Garden Talk

with Rebecca Jordi


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Q: When do I plant tomatoes?

Colorful tomatoes

Colorful tomatoes

A:  We recommend planting tomatoes from February through April for summer production and July through August for fall production.  You will need to protect any young, tender plants from frost.  If you want large fruit consider planting Celebrity, Heat Wave II, Better Boy, Beefmaster, BHN444-Southern Star*, Amelia*, BHN 640*, or Tasti-Lee™. Those cultivars with an * means they are resistant to TSWV (Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus) – a very common disease in tomatoes. For small fruit consider Sweet 100, Juliet, Red Grape, Sun Gold, Sugar Snack, or Sweet Baby Girl. Cherry tomatoes are heat resistant and will often continue to produce fruit throughout the summer and early fall.   If you would like to use the seeds from year to year consider planting one of the heirloom varieties such as Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Eva Purple Ball, Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, or Delicious.  Staking/supporting and mulching are beneficial. Flowers self-pollinate. Blossom drop is usually due to too high or too low temperatures and/or excessive nitrogen fertilization. We recommend using a complete fertilizer such as 6-6-6 or 8-8-8. Be sure to have your garden soil tested by the University of Florida once every 2-3 years. Serious problems include blossom-end rot, wilts, whitefly, and leafminers.

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Q: In your butterfly class you taught the sassafras tree was a good larval food source for some of the swallowtail butterflies. Can you tell me more about the tree?

Sassafras

Sassafras

A:   The Sassafras tree, Sassafras albidum: is a native tree to North America – anywhere from cold hardiness zones 5a – 9a.  It is deciduous, dropping its leaves when the cold weather appears.  It can grow to heights of 60 feet with a 25 – 40 foot spread. Therefore, it would need plenty of space. Historically, the bark and fragrant roots were used for medicinal purposes. According to a publication from Pennsylvania State University, Sassafras was used by Native Americans as a cure-all for a broad range of ailments. An oil extract from the root bark was used to treat diarrhea, nosebleeds, even heart troubles. European settlers and their colonial sponsors were so impressed by the healing powers of sassafras oils the sassafras roots were exported back to Europe in great quantities. In 1602, one ton of these roots sold for 336 pounds Sterling (about $25,000 in modern currency). Leaves were brewed into a medicinal tea and extracted oils were used to make perfume, candy, soap, and root beer. The University of Florida believes we should be planting sassafras for the outstanding display of fall leaf colors.  The multi-lobed leaves have a distinctive aroma when crushed.  Sassafras prefers well-drained, acidic soils and can be grown in most any type of light (full sun to partial shade).  It is highly drought tolerant once it is established.  Its ability to tolerate salt is unknown.  In spring, before the leaves appear, the tree produces yellow, lightly fragrant flowers followed by dark, blue colored fruits which ripen in the fall. These fruit provide an excellent source of food for birds and other wildlife. Although the male plants have showier blossoms, it is the female plants which produce the fruit. Both sexes must be planted to insure good fruit production. Sassafras frequently develops a multiple trunk due to sprouting at the base. Sprouts appear to originate from the root system forming a cluster of showy, grey fissured trunks growing from the soil. This characteristic has helped it invade and colonize old fields and other disturbed sites. Prune early in the life of the tree to form a single trunk suitable for urban landscape planting, or grow with multiple trunks for a dramatic specimen. Single-trunked trees are best-suited for street tree planting and other urban and suburban areas, and they usually maintain this good form without pruning.


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Q:   I am thinking about fertilizing my landscape plants and want to know what to use. 

Azalea Flower

Azalea Flower

 A:   The type of fertilizer depends on the type of plants and in most instances – slow release fertilizers can work best.  Generally, most of the landscape plants are fertilized in March.  You can make an application of fertilizer in the spring and again in the fall or make small applications throughout the growing season. We would recommend using an acid loving fertilizer for landscape plants such as azaleas, camellias and gardenias. In addition, this fertilizer can be used on typical hedge plantings too.  Acid loving fertilizer contains sulfur which will temporarily lower the pH allowing the plant to take up important nutrients. The ideal soil pH for azaleas is between 4.5 and 6.0.  If the azalea leaves appear yellow or have discoloration between the leaf veins it may be an indication the soil pH is too high or alkaline.  Many of our soils east of I-95 have tested high or alkaline. However, the only way to be certain of the soil pH is to have it tested.  We can do a soil pH test at no cost at either of the Extension offices (Yulee or Callahan). Just bring in one sample (about a cup) of the soil taken from 4-6 inches deep – do not scrape it off the top.  Both offices have a letter slot in the door so you can drop off a sample at your convenience. Be sure to include your name and phone number so we can contact you with the results.  Fertilizing palms is different and the University of Florida research recommends using only 8-2-12 starting in March, then applying again in June and September.  Any plant within 30 feet of the palm gets palm fertilizer.  Lawn fertilization begins on April 15 and goes through the growing season, applying fertilizer in small increments ending in September.  No matter what type of lawn, we suggest using 15-0-15 (N-P-K) or 16-0-8.  Never use more than twice the nitrogen (1st number) compared to potassium (last number).  Phosphorus recommendation is zero unless a soil test from the University of Florida demonstrates a phosphorus deficiency. We suggest allowing the grass to go dormant from October to March. However, March is the month to apply pre-emergent herbicides to reduce the potential for summer weeds. Another application of pre-emergent herbicides may occur in October if you have had a problem with winter weeds.  Attached is a list of pre-emergent herbicides for homeowner lawns. http://hort.ufl.edu/yourfloridalawn/weed_management_herbacides.shtml
Remember – please follow the directions on the label as “The Label is the Law.”  You can always apply less of the product or chemical but NEVER more. 


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Q: The leaves on my lucky bamboo are turning yellow. What could be wrong?

Lucky Bamboo

Lucky Bamboo

A:   When the leaves of a plant start to yellow it is often the first indication the plant is under some form of stress.  With landscape plants it can often mean the soil pH is too high or there is a nutrient deficiency.  Regarding your lucky bamboo, it is possible, if you are using city water, the pH is too high making the water alkaline. Even the bottled water we drink may be too alkaline for lucky bamboo. There is also a possibility your city water may have too much chlorine or fluorine in it. The best advice is to consider use filtered water instead.  If filtered water is not possible, then use the tap water but allow it to sit uncovered for at least one to two days.  This will allow much of the chlorine and/or fluorine to dissipate into the air.  Another possibility is the plant may be receiving too much sunlight.  Be sure the room is bright but not in direct sunlight – never in a window. 

 


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Q: My sister says cicadas are the same as locusts. Are they? I’m keeping my fingers crossed as I have a dinner bet on this.

Cicada

Cicada

A:  Well, get your fork and knife ready because you are correct, cicadas and locusts are different species with very distinct characteristics. The fame of locusts is of Biblical proportions because of their tendency to swarm in large numbers. However, it should be noted, cicadas have been known to show a similar behavior but they are not nearly as destructive.   Locusts belong to the family of family Acrididae (grasshoppers) and Tettigoniidae (katydids) whereas cicadas belong to the family Cicadidae. Locusts are found on every continent outside of North America and Antarctica, so they really have an impact all over the world, but not here. The U.S. did have a serious locust species around the late 1800s called the Rocky Mountain locust, and it caused numerous problems for settlers in the region, but then it quietly became extinct around 1900. When food supplies are high, the locusts will produce large numbers of offspring.  The large number of offspring causes the locusts to swarm to other outlying areas seeking other food supplies and better habitat sites.  So the locusts start migrating from their original birth site in bands or swarms.  There may be millions at one time eating every green thing in sight.  The area of atmosphere the locusts cover may be as much as 500 square kilometers.  The largest recorded swarm has covered more than 1,000 square kilometers. Typically agricultural crops are highly nutritional and are grown in large patches or plots providing the perfect place for locusts.  Once the location is found there can be severe damage the crops, making the locust a serious pest to farmers. Cicadas have large, membranous forewings which easily extend beyond their abdomen. These wings are important for flying. Cicadas have distinctive, large eyes located far apart in their head.  The noise we hear in our oak trees is often caused by the male cicada.  The sound of cicadas is distinctive, and species can be differentiated by their calls. Only males can make sounds, most of which are calling songs to attract female mates. Periodical cicadas are species with synchronized development so they mature into adults in the same year, usually on 13 or 17 year life cycles. News reports and interest pieces are popular around the time the cicadas emerge. Florida, however, does not have periodical populations of cicadas, and adults emerge every year from late spring through the fall. Cicadas are not considered to be a pest of any significance in Florida. They do not require treatment and are best left alone, since any damage they cause is negligible. Cicadas do not bite or sting and do not carry harmful diseases. They are a food source for wildlife and can even be a food source for people – but I will let you try them first!