, they were all coaxed to explore their new world. I was a bit disappointed as a  transportation facilitator, because there was evidence that other Johns, Pauls, Georges and Ringos had already invaded this territory. No screaming teenage girls met my beetles as they left the container. They were merely supporting acts, not the original stars. Yet there was still plenty of air potato around for them to start their own show. They will get by. (With a little help from their friends.)

I have included photos of the red beetles and the leaf damage they cause. They start with munching little holes all through the leaves. Pick one up and you'll think, "I'm looking through you." Eventually they skeletonize the leaves all together. No leaves equals no photosynthesis and this will really put a hurting on the invasive vine that has taken over many areas of Florida.

Take a walk in your neighborhood. Check out the air potato. See if the beetles have taken up residence yet. If you see air potato beetle activity, you know exactly what to do. That's right. Let it be.

 Not sure what air potato is? Here is a link from the Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants at UF: http://plants.ifas.ufl.edu/node/133.

If you are interested in obtaining some beetles for your area, call Bill Lester at the Extension Office at 352-754-4433.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Florida-Friendly Plant of the Week


Liquidambar styraciflua

Since I seem to be having encounters with Sweetgum trees frequently lately, I felt they were asking me to shine a little light on them. They are almost ubiquitous in our area, and yet so often overlooked.  We have a lot of them on site at The Hernando County Utilities Admin building, and walking through the grass under them, swishing the fallen leaves as I walk, feels a little like Autumn up north. I was also placed under some Sweetgums for an event in which I had a table last weekend, and the falling leaves provided some natural, free decorations for my display. Yes, many of them were colored! Sweetgum trees provide shade for my granddaughter's school playground, and I can report that the back seat of my car contains much leaf litter from her collection.

Deciduous trees in Florida depend on many factors as to whether or not they will give us a beautiful show in any given fall season. The same really could be said for their flashy cousins up north. So, let's just say we have a year in which all conditions fall together, and we get to experience some fall color in our deciduous trees. Sweetgums are changing right now, without the benefit of any cool weather. Why? Cool weather plays a factor is some chemical responses for leaf color change, but the fact remains that the tree knows it's time to go into dormancy, and it's going to stop producing chlorophyll. The shortening of daylight hours plays a big part in this chemical reaction.

Sweetgums are native and usually "left standing" on a property rather than purposefully planted. They tolerate any soil pH. Then will grow from 40-60 feet high and 40-60 feet wide. They like well drained to medium drained soil. They have a medium tolerance for salt spray. They prefer sunny to partly sunny locations. They provide food for wildlife, and have a medium to high wind resistance.

Disadvantages are that they DO loose their leaves. That means you have to rake them, if you are in a community with manicured lawns. They also have seed pods about the size of golf balls, with little spikes all around the ball. My nephew used to call these miniature maces "ouchy balls." They don't hurt to touch, but  they are unpleasant to step on.

I enjoy Sweetgums where I find them, in undeveloped lots, parks, etc. They bring a nice touch of Autumn to Florida.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Florida-Friendly Plant of the Week

Beautyberry  Callicarpa americana

These aptly named native shrubs are in full fruit right now in yards and in undeveloped patches of woods all over Hernando County. They like to creep out at the edge of the woods, as if to say, "Hey, I'm berrying in here!"

They thrive in all parts of Florida, zones 8-10. They grow to be 6-8 ft tall and 6-8 feet wide. They are happy in a range of soil pH's 4.5 - 7.2. Any soil texture is fine with the Beautyberry, but they do like it well drained. They tolerate periods of drought well. They like to be an understory bush, and are happy in partial sunlight or shade. They have little to no salt tolerance.

This is a deciduous plant. Old wood should be pruned in the the landscape, since flowers and fruit are produced on the new growth. They have light purple (very light purple) flowers in spring through fall. Small purplish berries grow in clumps this time of year and are a delight for wildlife and for your viewing pleasure.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Florida-Friendly Plant of the Week

Purple Lovegrass
Eragrostis spectabilis


The light purple inflorescence of this bunch grass can be seen right now and through the fall months on road sides and in natural areas. The back half of my home lot was left natural by the builder. I have transplanted many of these beautiful plants, and they take to transplanting very well, covering areas where I could get nothing else to grow. I had an area near the house, by the air conditioner where nothing at all would grow. I really don't know what caused that patch of soil to be barren. When the sand was wet, it formed water drops like a water resistant material, rather than soaking in. I finally planted purple lovegrass in that site, and it is doing very well for two years now.

Purple lovegrass does well in North, Central and South Florida.  It is a fast grower and can get to be 1-3 feet tall and 1-3 feet wide. It likes a soil pH of 4.5 - 7.2. It likes sandy or loamy soil. It thrives in well drained to medium drained soil. It was a high drought tolerance. It likes sun to partial shade. It will not do well on the coast, as it has little to no salt tolerance.

This is one of my personal favorites, since I come across it for free in my yard, and it does a great job filling in bare areas. I also love to drive along the roads in the north western, drier areas of our county and see the beautiful patches of purple this time of the year. It can be a little messy in the landscape, as it will throw the flower spikes off when it is done blooming, and they fly around like little tumbleweeds. That little nuisance is well worth it to me. I have seen bunnies and other critters using the purple lovegrass as shelter. It can be purchased at native plant nurseries and at local community nurseries.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Home Grown & Organic

I was privileged to be able to attend the Central Region Master Gardener Conference in Ocala yesterday. UF professionals educated the volunteers (and the rest of us) on a myriad of topics. I'd like to share some of the lessons I learned from Dr. Danielle Treadwell about organic vegetable gardening. Dr. Treadwell generally works with farmers on a commercial production scale, but she shared principles of organic veggie gardening easily adaptable to the home gardener.

Lesson number one is to find information from reliable sources. There is a lot of noise, and consequently misinformation regarding organic gardening on the internet and out in the real world. Reliable sources would include the University of Florida or any College of Agriculture from any state university. Florida's would obviously contain more localized information for our area. The Florida Organic Growers Association is a trustworthy source, as is the Organic Materials Review Institute.

The USDA National Organic Program was developed to bring uniformity to all commercial farms who claim to produce organic food products. Part time organic farmers, who gross less than $5,000 a year are not required to be certified, but are  required to comply with the NOP standards.

The backyard gardener, who makes no money from their bounty is not allowed to use NOP labels. That doesn't mean we can't follow organic standards. If you have your mind set on organic veggie gardening for your own use and to share with your friends and family, here are some tips:

Remember that in order for a producer to become certified organic, they must be participating in a system. The system of plant production must follow certain steps which maintain the organic integrity. How do we follow a system?  Let's start with the soil. Begin with a soil test from your local Extension Office. Find out what the soil needs or doesn't need. We can amend our soil by building up organic matter. Hay, leaves, pine needles, etc. all contribute to enriching the soil and assisting its moisture retention value. Composting is a fantastic way to add amendments to the soil. Use yard debris, shredded paper and table scraps to build a healthy compost pile. Do not throw in any animal products except egg shells. Problems with E. coli and other infectious diseases are leading us away from the use of raw manure of any type. There are commercially available processed manures, such as Black Kow, which we can utilize as a safer method of applying nitrates.

The next step is to obtain the seeds or transplants. Very few organic transplants are available. Unless you come across a certified farmer who is selling them, they are hard to come by. How do you know the seeds you buy are organic? Look for the certified organic label.

Only food products and their seed can be certified organic. So, how do we know the other items we use in gardening are approved for organic production? "Inputs" such as fertilizer and pest control products that carry a seal of approval from OMRI are what UF recommends to retain the integrity of your personal organic garden. Cultural practices go a long way to help reduce critter and weed problems. Rotate your crops each season. Study the plant families. Don't put that same plant family in your garden plot each season. This will discourage the pests who are looking for a free buffet of their favorite foods. Use cover crops when your garden is not in use. This will discourage weeds, keep the soil in place and add nitrates to the soil when you plow it under. Fish emulsion products are very beneficial to your garden's nutrient requirements. Read the label for when, where and how to use them. When applying fish emulsion products, don't wear clothes you have any attachment to!

Below are links to the publication Organic Vegetable Gardening in Florida, as well as to the organizations mentioned in this article.

Happy Gardening!





Monday, September 15, 2014

Florida-Friendly Plant of the Week


Muhlenbergia cappillaris

Muhly Grass is a beautiful bunch grass that brings excitement to any landscape in north, central, or south Florida. It does well in zones 8-11. This Florida native plant can grow anywhere from 2-5 feet tall, and will spread to be about 2-3 feet wide. It likes a soil pH ranging from 6.0 - 8.0. It prefers a sandy soil. It can do well in wet, dry or in between soils. It wants full sun, but good news to all you beach residents, this pretty purple/pink delight has a high salt tolerance.  The inflouresence of purple will bloom in the fall. They look lovely as specimen plants, but are gorgeous in mass. 

I have a very sandy yard. My house is probably 6 miles from the gulf, as the crow flies. My area of Florida is characterized as Pine Flatwoods. Muhly grass does beautifully in my yard. It has a moderate rate of growth. I just plant it, water it for establishment and then let it do its thing. No fertilizer or special treatment. I plan on buying some more muhly grass at local plant sales. 

If you want to experience the beautiful purple plumage, don't prune or cut this grass down in the summer. 

Happy planting!

Friday, September 12, 2014

What's the Buzz?

Yesterday evening I held a class with Hernando County Mosquito Control entitled, "Keeping the Skeeters Out of Your Florida Yard."

Some of the highlights of the training hit upon prevention/reduction of mosquito breeding places. Are you a mosquito breeder? Here are some of the hidden breeding grounds that you could be fostering in your own yard:

Birdbaths - flush them out and replace water every week.
Grills - store under a roof, or make sure water isn't puddling/standing anywhere on the grill.
Pet water dishes - refresh them often.
Bromeliads and other water-holding plants - flush them out once a week.
Gutters - keep them clean and clog free.
Kid’s toys/ pools - dump them out when not in use. Store toys indoors.
Rain barrels - use an enclosed system or cover with a screen/ lid.
Boats, canoes, kayaks - store upside down, or cover.
Tarps - punch out the water that develops in pockets.
Tires - get rid of them, stack them inside or at least stack them on top of each other and cover.
Accordion style downspout extenders - mosquitoes LOVE to breed inside of them, with the ridges they provide. Don't use those.

Those reduction methods will go a long way towards making your yard more livable. Here are some things that the University of Florida does not recommend:

Sound emitters - There is no scientific evidence that they work.
Bug zappers - They end up zapping a lot more species other than mosquitoes, some of whom could be beneficial insects.
Bats/ Purple Martins - If you want to make houses for them, that's fantastic. They will help. But they won't make your neighborhood mosquito - free.

Male and female mosquitoes feed on plant nectar for energy. It's only the female that comes to you for a blood meal, so she has the protein she needs to lay eggs. Blame it on the ladies! 

What attracts mosquitoes to you and not to your friend? There are a number of complex chemical components which determine a mosquito's attraction to a host. They involve carbon dioxide emissions (so don't breath!) pheromones, etc.

The best way to avoid problems is to use a topical product containing DEET. The University of Florida also recommends Picaridin, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus or IF3535.  Hernando County Mosquito Control Director Sandra Fisher is partial to DEET, and puts it on each time she goes outside. She has soap and water ready for when she returns indoors.

Hernando County Mosquito Control utilizes Integrated Mosquito Management to control those pesky critters in our county. A system of surveillance, trapping, sentinel chickens, aquatic larvacide, mosquito fish in ponds, pools and DRA's, aquatic plant removal, mowing, and other methods keep the populations down. The mosquito spray truck we all associate with mosquito control is the last ditch effort in an arsenal of tactical maneuvers. The insecticide is a contact killer, so it must reach the mosquitoes that are in that exact area at that exact moment. It is the combination of efforts on Mosquito Control's part that keep our county's mosquito populations at an acceptable level. 

If you would like Hernando County Mosquito Control to present to your group give them a call at  352-540-6552.
Check out their website at http://hernandocounty.us/mosquito