Thursday, September 23, 2010

Muhly Grass, A Fall Favorite

Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), a Florida native grass, is a fall favorite for any Central Florida landscape. This clumping grass grows to three feet tall and is covered in pink/purple blooms in the fall.

Muhly grass grows in full sun, tolerates sandy soils, is drought-tolerant, and will not need irrigation after establishment. It is not only a showy, attractive plant, it is also a tough plant.

Combine Muhly grass with perennials such as beach sunflower, goldenrod and Pentas. Muhly grass is also attractive when used as a border planting or in mass plantings. Use it in a wildflower garden, along roadsides, or on a sunny slope.

For more information on Florida-Friendly plants go to the Polk County Florida Yards & Neighborhoods program website. Search for muhly grass as well as other ornamental grasses and Florida-Friendly plants that grow well in Central Florida.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Gardening and Landscaping Questions?

Do you need gardening advice?
Need help identifying an insect?

Looking for ways to conserve water?

Visit the Mobile Green Team booth at the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market this Saturday! The market is located at 200 North Kentucky Avenue in Lakeland and will be open from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.
The Mobile Green Team is an educational gardening and landscaping help desk staffed by professionals from the UF/IFAS Polk County Extension Service, the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Program, the Polk County Master Gardeners, the City of Lakeland Water Utilities and Lakes and Stormwater Divisions. Visit the Mobile Green Team on the third Saturday of each month at rotating locations around Lakeland. For more information visit our calendar here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fall Color for the Landscape

Your landscape might start to look at little stressed after a harsh Florida summer, but there are some plants that will revive your landscape going into the fall months. These plants will add some interest to your landscape with their unique characteristics. Remember that even in Florida there are many plants that will change color, produce berries, or flower only in the fall months. The ten plants that we have listed are Florida-Friendly if they are installed following the right plant, right place principle.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)
Goldenrod is a fall-flowering perennial that grows tall and stands out in any perennial garden. The yellow flowers cover the plant late summer through fall. Goldenrod will spread through the garden. It looks nice against a fence, combined with other wildflowers, and combined with butterfly plants such as Pentas and purple Salvia.

Beach Sunflower (Helianthus debilis)
Beach Sunflower flowers continuously from spring through the winter months, making it a good addition to a fall flower garden. Beach Sunflower is low-growing and will spread and seed itself in the garden. Combine Beach Sunflower with ornamental grasses such as Muhly grass for a beautiful fall landscape bed.

Cigar Plant (Cuphea ignea)
The orange flowers of the Cigar Plant are perfect for a fall flower garden. Cigar Plant will grow to about three feet tall and has dark green leaves. Plant this flowering perennial in a butterfly garden as it attracts nectaring butterflies and hummingbirds.

Lion’s Tail (Leonotus leonurus)
Lion’s Tail is another orange flowering plant for the fall garden. It will grow quite large, up to six feet tall and three feet wide. Combine Lion’s Tail with ornamental grasses, Salvias, evergreen shrubs and butterfly plants.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
In the fall, the bright purple berries of the Beautyberry stand out in any garden. Beautyberry is a deciduous shrub that will grow to about six feet tall. This weepy, informal shrub can be grown in sun or shade gardens, woodland gardens, natural areas, or in bird and butterfly gardens. Combine Beautyberry with evergreen shrubs.

Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaries)
Muhly grass is one of the most attractive fall-flowering plants in Central Florida. The grass produces showy purple/pink blooms that rise above the grass. Muhly grass is drought-tolerant and only grows two to three feet tall and wide. Combine Muhly grass with Goldenrod, Beach Sunflower, and other perennials. It is also attractive when combined with evergreen shrubs.

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
This large shrub grows as an understory shrub, so it does the best in shady areas under trees. The large oak-like leaves of the Oakleaf Hydrangea will turn red to purple in the fall and the large white flowers are also showy during the fall months. They start out as white flowers and turn to pink. This shrub will grow six to eight feel tall and wide, and is beautiful when combined with evergreen shrubs such as azaleas, and grown under oaks and pine trees.

Mexican Sage (Salvia leucantha)
The purple blooms of the Mexican sage start in the early fall and will continue to cover the plant until it freezes back in the winter. This large perennial can grow three to four feet tall and wide, so give it plenty of room to grow. The purple flowering plant looks beautiful when combined with ornamental grasses, yellow-flowering perennials, and evergreen shrubs such as Coontie Cycads.

Forsythia Sage (Salvia madrensis)
Everything about the Forsythia sage is big. The plant can grow up to eight feet tall and the blooms can get up to a twelve inches long. Forsythia sage will bloom from fall until frost. The plant will freeze back to the ground in the winter in Central Florida. The yellow flowering plant is attractive when combined with purple flowering plants, Pentas, ornamental grasses and blanket flower.

Silver-Leaved Aster (Pityopsis graminifolia)
The Silver-Leaved Aster is a low-growing perennial. The silver-green foliage is a nice contrast to the yellow flowers of the plant. This is a tough native plant that can be combined with other wildflowers and perennials, ornamental grasses and native drought-tolerant shrubs.

Look for these plants at your local nursery to add some fall color to your landscape. If you have any questions about the plants listed above, please contact the UF/IFAS Polk County Extension Service.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Use a Rain Barrel to Collect Condensate from Your Air Conditioner!

Polk County Master Gardener, Carol Leffler, has generously shared her experience attaching a barrel to her air conditioner unit to catch condensation for watering around the garden. I was truly surprised to learn how much water she collected in a 55-gallon barrel in such a short amount of time. If you have questions about rain barrels please contact the UF/IFAS Polk County Extension Service Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Program. Please enjoy her article!

The month of August brought unexpectedly hot weather and, along with it, the sudden failure of our home’s air-conditioning system. We experienced seven hot days of August without air conditioning. Now, that would stymie even the best of Floridians, because not only was it too hot to move, but around our house, it was even too hot to think.

It’s not that this was an unexpected occurrence. We knew it was coming, just not precisely when. Suffice it to say, we had done all of our “homework” on the topic for the past couple years, so we knew our options.

You know what they say, “When Life Gives You Lemons…”. A wonderful unintended consequence came to bear on this most seasonally uncomfortable event. Around the house, when I have a contractor or whoever working, I always quip to them that I “consider it bad manners not to work when others are,” so I busied myself with what I could do while supervising the installation. After all, sitting in the house and watching TV and eating bonbons was not an option (they’d melt!). It was definitely nicer weather outside.

One feature of the failed A/C system was that the condensate had previously been piped to an inside drain in a bathroom (“go figure” why in the world that was done). The installer said he couldn’t do this again, as it would void my new A/C warranty. Sooo…”Where to route the condensate?” questioned the contractor. Or, more precisely, I thought, “How to capture and use this newly routed source of water? Eureka!” Here was a water source that was free for the taking.” How much it could deliver was a mystery that I was willing to try to solve.

Back in the recesses of my mind, I had stored away memory of an installation of “condensate barrels” that I had seen last April at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. The aquarium recaptures all of its A/C condensate into outside barrel systems, and then recycles it to the outside landscape plantings. When I first saw the installation, I was impressed with the possibilities.

I had, in my treasure trove of unfinished projects, a spare unpainted rain barrel, spigot attached. As it was taking the installers hours to perform the retrofit of the new A/C system, I had a cushion of spare time. I excused myself and went to get the materials I still needed—leveling sand, gravel, a concrete base, and concrete blocks, the latter for elevating the barrel. (When I returned, they had stepped a hole through the garage drywall ceiling—most folks would view that as a setback, but to me it equaled an advantage—even more time!

After all, there were, at times, up to eight installers working on one retrofitting problem or another, and they all came with tools they knew how to use quickly and effectively. Succinctly put, I realized that I was, unexpectedly but happily, in a place I shall call “Helper Heaven".

The first job was to make room for the new “condensate barrel.” It wasn’t as easy as just plopping it in a waiting spot.

I dug out an azalea bush that I had rejuvenated over the last six years. Bye bye, bush! It wasn’t quite that easy, but that’s life. Then the site was prepped with use of the aforementioned materials, and the placement of the barrel. The installers had never seen this done, and they were willing to do the pipe routing with precision (the piping had to go somewhere, anyhow). It is important to note that when installing a condensate barrel, the piping must include a trap between the source and the outflow. This is for two reasons: first, to block the flow of cool air to the outside, and secondly, to block the flow of critters and insects to the system air handler.

Then…that magic moment, when the flow of water began! What a musical sound to hear—the quiet “ping-pinging” as the condensate followed its route to the bottom of the barrel! Listening through the barrel’s top revealed an amplified version of the water’s song. Over the next few days, the culmination of falling water solved the mystery of what the size of the reclamation reward would be. In seven days, the 55-gallon barrel was completely filled—with a very good water harvest!

In the ensuing days, we have endeavored to maximize the collection process by providing for overflow, and also attempting to schedule use of the water, so that the overflow didn’t end up as just overflow. What a resource! Now, we just have to plan and channel the usage. We have connected the outflow to micro-irrigation heads with fairly good success, which was another big surprise. The micro-irrigation heads work fairly well at low-flow for some distance from the condensate barrel.

An additional storage barrel is in the future. Another task will be to make the barrel(s) aesthetic as well as functional, as they are located on the side of the house, behind a silverthorn bush and are minimally visible from the street. This dictates that they be visually unobtrusive architecturally. Also, the pipes were painted using the same color as the house exterior so they blend in as much as possible. The first step in painting the barrel (after a primer coat) was to match the base color with that of the outdoor A/C unit that sits directly in front of the barrel from the street view.

The fun part, the artwork, was the last step—although it need not have been, if the barrel had been completed before installation. I’m still working on the decorative aspect of that barrel, as shown above. The flowers are a folk art rendition of coreopsis (tickseed), the State Wildflower of Florida.

A final note—of course, my A/C installation required that the Polk County Building Department complete an inspection. The county inspector had never seen a “condensate barrel” as part of an A/C installation. He was quite interested in it, and impressed with the report of the water reclamation.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Your Composting Problems Solved!

Composting is an easy way to create a usable garden amendment. There are different methods of composting, different types of bins, and of course, different problems that can occur in your compost pile. The good thing is that most of the problems that occur during composting are easy to fix.

Here are some common problems and their solutions.

My compost pile smells!
f your compost pile has an odor, it could be that the pile is too wet, it needs oxygen, or that there is too much nitrogen in the pile.

To solve the odor issue if your pile is too wet, add dry brown materials such as dry oak leaves, sawdust, or shredded paper. Mix these materials into your pile to help absorb some of the excess moisture. An open pile may be more susceptible to this problem as it is not covered. If you have an open pile that is getting too wet, consider covering it with a tarp.

The smell may also be coming from excess nitrogen in your pile. The pile will not heat up and break down (or stop smelling) until to fix this issue. Again, the solution is to add some brown materials to your pile and mix them all together.

If your pile seems to be inactive and there is an odor, it may be caused from a lack of oxygen. The aerobic bacteria that help break down the pile quickly cannot survive if there is no oxygen in your pile, so you compost will just be sitting there like a lump. Mix your pile to add oxygen. After you mix your pile, it should start to heat up again and begin to break down.

My compost pile is not breaking down!
There may be too much brown material in your compost pile if it is not breaking down. Brown materials (such as dry leaves) can be slow to break down if there is no nitrogen (green materials) to help with this process. Add more nitrogen-rich materials and mix your pile. This should help it heat up and break down more quickly.

My compost pile is too wet!
It is possible for your compost pile to have multiple problems at the same time. So if your compost pile is too wet, it may also have an odor. Just like in the “my compost smells” scenario, you treat a wet compost pile by adding dry materials and mixing them into the pile.

My compost pile is too dry!
If your compost pile is too dry, add water to it. If the pile is large and very dry, you may need to wet it in batches. Then you can add the batches back to the pile. Remember, it is recommended that the moisture should be like a rung-out sponge, so don’t get over excited with the water. As soon as you add the appropriate moisture back to the pile it should start to break down again. The appropriate bacteria will be able to thrive and compost your pile. If the pile seems to not heat up and start breaking down, you may also need to add some nitrogen-rich materials such as manure, kitchen scraps or coffee grounds to the pile.

Why are there bugs in my compost pile?
Insects are always present in the compost pile. They help break down and mix the materials in the pile. But there are some insects that should not be in the pile. Ants, earwigs, pill bugs and sow bugs can be banished from the pile simply by mixing. Although these insects don’t harm the compost pile, they can cause problems later when you add compost to your garden beds.

Remember that it is always possible that multiple things are contributing to the problems in your pile. It is important that you are familiar with your compost pile and you know what you put into it so that it is easy to solve problems. For more information on composting go to and search for composting. You can also contact the UF/IFAS Polk County Extension Service for advice and assistance with your compost pile.