Hillsborough Extension Garden Blog

Solutions you can use for your gardening problems.

Winter Bloomers March 3, 2011

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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.


Winter Veggies – Part III January 27, 2011

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.


Cold Hardy Palms – Part II January 10, 2011

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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

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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.


Botanical Symbols of the Season – Part IV December 21, 2010

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Mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum)

Most people associate mistletoe with kissing during the holiday season for anyone caught standing under a sprig of this plant (often strategically placed in a doorway). Before Christianity, however, the Druids believed mistletoe could cure diseases, increase the fertility of humans and animals, offer protection from witches and bring good luck. They believed it was a holy plant because it rooted closer to heaven than any other plant. If two Druid enemies met beneath a tree on which mistletoe was growing, they would lay down their weapons, exchange greetings, and observe a truce until the following day!

These traditions and beliefs of peace and harmony were adapted by the English and French, giving us the holiday custom of kissing under mistletoe bunches. While hanging mistletoe is a Christmas tradition in the United States, it is more commonly associated with New Year’s Eve in Europe.

In the home landscape, mistletoe is a parasite and not planted voluntarily. Mistletoe’s distinctive green leaves, stems, and white berries–each with a sticky seed inside–are easily recognizable. As a small seedling, it roots into the bark and wood of a tree and makes a connection with the growing ring of the host. Although mistletoe makes its own food, it steals water and nutrients from its host tree. Mistletoe will parasitize many hosts in Florida, in particular elms and laurel oaks. A botanical anomaly, it is the only complete plant considered a true parasite since it often kills the hardwood tree it infests.

With Christmas and other celebrations right around the corner, take some time to ponder the history, the lore and the symbolism of the plants around you. It just might help you be less stressed about the season and instead be more captivated by the wonder of it all!


Botanical Symbols of the Season – Part III December 17, 2010

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Clover (Trifolium repens L.)

In Irish tradition, St. Patrick used the shamrock or three-leaf clover as a symbol to teach about the Holy Trinity: one leaf for the Father, one for the Son and one for the Holy Spirit. Supposedly, when a shamrock is found with the fourth leaf, it represents God’s grace. It was white clover (Trifolium repens L.) that was used during this time. Another story claims that during a sermon, St. Patrick asked the crowd how many leaves the clover had. When they replied it has three but can also be one, St. Patrick’s response was that it is also that way with God (the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost). Since this story was written more than one thousand years after the time of St. Patrick, however, it is often considered a legend.

In Florida, white clover is not widely used in residential landscapes, because it is a cool-season legume and acts like an annual plant. It is commonly used in pasture applications because of its high protein content and digestibility for cows, compared to grass alone. If you like the looks of the characteristic trifoliate leaf, however, consider oxalis for the home landscape. This shamrock substitute is found in many nurseries and garden centers as either an annual or perennial.

Commonly known as wood sorrel or false shamrock, Oxalis triangularis subspecies papilionacea, is endemic to Brazil and can be grown outdoors from zones 8 – 11. Prolonged days over 85 degrees will cause this plant to look “tired” but once the daytime temperatures drop a bit, the show is spectacular! The leaves are a deep purple-red color with light pink to white flowers that create a wonderful contrast.


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