Hillsborough Extension Garden Blog

Solutions you can use for your gardening problems.

Growing Blueberries in Containers January 23, 2013

Question: We live in Tampa and would like to grow blueberries in containers. What are some varieties recommended for our area?

Several blueberry varieties grow well in Central Florida.

Several blueberry varieties grow well in Central Florida.

Great question!

Now is a perfect time to plant blueberries in Florida. It is easy to grow blueberries in containers and is typically much better than growing them in the ground. Blueberries thrive in a low pH soil. The recommended growing media for containerized blueberries is pine bark fines. You don’t need to plant them in additional soil as they will grow and perform best when planted directly in the pine bark.

Because pine bark is naturally acidic, this is the best media to use. Blueberries require a soil pH of 4.0-5.5. A relationship exists between soil pH and the nutrients available to plants. If your soil pH is higher or lower than the recommended range, you may encounter nutrient deficiencies that lead to poor growth and establishment. Please contact our office if you need information about soil testing to measure pH: http://hillsborough.ifas.ufl.edu/residential_lg/diagnostics.shtml

Pine bark fines make great potting medium.

Pine bark fines make a great potting medium.

Since most fruit needs high chilling requirements, proper cultivar selection of low-chill cultivars is important because Florida’s brief and mild winters do not provide periods of high chill. Two types of blueberries that grow well in Florida are rabbiteye Vaccinium virgatum and southern highbush- which includes the hybrids Vaccinium darrowii, Vaccinium virgatum and Vaccinium corymbosum. Southern highbush blueberries are adapted to the Tampa Bay area, as they grow well in areas south of Ocala and north of Sebring. Southern highbush is also recommended for container production.

The best time to plant blueberries is from mid-December to mid-February. Most blueberry cultivars require cross-pollination from another cultivar of the same type to set fruit, so you will need to plant multiple blueberry plants of the same cultivar. You can increase fruit set of your blueberries by encouraging beneficial insects (bees, wasps) and minimizing pesticide use or timing pesticide use when pollinators are less active.

To help you choose which cultivar you prefer (based on yield, taste considerations, ripening periods, etc.) and for information about recommended fertilizer application, irrigation, pruning, pests, and diseases, please visit this link and download the UF/IFAS pdf Blueberry Gardener’s Guide:http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg359

Growing several cultivars will lengthen your harvest season. Be sure to protect your blueberries from freezes and bird damage. Because blueberries are susceptible to Phytophthora root rot, do not plant them deeper than the pot. You can set them a little higher than the soil level.

Additional reference:

Blueberry Varieties for Florida: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hs215

Good luck!

Nicole Pinson
Extension Agent – Urban Horticulture
Master Gardener Coordinator
UF/IFAS Hillsborough County Extension Service
5339 County Road 579
Seffner, FL 33584-3334
p: (813) 744-5519 X 54145



Daylight Savings Can Mean Water Savings Too! March 14, 2011

Daylight Savings Time means many things to many people. For me, it means losing an hour of perfectly good weekend and having to wake up when it’s still dark out. Sigh…

In the gardening world though, Daylight Savings Time — as a man-made construct — serves no real purpose, but can cause real problems for a homeowner. If you use an automatic controller to turn your irrigation system on and off at a designated time (or even if you don’t), you should keep reading.

The University of Florida IFAS recommends watering your lawn and landscape very early in the morning (when most self-respecting folks are still asleep). There are two

Water left on plant leaves overnight invite more problems into the landscape.

reasons for this. First, there is less wind at this time of the day, so you won’t lose as much water, thus increasing the efficiency of your efforts. Second, by the time the entire landscape has been watered, the sun will be coming up, so the excess water will evaporate, reducing the chance for problems like fungus and mildew to creep in.

There is a third reason to water early, though, and it’s tied to the rules of your local Water Management District (WMD). Here in Hillsborough County, Florida, we are under the jurisdiction of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD). It regulates the water restrictions for the counties in their area based on rainfall patterns (past, present and forecasted) and other factors.

As of writing this blog today (March 14, 2011), the SWFWMD has declared a Phase I Water Shortage. In layman terms, this translates to the following:

Setting your irrigation timer is not difficult and can save you lots of headache in the long-run.

  • Lawn watering is limited to twice per week.
  • Lawn watering days and times are as follows unless your city or county has a different schedule or stricter hours in effect:
    • Even addresses may water on Thursday and/or Sunday before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m.
    • Odd addresses may water on Wednesday and/or Saturday before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m.
    • Locations without a discernible address, such as rights-of-way and other common areas inside a subdivision, may water on Tuesday and/or Friday before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m.

Keep in mind that your local utilities can set watering restrictions that are more stringent than the WMDs, so check with them too to be sure you’re following the rules. The penalty for violating local water restrictions may include a hefty fine. For folks living in a SWFWMD county, go to this website for your local utility’s watering restrictions – http://www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/conservation/restrictions/.

So if you’re the type to “set-it-and-forget-it” when it comes to your irrigation controller, you may want to stroll into your garage this week and take 5 minutes to make some simple adjustments. This quick and painless addition to your spring “to-do” list may have several long-term benefits, not only for the health of your plants, but for your wallet too!


My Garden Nemesis? Drake Elm Seedlings… March 5, 2011

Late winter and early spring in central Florida should be a time for new beginnings. In the garden, that means pruning plants to encourage new growth, creating new landscaped beds, and replenishing mulch in existing beds. The experience should be rejuvenating and enjoyable.

The drake elm is deciduous, losing its leaves in winter months.

During our last workday at the Bette S Walker Discovery Garden at the UF IFAS Hillsborough County Extension Service, however, it was anything but.

We received an extraordinary number  of phone calls late last year about the bumper crop of acorns that were falling on heads and being stashed away by squirrels. But there was another plant that took advantage of the early December freeze and quick warm-up immediately after — the drake elm.

This tree, often stunning because of its textured bark, long limbs and small, delicate leaves, produced a record number of seeds this year. These seeds are very small and are easily carried on the wind.

Drake elm seedlings in the mulch

But what do you get from seeds? That’s right… SEEDLINGS!!! Thousands and thousands of them. Under the tree, in the mulch, in the pots, in the bromeliads, in the bird feeder, under the bench, along the edge of the pond, in the Asiatic jasmine ground cover, in-between the pavers… need I say more?

Days after hitting them with a 5% solution of Roundup®, they still stood tall and green, mocking me. So while the Master Gardener volunteers were enjoying the glorious weather in which to prune and plant, I was cursing under my breath crawling on hands and knees to rid every inch of the Discovery Garden from my nemesis — elm seedlings.

Luckily, they were merely growing in the top layer of mulch, so I was able to take a hard rake and fluff the mulch, thereby disturbing the tender roots of the seedlings. This was by no means a permanent fix, but at least I’ve thwarted maybe 50% of them from their cunning plan to take over the garden.

In another week or so, I’ll head out there again to attack the remaining vigilante seedlings before their roots actually touch soil! AARRGGHH!

More elm seedlings...

After raking the mulch and disturbing the seedlings


Winter Bloomers March 3, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 6:41 pm
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Spring is in the air, but it’s still technically winter! The warmer weather is causing lots of plants to put out new growth and bloom right now, but a particularly spectacular specimen (say that 3 times fast…) in the Discovery Garden this week is the native eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

This small to medium tree produces bright, magenta pink flowers in late winter and early spring, before putting out a mass of new leaves. Because of the early and very cold December we experienced, the blooms are even more prolific than usual. A common landscape tree in most parts of the eastern U.S., redbud is often overlooked in central and south Florida because the lack of cold winters often prevents a showy bloom. Redbud like moist but well-drained, alkaline soils and will do well either as a mass planting or a stand-alone specimen in the landscape.

This crossvine will disguise the cistern

Another great Florida native plant that blooms in the winter months is crossvine (Bignonia capreolata). This vine is fast-growing and high-climbing, with showy flowers that appear in late winter and early spring. The flowers are trumpet-shaped, orange to reddish-orange to red, 2 to 3 inches long in clusters of 2 to 5.

Hummingbirds love trumpet-shaped flowers

Cross vine will flourish under a wide variety of conditions, and spread by root sprouting if not managed. This vine is one of the first with red, trumpet-shaped flowers to greet returning hummingbirds in early spring. The related trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) is similar, but climbs with ivy-like aerial roots instead of tendrils and blooms later in the summer. Plant the two together, though, and the hummingbirds will have flame colored tubular flowers from which to feed from early spring throughout the summer.

Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) is yet another Florida native that is currently full of blooms. This small tree forms a rounded mass of slender, thorny branches sprouting from a short trunk. In spring, before the one to two-inch-long leaves appear, chickasaw plum is covered with small, white, fragrant flowers which make the trees quite decorative in the presence of other trees which are often still dormant.

The tiny red fruits which follow turn yellow when ripe, and are extremely popular with wildlife and humans. The plums are either eaten fresh or used to make a delicious jelly.

Tiny, fragrant flowers are everywhere on this tree!

The bark of the chickasaw plum is interesting, even without the flowers.


Master Gardeners Visit Riverview Flower Farm March 1, 2011

Each month, the UF IFAS Extension Master Gardener volunteers of Hillsborough County have the opportunity to learn something new and exciting about the plant world.

During their annual planning meeting in the Fall, Master Gardeners vote on their choices for a variety of educational field trips and/or lectures.

Last month, they voted to visit Riverview Flower Farm, a wholesale nursery that is responsible for those fantastic Florida Friendly Plants™ you see at your local Home Depot stores.

Rick Brown, owner of Riverview Flower Farm, was more than happy to show us around and talk about the sustainable practices he’s incorporated into the daily operations of his nursery, like composting and garlic pest repellent.

But rather than go into a long diatribe about it here, I’m going to link you to another blog by Meems, a fellow Master Gardener and all-round plant lover — http://www.hoeandshovel.com/2011/02/riverview-flower-farm-field-trip.html.


Don’t Judge a Snake by its Scales February 2, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 7:38 pm
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The snake slips and slides slowly, smoothly. Scales slither over soft grass, snaking silently to scare its prey… scary! (Borrowed from a grammar web site on alliteration.)

After our recent incident with the opossum in the Discovery Garden, it got me thinking about other garden critters that are around us. Some of these can be pretty inconspicuous and harmless, but they get a bad rep nonetheless. One in particular is snakes, and more specifically the black racer.

Did you know that you have a much greater chance of being in a car accident, getting a dog bite, being stung by a bee or being hit by lightning (we’re in Florida, remember) than getting a snake bite?

Adult black racer

The Southern black racer is a very common snake in much of Florida, and is a great means of rodent control. It eats a variety of prey items including frogs, lizards, mice, rats, small snakes and even birds’ eggs. As its name implies, the black racer is swift and agile. It spends most of its life on the ground, yet is an excellent climber and may be found in shrubs and small trees.

The juvenile black racer, however, has markings similar to the venomous pygmy rattlesnake, and often meets an untimely death because of this mistaken identity. Additionally, when threatened, the juvenile will coil up and “rattle” its tail in dry leaf litter in an attempt to mimic a rattlesnake. This ruse often works for other prey, which leave it alone, but humans see it as a threat and many will kill first, ask questions later.

Juvenile black racer

Pygmy rattlesnake

Most snakes in Florida can’t hurt you–let alone kill you. Venomous snakes like the coral snake and rattlesnakes are rarely seen in urban areas, because they don’t want to run into you any more than you want to run into them! It doesn’t mean they’re not there, though, so always be aware of your surroundings.

You can reduce the frequency of snake visits to your yard and home by eliminating firewood stacks, debris, boards, and other objects lying close to the ground that create appealingly cool, damp, and dark shelters and prey habitat areas. Remember, they’re looking for food, and these places are perfect for mice and other rodents to hide.

If you’re like me and find excitement in observing wildlife up close and personal, there is a great University of Florida IFAS publication on recognizing Florida’s venomous snakes – http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw229. However, PLEASE DO NOT PICK UP A SNAKE, even if you think it is non-venomous. All snakes will bite, if they feel threatened and have no other way of escape. And while there may not be any venom in the bite, it still hurts like the dickens… trust me, I speak from personal experience.

So, don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge a snake by its scales… although the eyes might offer some clues. When in doubt, walk (or run) away. If you want more confirmation and can take a good photo of it, send it to your local Extension office for identification.


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?


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.


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.


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