Hillsborough Extension Garden Blog

Solutions you can use for your gardening problems.

Unidentified Dung Mystery Solved! January 29, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 9:17 pm
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JoAnn, the horticulture program assistant at the Extension office, went in this morning to work in the garden, and what do you think she saw? Well, the trap was set for several days, but our elusive critter waited patiently until last night to check it out (too much human activity in the garden during the work week, I suppose).

This little guy is definitely more than a baby, but not quite an adult. According to JoAnn, he even smiled at her (without the usual hissing that accompanies a possum’s “smile”).

So for now, the digging and pooping problem has been solved. However, the kumquats are still a mystery, since opossums are not known for their meticulous and delicate eating habits. More than likely, we also have rats. Great…


The photo to the left was borrowed from another blog (thanks, Debi in Merida), because I’m posting this from home and don’t have an actual photo of the eaten kumquats. However, the evidence is similar. Note the carefully gnawed hole on one side of the fruit and the insides that have been eaten. The kumquats look the same, except there is nothing left of the insides, since it is much smaller than this orange.

These are the joys and the frustrations that go along with having a garden in Florida. You have to learn to share your bounty with other critters. I’m an only child, though, and I’ve never really been into sharing… just kidding.


Winter Veggies – Part III January 27, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 10:29 pm
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Also known as mustard greens, mustard is especially popular in southern states. This plant is a pungent winter vegetable, abundant when many other vegetables are not in season. Mustard greens can be eaten raw or cooked. The whole plant can be cut at once or individual outer leaves can be picked for a cut-and-come-again harvest. The younger the leaves, the milder the flavor; these are the best ones to eat raw. Older leaves taste better when prepared as cooked greens. For a really peppery bite of flavor, try ‘Ruby Streaks’ or ‘Red Mustard’ varieties.

Store unwashed greens in plastic bags in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. They will keep for about three days. Wrap in moist paper towels for longer storage, up to five days. The flavor may intensify in the refrigerator during the longer five-day storage.

If you plan right and take advantage of the cool months, your winter vegetable garden can produce a bountiful harvest that will go straight into the cooking pot or oven. Some of my favorite dishes to make with most of the ingredients coming from my winter vegetable garden include split pea soup (split peas, celery, carrots, chicken broth), broccoli casserole (broccoli, onions, mushrooms, cheese, milk, eggs), baked carrots (carrots, onions, chicken broth), and homemade chicken soup.

So what special dishes will you cook up from your garden this year?


A Curious Case of Unidentified Dung January 26, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 4:43 pm
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I love my job. Really, I do. Some days I handle plants, insects or snakes; that’s cool. Last week I had to deal with the stinkhorn mushroom stench; not too bad. Yesterday, it was poop… not the smell (thank goodness), but rather the identification of it (actually, its owner). Never in a million years did I think I would spend the better part of my workday trying to identify an animal by its droppings.

It all started upon returning to work Monday morning and seeing evidence of digging in some of the raised beds in the demonstration garden at the Extension office. Just last week, several Master Gardener volunteers sweated and toiled over these beds, pulling out dead and dying plants, leveling the soil and adding mulch. But over the weekend, something decided to get into these beds and mess them up.

So I quickly switched on my Sherlock Holmes persona and started investigating. The digging was predominantly around the outer edges of the raised beds, deeper in some areas than others. Because of the mulch, I couldn’t see any tracks, so that was a dead-end. There was also no evidence of what the suspect was digging at in the soil – grubs, earthworms, who knows? Not much to go on so far…

At first I considered armadillos, – we have at least one that is a permanent resident in the garden, unfortunately – but the raised beds are too high for an armadillo to access.

Then I noticed that the nearby kumquat trees, which were heavy with fruit, had been recently used as a late-night snack bar, of sorts. Half-eaten kumquats hung precariously from the branches, and several more were littered all over the ground below. Could it be roof rats? Please, no!

Opossum scat

As I walked around some more, investigating the ground all around the raised beds, I then noticed poop. Lots of it. All along the back sides of the beds, some fresh, some not so fresh. Hmmm….

Judging from the size, shape and texture of the droppings (I know, this is getting gross), it was too big to be from a rat, and too long and dark to be from an armadillo. But an opossum… maybe.

l to r: house mouse, roof rat, Norway rat

Rat droppings are blunt on the ends and measure from about ½” to ¾” in length and about ¼” in diameter. Armadillo poop looks like little round balls of clay because they eat a lot of soil when picking insects and small snails off the ground. Possum scat is larger, about that of a cat or small dog, although it can vary based on its diet.

According to the University of Florida IFAS Extension, “opossums are known as opportunistic feeders. They will eat many different items including bird eggs, chickens, moles, and earthworms, insects, snakes, grass, fruit, pet food, and garbage. Carrion also is a favorite food item” (Source: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw026).  We don’t have much of these items (other than earthworms and fruit) available here, so I’m still not convinced we’re dealing with this particular creature.

Needless to say, the evidence is inconclusive. There’s a distinct possibility that there’s more than one culprit here. The next step, then, will be to set a trap and see what bites. A live animal trap baited with some canned cat food will be going in the garden tonight. The mystery continues; I’ll let you know what I find…


Winter Veggies – Part II January 23, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 12:28 pm
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The collard is a green, leafy vegetable whose nutritious cabbage-like leaves are cooked as greens. It has been a mainstay in home gardens all over Florida and other southern states for many years. The collard plant is a biennial, which means it sends up a flower stalk in the second season of its growth. In Florida, the collard thrives over a wide range of growing conditions and is grown throughout most of the year. However, the quality and taste are better and the plant grows best during the cooler months of the year. The best quality collards are those planted in the fall and harvested during light frost periods of early winter. The plant can withstand exposure to temperatures as low as 15°F, unless such a freeze abruptly follows a warm period of growth. Collards require 6-8 weeks after planting before they are ready for harvest.

Freshly harvested leaves should be washed, cooled immediately to 34-40°F, and stored in the refrigerator crisper until used. Like other cooking greens such as turnips and mustards, collard leaves are cut into thin, chewable pieces and then pot-boiled along with meat or other seasoning until tender.

The standard, old-time favorite collard variety is `Georgia’ (also known as `Southern’). `Georgia’ is characterized by its smooth leaves and whitish stems. The main stem of the plant averages around 3 feet tall, but may exceed 6 feet. The other standard variety is `Vates,’ which has wavy leaves. Other varieties recommended for Florida are `Hicrop,’ `Heavicrop,’ and `Blue Max,’ which are very uniform hybrids.


What’s that Smell??? January 21, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 8:18 pm
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One of the fun parts of being an extension agent is that I never know what might walk through the door from one day to the next. Most recently, a mildly frantic call from the front lobby brought me running up to see what was the matter. What hit me first, unfortunately, was the stench of the object in question, rather than the object itself.

A poor, unsuspecting homeowner had brought in a curious mushroom called a stinkhorn. This time of year, when

Credit: Sandra Buckingham

temperatures are cooler but not very dry, a foul-smelling mushroom appears in many landscapes. The odor is best described as rotting meat (think dead frog or dirty diaper that’s been sitting out in the sun), and the stench successfully attracts flies and ants that carry the mushroom’s spores to other places.  But this often causes people to come to us seeking advice on how to get rid of it.

The hardest part was convincing this particular homeowner that the mushroom was harmless, if not good for her landscape. In natural, wooded areas, mushrooms help the decomposition process by breaking down materials like rotting wood from fallen limbs and trees. In home landscapes, these stinkhorns will usually pop up in a landscaped bed with wood mulch. It’s not really a problem, unless your open kitchen window happens to be downwind from the garden. Pee-yew!

The stinkhorn fungi produce an egg-like growth that is partially hidden underground. From this “egg” a mushroom emerges. This is the reproductive part of the plant, and it is at this stage the unpleasant smell is released. So I recommended 4 options to the desperate homeowner:

1.      While wearing gloves, find the underground “eggs” and dispose of them in a plastic bag. This will help to reduce the spread of spores and cut off the source of the smell by hand-picking these mushrooms before they open.

2.      Clear the mulch in which the mushrooms are growing back to the soil level to try to remove most of the colonies

present. (This is a lot of work and is not guaranteed to solve the problem, though.)

3.      Consider planting ground covers like jasmine, ivy or mondo grass that will eventually fill-in and eliminate the need for wood mulch in that area. (This is definitely a long-term solution.)

4.      If all else fails, close all the windows, light a few scented candles, and wait until spring to venture out in the garden again. (Lucky for me, the homeowner had a sense of humor.)


Winter Veggies – Part I January 18, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 10:25 pm
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The typically mild winters in Florida offers gardeners the opportunity to grow their favorite foods most months of the year. Right about now, many Florida gardeners are harvesting several of their cool season vegetables and taking a last chance at planting one more round of crops before the hot weather returns.

Cool season crops are generally planted August through February for North Florida, September through March for Central Florida, and October through February for South Florida, after the oppressive heat of the summer has passed. Some cool weather crops well adapted to Florida include: broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, Chinese cabbage, collards, endive/escarole, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce (crisp, butter head, leaf, romaine), mustard, bulbing onions, bunching (green) onions, shallots, English peas, potatoes, radish, spinach, strawberry, and turnips.

One of my favorite cool season vegetables to grow is broccoli, for several reasons. This is a very easy plant to grow, and working in the garden during cooler weather is more comfortable. It has a very long harvest period, so you end up with enough to stock the fridge, freezer, and your neighbors. Broccoli has interesting leaves, so it can double as ornamental interest in the garden. Finally, I can use broccoli to make some hot and hearty meals for my family.

Broccoli is closely related to cauliflower since both are grown for the clusters of unopened flower buds and tender flower stalks. The Italian word brocco means sprout, bud, or shoot, from the Latin brachium meaning an arm or branch. The old standard variety `Waltham 29′ still is a top choice. It is ready to cut from 80-100 days from transplanting, and continues to form side shoots (secondary heads) after the main central head is cut.

Other varieties for Florida gardeners are `Green Mountain,’ `Spartan Early,’ `Atlantic,’ `Green Sprouting,’ `Green Comet,’ `Italian Green Sprouting,’ `DeCicco,’ `Green Duke,’ and ‘Packman.’ Cauli-broc has the tender texture and sweet flavor of broccoli, but has a lime-green head similar to cauliflower.


Cold Hardy Palms – Part III January 14, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 10:19 pm
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Needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) – Usually found in the understory of rich hardwood forests throughout the southeastern United States, needle palm can be adapted to full sun conditions in a landscape. This clustering palm is essentially trunkless and will send out several fronds from a fiber-matted crown near the ground. The fronds are deeply divided, with a dark green color above and silver below. The farther north in the state this palm is planted, the slower it will grow.

Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) – A native of China, the windmill palm is capable of withstanding fairly severe freezes with no damage. On the other hand, it is short-lived in hot tropical climates. The single, erect trunk appears to be wrapped in burlap and does well in small spaces, since it is slow-growing. Windmill palm does best in partly shady, well drained soils with above average fertility, but it will survive in almost anything except perpetually soggy conditions. In warm temperate zones, this palm provides just enough of a tropical accent to be warranted a necessary plant for the Florida landscape.

Although many palms look like trees, they are actually more closely related to lilies, grasses, irises, orchids and bromeliads. All these plants belong to the division of flowering plants known as monocots. Knowing this is important for the proper care of palms, since the future of a palm stem rides upon the continued health of a single actively growing bud. If this bud, known as the “heart” of the palm, is killed or severely damaged, the entire palm is doomed to eventual death.

The 2010 winter season was a real eye-opener for many homeowners that were growing palms well out of their recommended hardiness zones. If you lost palms to the cold, consider these hardy options in the coming year to maintain your little piece of Florida paradise.


Arbor Day Celebrates Trees January 11, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 6:03 pm
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National Arbor Day is the last Friday in April, but many states observe Arbor Day according to their best tree-planting times. In Florida, Arbor Day is celebrates on the third Friday in January.

There are several organizations in the Tampa Bay area that are always looking for volunteers, and this time of year volunteers are needed to participate in community tree plantings. Some of these organizations include:

  • Mayor’s Beautification Program – (813) 221-8733
  • Keep Hillsborough County Beautiful – (813) 960-5121
  • Sarasota County ReLeaf – (941) 922-3693
  • Nature Coast Botanical Gardens (Spring Hill, FL) – (352) 683-9933

There will likely be several events taking place on Friday, January 21st and through the weekend to promote healthy urban forest management and engage community members to become environmental stewards. If you know of specific events happening in the Tampa Bay or surrounding areas, please leave a comment here and I’ll post it up for all to see!

For more information on appropriate landscape trees for the Tampa Bay area, visit the UF IFAS Hillsborough County Extension Urban Forestry web site — http://bit.ly/HillsboroughTrees.


Cold Hardy Palms – Part II January 10, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 10:17 pm
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Petticoat palm (Washingtonia filifera) – This close relative of the common Washington palm used throughout Florida is, in my opinion, a much more attractive choice. Whereas one has to crane their neck to the sky to see the canopy of the Washington palm, the petticoat palm does not get as tall and has a much thicker trunk. W. filifera repeatedly survives dips into the teens and even several inches of snow, making it a favorite of cold-hardy palm enthusiasts. The dead fronds, if left on the palm year after year, will layer themselves neatly around the trunk, creating a petticoat, of sorts. Used most often out west in California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas, the petticoat palm could do quite well in central and north Florida landscapes.

Mazari palm (Nannorrhops ritchiana) – Native to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Arabia, the Mazari palm is a slow-growing, clustering palm (similar to the European fan palm) and is considered the hardiest of all palms. Its powdery blue-green fronds are an eye-catching accent in the landscape. Mazari palm does not have a crownshaft and its stem remains below ground. It has branches above ground and slowly develops a bushy, shrub-like appearance. Throughout its desert range, this plant’s fibers are used for weaving and rope manufacture.


Cold Hardy Palms – Part I January 5, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 10:16 pm
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In most parts of the country, the mere mention of living in Florida conjures up images of warm breezes, sunny beaches, and palm trees. But not all palms can grow in all parts of the state; many of them are restricted to the southern reaches of the peninsula because of their low cold tolerance. So what’s a northern Florida homeowner to do?

There are a number of palms – some popular and some underutilized – that are suitable for hardiness zones across the entire state. Common palms used in many residential landscapes include the Washington palm (Washingtonia robusta), cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) and saw palmetto (Serenoa repens).

The next 3 posts will be a series with descriptions of some other, less well-known palms that will tolerate the colder temperatures of central and north Florida.

Pindo palm (Butia capitata) – With striking blue-green, feather-like fronds, pindo palm is commonly used as a specimen plant in the landscape. Because of its high drought resistance, it is also regularly used in medians and parking lot islands. This plant is also known as the jelly palm for its edible fruit. Although the fruit color and taste differ from plant to plant, the best quality pindo fruits are very sweet with a pineapple/banana flavor. The fruit is used to make a very tasty jelly.

European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) – Suitable as a container-grown or landscape specimen, the European fan palm usually grows in clusters, rather than with a single trunk. Native to the Mediterranean region, from the coast to over 3000 feet in elevation, this slow-growing palm does best in full sun. The palmate leaves vary in color and can be green, blue-green or silvery green. This variation makes for an interesting focal point in the home landscape. Dead fronds will remain on the plant, but can be pruned away to reveal a mat of dark fibers around the trunk. Be wary of the many fierce orange spines along each petiole, though.


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