Hillsborough Extension Garden Blog

Solutions you can use for your gardening problems.

Raised Bed Gardening December 26, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 11:55 pm
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The life of a plant can be a difficult one. From the time it germinates from a seed or is propagated from a cutting, a plant is expected to delight, amaze and even inspire its human caretakers. And if it fails or ceases to draw an occasional gasp or smile of appreciation? Another eager plant is waiting nearby to take its place.

Too often, the reason a plant does not perform to our satisfaction has nothing to do with the plant itself and everything to do with us and the surrounding environment. But unfortunately, the plant pays the ultimate price.

It is difficult to meet a Florida gardener who has never complained about the poor quality soils we encounter in this state. Yes, believe it or not, sand is a type of soil. But in dealing with poor soils in our landscapes, we must address drainage issues, nematodes and other pests, nutrient availability, soil pH levels, weeds, erosion… The list goes on and on.

Rather than continue to fight with the existing soil at ground level, consider an alternative: raised bed gardening. There are several benefits to gardening in raised beds. For one, you have better control over the quality of the soil in which to plant. Soil borne problems like nematodes can be controlled more easily. Access to plants for pruning, harvesting and weeding is easier because the plants are above ground level. Finally, raised beds, if designed as such, can serve as decorative hardscapes in your yard.

The first and most important consideration when building a raised bed is the material used. Avoid treated wood, since there may be a risk of chemicals leaching into the soil and nearby plants. Many types of construction materials, including bricks, stones and plastic, may be used. Your choice of material will depend on your style and budget.

When considering a location for your raised bed, look for a level spot that receives at least 4 to 6 hours of sunlight. Using a hose or string, lay out the approximate size and shape of the bed. Don’t make it too big; you will need to reach the plants in the middle of the bed as well as along the edge. If building multiple beds near each other, be sure to leave enough space in-between so that you can walk and work around them. Use a pervious material like gravel or mulch to line the walkways between and around the raised beds. If you build a shallow bed (6 inches or less), consider lining the bottom and edges with weed cloth to keep grass and weeds from creeping into the bed.

A raised bed should drain well because soil that remains very wet will deprive plant roots of oxygen. This is especially true for vegetable beds. The best type of soil for your ornamental raised bed is sandy clay loam soil mixed with organic matter like peat moss, finished compost, sawdust or ground bark. For vegetables, the best mix is one-third topsoil, one-third peat moss, and one-third sand or perlite. When you add soil to your raised bed, be sure to grade the soil so that it slopes towards the edge of the bed, rather than the center.

Choosing plants for your raised bed garden is essentially the same as with a regular garden bed. However, if the raised bed is very shallow – 4 to 6 inches deep – you may be limited to planting annuals, vegetables and some herbs. The deeper the bed, the more plant options you have.

As always, the Florida-friendly landscaping™ principle of choosing the right plant for the right place holds true. For each garden bed, choose plants that have similar needs regarding sunlight, water, nutrients, soil pH and drainage. Also be sure that the mature size of the plants chosen is suitable for the location in the landscape. Woody perennials and shrubs should be placed at the rear or the center of the bed, depending on its position in the landscape, while annuals and groundcovers should be easy to reach for maintenance and replacement.

Once your raised bed is constructed and plants are installed, mulch the surface 2 to 3 inches deep to help regulate soil temperature, reduce water evaporation from the soil, control erosion and reduce weeds. Water the bed when needed, and check the soil in-between watering. If the top inch or two is still wet, there is no need to irrigate.

If designed, built and maintained correctly, a raised bed garden offers a host of benefits and options to any gardener. By choosing the right plants for your raised bed, you will be pleasantly surprised at how well they perform. For more information on building a raised bed garden, visit the Texas A&M Extension publication online at http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/publications/guides/E-560_raised_bed_garden.pdf.


Cold Weather Tips for Your Plants — Before, During and After November 21, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 7:55 am
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Florida is a great state in which to live; you can wear shorts, eat ice cream, and enjoy the great outdoors year-round. You can also grow plants all year long, provided you watch the weather reports and prepare for the occasional cold snap that may happen this time of year. Unfortunately, those beautiful tropicals and sub-tropicals that everyone loves to plant are susceptible to cold damage, so it’s necessary to know the right and the wrong ways to not only protect plants from the cold, but care for them afterwards if they do get cold damage.

Life Imitating Art… or is that Flora?

A common trend of most Floridians is the combination of wearing shorts with a sweater or jacket when it starts to get cooler. Nevertheless, this fashion faux pas makes for a great comparison of how plants may feel when the temperature starts to drop. By maintaining a 3” layer of mulch over the soil in your landscaped beds, the roots of plants may not notice the cool weather as much as their above-ground counterparts, the leaves and stems, which need to be protected from heat loss.

Most plant damage can be minimized by reducing radiant heat loss from the plant and the soil surface. It’s important to stock up on sheets, freeze cloth, and light blankets to cover any cold sensitive plants you may want to protect. Be sure to cover plants all the way to the ground to trap enough heat to last throughout the night, and remember to remove the coverings when temperatures rise above freezing.

Another common observation is that Floridians carrying a few extra pounds around their waistlines don’t “feel” the cold the way others might. Plants that are well-fed (healthy) – in the form of water and proper nutrients (fertilizer) – throughout the year tend to survive lower temperatures and recover faster from cold injury. Keep in mind that plants are still growing during winter months, but at a slower rate, so you still need to maintain a proper schedule and rate of fertilization and watering.

While a cool breeze is a welcome relief at the height of a steamy Florida summer, it can cause even the most seasoned Floridian to hunker down and cringe when it’s cold outside. Windbreaks may offer a great deal of protection to plants in hard freezes that are accompanied by wind. Consider the placement of plants in your yard in relation to outdoor structures, tree canopies, and walls of your house; survival may depend on as little as six feet and a fence. If possible, gather up all your potted plants and place them close together before covering them up to reduce heat loss from container side walls. Placing a light bulb or string of Christmas lights under the cover will provide some additional heat.

Haute Horticulture versus Real Life

A common practice in commercial farms in anticipation of freezing temperatures is to run the irrigation system to wet the plants so that the continuous freezing of water on the plants and the resulting release of heat keeps plant cells at a temperature just above freezing. This can only work with a continuous flow of copious amounts of water, and residential sprinkler systems are not capable of doing this successfully. So while the agricultural industry can utilize this behavior to save millions of dollars in crops, the only results for the typical homeowner are lots of water waste, a potentially exorbitant water bill, and the risk of greater damage to plants than if nothing was done at all.

The Morning After… It’s Just a Waiting Game

Depending on the severity of the freeze and the specific plants in your yard, it may be necessary to do a botanical triage to assess the best recovery plan for your landscape. The most important first step is to check your plants’ water needs after a freeze. If the sun is shining, leaves may be losing water to transpiration, but the water in the soil may still be frozen and unavailable to the plants. Water plants to thaw the soil and replace the water being lost through the leaves.

The typical reaction of most Floridians after a freeze is to hack off all the freeze-damaged limbs the next day, but keep in mind that the weather in our fair state is about as finicky as our voting machines. Keeping some of that dead or dying material on the plant during a successive freeze will help to protect the undamaged parts if/when the next unseasonable freeze rears its ugly head. Severe pruning should be delayed until new growth appears and there is no longer a risk of freeze.

Don’t try to save damaged annuals or vegetables; they’re inexpensive and easy to replace. Damaged areas of turf will return as the weather warms up enough to promote new growth. Most perennials will die back to the ground, but there is a good chance that new growth will start up from the roots.

The best advice I can offer when it comes to cold weather and your landscape is this: Prepare well with proper plant choices and cultural practices; stock up on protective cloths to help plants ride out the storm; and exhibit pruning patience while waiting for warmer days and new growth.

For more information on freeze protection and caring for plants with freeze damage, contact your local county Extension Service or visit http://solutionsforyourlife.com.


Secrets & Shortcuts of the Florida Gardener November 7, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 11:55 pm
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My grandfather once told me that a garden is a testing ground for patience. Not until I had a yard of my own – and a job, bills, household chores, and more – did his words make sense. After hours of bug bites, broken nails, and dirt-stained knees (and more than a little profanity), I decided there had to be an easier way.

If you want your yard to look like a botanical garden, you might consider cashing in your 401K to hire a small live-in landscaping crew. On the other hand, if you’re willing to accept a few weeds, some extra shoot growth, and the occasional pest, you’re well on your way to becoming a successful Florida Gardener. So what is the motto of the Florida gardener? Perfection is overrated.

Albert Einstein identified 3 rules of work that can be applied to gardening in Florida: “Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

A good landscape design (not shown here) can reduce a lot of unnecessary frustrations.

Out of clutter find simplicity – Humans like instant gratification, but a true Florida gardener is a master of tolerance and endurance. And if a landscape design is done right, the results can be very pleasing.

The key to remember, regardless of what anyone says, is that size matters. Mature plants take up a lot more room in the landscape than when they’re first planted, so give them room to grow. This means fewer plants you have to buy (money savings) and fewer planting holes you have to dig (sweat savings).

Another key element to simplifying your landscape is hydrozoning, the art of designing your landscape by water use: xeric (low), mesic (medium), and oasis (high). Keep high water use areas to a minimum (e.g. turf areas), and utilize as many drought tolerant native and Florida-friendly plants as possible. Group plants with similar water needs together in the landscape to minimize water waste. By putting the right plant in the right place, you save yourself a lot of heartache down the road.

From discord find harmony – One of the most common statements I hear from clients is, “I can’t grow anything I used to be able to grow up North!” Rather than get frustrated trying to train your tulips and daffodils to get a suntan, choose plants that have characteristics better suited to Florida’s environment.

Slow growing plants need less pruning. They maintain a neat appearance, without looking obsessively manicured (remember your 401K…). Additionally, by choosing wide spreading plants, you have to buy fewer plants to fill in a given space. Drought tolerant plants require less water once established, so you’ll spend less time dragging the hose around or trying to adjust your sprinkler system. Just as important, but often overlooked, is the need to choose plants that are pest and disease resistant. Part of being a successful Florida gardener is minimizing your inputs and contributions to the environment in the form of pesticides. Fewer pests mean fewer chemicals.

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity – Einstein’s final rule is probably the most uplifting; it causes you to find the silver lining in your garden (and I don’t mean the slug and snail trails crisscrossing the sidewalk and driveway). All gardeners face limitations, but every one of these obstacles can be overcome with a little patience (there’s that word again) and ingenuity. 

Create self-mulching areas under trees that shed leaves so you don’t have to rake them up.

Mulching is a necessary activity in the landscape to help retain moisture, regulate soil temperature, reduce erosion, and minimize weeds. One potential opportunity is in the availability of free and low-cost mulch from local tree trimmers and municipalities. Some counties sell shredded, composted yard debris to residents for a minimal cost, reducing the need to haul bags and bags of mulch from garden centers. If you have trees that shed leaves and pine needles, collect those and spread them around your yard as mulch or create self-mulching areas underneath tree canopies.

Fertilizing doesn’t have to be a chore, if it’s done right. First ask yourself why you’re applying fertilizer in the first place. Is it because your plants and lawn need a boost of nutrients, or because your neighbors are hauling out their fertilizer spreaders and giving you dirty looks? Remember to use slow-release fertilizer and only apply when needed – to correct a nutrient deficiency, to encourage shoot growth, or to encourage extra blooms.

Weeding is the most dreaded task of any gardener, but the key is timing. Learn to identify the weeds that show up and claim squatters’ rights in your landscape. By understanding their life cycles, you can pull them before they go to seed, reducing the chance of return visitors. Maintain a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch in landscaped beds to help reduce weed seed germination. Finally, learn to tolerate a few weeds; remember the Florida gardener’s motto…

Less than 1% of all bugs are bad. Let the good ones, like this spider, do the work for you.

There are many pest resistant plants, but there is no such thing as a pest-free yard. Less than 1% of all bugs in the landscape are pests; the rest are either beneficial or harmless. With that in mind, consider manual removal of pests before dragging out the big guns – pesticides. Many pests can be removed by hand or with tweezers, if you’re squeamish. A strong spray of water from the hose will also knock off most creepy crawlers. The laziest (but just as effective) method of all is to simply prune off the infested leaves or branches and throw them away.

Keep in mind that working in the yard doesn’t have to be work, if you have the right attitude and the right tricks. I hope these tips will help you to avoid the embarrassing moments of being caught by your neighbors while you scream at your plants, curse the bugs, and faint over your water bill. But if you still need a little reassurance or someone to vent to, contact your local County Extension Office (http://solutionsforyourlife.com). I guarantee, they’ll understand.


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