Crape Myrtle or Coat Rack

“coat rack” style pruning
photo courtesy of Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent

This time of year it is common to see crape myrtle trees that look like coat racks. Too often people hack away at crape myrtle trees and “butcher” them. The term “crape murder” was coined to describe this drastic topping of crape myrtles.

Properly selected and properly placed crape myrtles need little pruning. A crape myrtle that requires routine pruning to force it to fit into a smaller space should be considered for replacement with a smaller-maturing cultivar. The real problem here is that you have the wrong plant in the wrong place. The person that planted the tree did not do their homework. To avoid having to annually “butcher” a nice tree, choose a smaller maturing crape myrtle.

After topping, the tree will insist on growing to its genetically designed size, again and again.

If you want a crape myrtle that will naturally stay below four feet in height, buy a dwarf cultivar such as Pocomoke. There are semi-dwarf cultivars that grow to about twelve feet or less in height such as Acoma. There are intermediate crape myrtles that top out at less than twenty feet in height such as Osage. And there are crape myrtles that grow greater than twenty feet in height such as the popular Natchez cultivar. Choose the right size plant to fit the selected space.  

Topping trees is a bad practice. It weakens a tree by removing food reserves that were stored in the now-removed wood. It also radically reduces the size of the canopy decreasing the plant’s ability to produce food through photosynthesis. The large open cuts caused by topping invite wood-rotting organisms and ultimately decay. Topping results in many dead stubs throughout the tree. Topping crape myrtle forces the tree to produce many unsightly root suckers. Ultimately, topping results in an ugly, odd-looking, higher maintenance and short-lived crape myrtle.

Many people believe crape myrtles have to be cut way back in order to produce an abundance of blooms. Flower clusters may be slightly larger on topped trees. But topping usually delays flowering up to one month and since the tree is smaller, it produces fewer flowers. The long, weak shoots supporting the large, heavy flower clusters on topped crape myrtles bend awkwardly and are more likely to break away from the plant.

Correctly pruned crape myrtles.

Photo courtesy of Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent

When pruning crape myrtle trees, avoid cutting back or shortening branches much larger than your finger, although cutting larger branches back to a side branch or to the trunk when needed is fine.

More information on crape myrtle selection and care are available at the below links.,

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent, Okaloosa County

2020 Camellia Workshop

The Greater Fort Walton Beach Camellia Society will conduct a Camellia Workshop to introduce the camellia to area residents. The workshop will be held from 9 a.m. to 12 noon, Saturday, February 8 at the Okaloosa County Extension Annex located at 127 NW Hollywood Blvd. in Fort Walton Beach. There is no cost to attend.

In today’s article, Greater Fort Walton Beach Camellia Society member Joseph Jenus invites you to the 2020 camellia workshop.

I am sure you have noticed as you travel about Okaloosa County and the Panhandle of Florida the vivid color displayed by blooming camellias. Unlike most outdoor flowering plants, camellias bloom when the plants are dormant during the months of October thru March.

Camellias come in many sizes and shapes. Some types are bushy and short, others may grow to fourteen feet or more in height. Size and shape are easily controlled with proper pruning. There are several thousand registered unique camellias (cultivars).

Examples popular in our area include Pink Perfection, Professor Sargent and Debutante. Flowers range in size from 1.5 inches to 6 inches in diameter. Flower forms include singles, doubles, rose, etc. Camellias are hardy plants that provide numerous landscaping possibilities. Due to their popularity, the camellia has been designated the State Flower of Alabama. Also, Fort Walton Beach, Florida is called The Camellia City.

Members of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Camellia Society will be available to answer questions and to provide demonstrations and handouts with information on the following topics.

Planting and Care of Camellias: The special planting requirements for your new camellia and a monthly care calendar will be available for potted and landscape camellias.

Propagation: There are several methods to propagate camellias that will be demonstrated. They include air layering, seeds, and grafting.

Gibbing/Debudding: Instructions will be given on how to improve the size and quality of your camellia blooms.

Insects/Pests/Diseases: Bring samples of any camellia problems you may have for identifications and recommended treatment.

Gardening with Camellias in Containers: If you don’t have a place to plant them or if you live in a northern climate, consider employing camellias as a potted plant.

There will be a limited number of plants for sale and a camellia bloom display. You are invited to come and learn more about camellias and have a cup of coffee.

For more information about this event, call Joseph Jenus, Workshop Chairman, at 850-862-4526. 

Here is a link to a UF/IFAS Extension publication with more info on growing camellias in Florida.

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent, Okaloosa County

Florida Arbor Day Celebrations in Niceville and Defuniak Springs

In celebration of Florida’s Arbor Day, free trees will be given away Friday, January 17 in Niceville and Saturday, January 25 in Defuniak Springs.

These events are sponsored by the Florida Forest Service, the Niceville Senior Center, the Kiwanis Club of Niceville-Valparaiso, the City of Defuniak Springs and the Chautauqua Assembly.

The Niceville event (January 17) will begin at 9 a.m. at the Niceville Senior Center located across from the Niceville Recreation Complex at 201 Campbell Drive. At the Niceville event, forty trees in one-gallon containers will be given away on a first-come, first-served basis with only one tree per person. Tree species will include Shumard Oak, Dahoon Holly, and Mayhaw. A University of Florida Extension Agent will conduct a tree planting demonstration and UF/IFAS Master Gardener Volunteers will be available to answer questions about planting and growing trees in North Florida.   

The Defuniak Springs event (January 25) will be part of the larger Chautauqua Assembly and will begin at 8 a.m. at Lake Defuniak. At the Defuniak event, 400 trees in one-gallon containers will be given away. Tree species will include Red Maple, Crabapple, Chickasaw Plum and Mayhaw. 

Arbor Day was originally founded in Nebraska on April 10, 1872, as a tree-planting day. Every state recognizes Arbor Day but because of differences in climate, each state selects its own date to fit the best planting time for trees. Florida’s Arbor Day is the third Friday in January. The first Arbor Day celebration in Florida was held in 1886 in Defuniak Springs. National Arbor Day is the fourth Friday in April. Florida foresters and other tree experts take advantage of January being a cooler time of the year. Planting trees while temperatures are cooler allows young trees to become better established before hot spring weather arrives. 

Visit to learn more about Arbor Day. 

For more information about the Niceville and Defuniak Springs Arbor Day Celebrations, contact the Florida Forestry Service in Okaloosa County at (850) 603-6662 or the UF/IFAS Extension Office in Okaloosa County at (850) 689-5850.

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent, Okaloosa County

Attracting birds to your landscape

Carolina Chickadee with caterpillar

Many bird species can do well around our home grounds if provided the right conditions. To encourage birds around your home, provide them food, water and some kind of cover.

Some birds such as cardinals, finches and sparrows are seed eaters and will eat things like cracked corn, millet and sunflower seeds. Other birds are fruit eaters and will eat things like raisins, chopped fruit and apples. These birds include jays, mockingbirds, orioles and robins.

Most bird experts suggest when feeding birds, it’s better to provide the food in containers rather than broadcast the food on the ground. Food that stays on the ground is easily contaminated and when many birds are feeding in the same area. There is the danger that diseases could spread among the bird families. Always place the bird food in clean containers. Also, birds that are busily eating food from the ground are easier targets for nearby cats.

Some wildlife experts caution that birds can quickly become dependent on you. They suggest to not attract more birds than the area or your budget can support. Feeding stations tend to make birds lazy. As a result, if the food supply is suddenly cut off, many birds may starve.

You also need a source of water for your birds. This can be a simple, inexpensive birdbath made from a trashcan lid or something more fancy. The important thing is that the water is fresh and clean.

Providing cover for visiting birds is another consideration. The cover can be made available by the use of native plants or it may be a birdhouse. Plant covers have the advantages of providing food as well as security. Many bird experts suggest when using birdhouses, usually, only three or four per acre are enough. Some territorial birds don’t like another family near them. For nesting purposes, keep the house somewhat out of sight.

There are many native plants that will attract birds. Oaks, including live oak, attract woodpeckers, blue jays and brown thrashers. Holly, dogwood and sumac will attract many kinds of birds, including cardinals, robins, bluebirds and mockingbirds. Sunflowers are another good plant to include because sunflower seeds are used by at least forty-six bird species. Red cedar attracts birds of many species. There are many other native plants to consider.

For additional information on attracting birds you can contact your local Audubon Society at or visit, which is a University of Florida Extension-Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension website with a wealth of publications on Florida wildlife.

The Foundation for The Gator Nation, An Equal Opportunity Institution

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension, Okaloosa County

New Year resolutions to improve your landscape

Setting the sprinkler head for an irrigation system. UF/IFAS Photo: Josh Wickham

As we begin a New Year it is a great time to make resolutions that benefit your landscape.

Install a rain barrel

Rainwater harvesting is beneficial, whether the water is used to water one houseplant or an entire garden. Collecting rainwater can conserve water and save money on your water bill.

Check your irrigation system

Fifty percent of a home’s total water consumption can easily be used for irrigation.

A 5,000 square-foot yard with an in-ground sprinkler system can result in $5 to $25 being spent every time you irrigate. Overwatering the lawn and landscape is a common mistake. A faulty irrigation system wastes water.

  • Check for broken or leaking sprinkler heads.
  • Redirect sprinklers that are obstructed by plant parts or grass blades.
  • Don’t mix spray heads and rotors in the same zone. These two sprinkler types have different application rates. When stationary shrub spray heads and rotating turf sprinklers are used in the same irrigation zone, the shrubs usually end up being overwatered.
  • Schedule waterings according to plant needs. Irrigation controllers are often set to run too frequently or for too long per irrigation event. Consequently, turfgrass and landscape plants are over-irrigated, water is wasted, fertilizers are washed away and diseases are promoted. Water only as needed.
  • Be sure to calibrate your irrigation system to determine how long to run the system so that it delivers the amount of water recommended for your area. Without calibrating your irrigation system, each zone could be delivering too much or not enough water.

Make your own compost

Converting yard debris to compost has many benefits. It is an environmentally-friendly way to reduce the amount of solid waste that must be disposed of and it provides useful and beneficial products for yards and gardens. Compost is an excellent soil amendment that improves the health and structure of both sandy and clay soils. Mixed with other components, it makes a good potting mix and some gardeners brew it in water to make a compost “tea” for plants.

Reduce pesticide usage

Learn how to avoid pesticide usage by following proper cultural techniques. And, when pests do show up, learn how to use the most environmentally-friendly techniques to manage them.

If you are not sure where to start, contact the University of Florida-IFAS Extension Office in your County and talk to an Extension Agent or a Master Gardener Volunteer about any of these projects. Or visit the UF/IFAS Extension Gardening Solutions website.  

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent, Okaloosa County

Plant trees and shrubs too deep and lose them

A planted tree with water retention berm. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension Santa Rosa County

Many gardeners experience dying or stunted trees and shrubs as a result of simply planting them too deep.

A study that addressed this issue was conducted at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Various species of trees and shrubs were installed at different planting depths. The goal was to determine the effects that depth of installation had on establishment and subsequent growth of these plants.

In this research, the top of the root ball for each tree and shrub was installed at various depths: 1) slightly above grade; 2) even with the top of the ground; 3) two inches below the soil surface and 4) four inches below the surface. 

I had an opportunity to see this work in person years ago and the differences in tree growth and development were obvious. The trees and shrubs that were planted 2 and 4 inches below grade were easy to find. They were stunted and, in some cases, in a state of decline.

Shrubs and trees that are planted too deep can be damaged in two different ways. The roots of trees and shrubs must receive atmospheric oxygen in order to survive. If plunged too deep in the soil, root suffocation begins almost immediately.

Deep planting also can girdle/rot the base of plants. Stems and trunks, being above ground plant parts, differ from root tissue. If soil is placed against these parts that are accustomed to air, then rot organisms begin to breakdown the bark and work its way into the vascular system, which is just below the outer protective bark. Once the tubes that move water, minerals and food within the plant are interrupted, then the plant eventually declines or dies – simply from being planted too deep.

So, what’s the right planting depth?

Dr. Ed Gilman, the now retired researcher who conducted the study, recommends planting relatively shallow. In fact, he provided a good rule of thumb for use when transplanting. “Leave the uppermost root showing” when the job is complete. 

That might seem extreme, but take a look at trees and shrubs that are growing in the wild. Almost without exception, you will see one or more larger roots partially exposed at the surface. This is the depth at which that particular plant grows. If we duplicate that depth when planting trees and shrubs, there is a much better chance of success.

But if you plant your trees and shrubs too deep, at best they’ll be stunted, at worst, they’ll live a short life.

Here is a link to a UF/IFAS Extension publication with more info, including pictures, on how to correctly plant trees.

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent, Okaloosa County

December in the North Florida garden

Poinsettia sale, 2006. UF/IFAS Photo: Sally Lanigan.

With Thanksgiving over and Christmas on its way, you may not be putting much thought into your landscape. But there are jobs that still can be performed during the month of December.

Hardy shrubs and trees can be planted this month. Water them carefully. Don’t let them dry out but don’t keep the soil really wet. Vines that are strangling trees, such as wisteria, grape vine, kudzu and honeysuckle, can be easily seen and removed once frost has killed their leaves. Allow woody shrubs to slowdown and enter dormancy by withholding fertilizers. Tender shrubs and trees damaged by a freeze should not be cut back yet. Wait until the last frost of the season is over to see how far down the damage goes, then prune. Prune broadleaf and narrow leaf evergreen plants any time this month for shaping the plant. But avoid severe pruning. Prune so the top is slightly narrower than the bottom. Remove spent camellia blooms as they fall to help prevent petal blight, an unsightly disease that causes brown spots on camellia petals and causes the blooms to fall prematurely. Remove and replace mulch after camellias finish flowering.

Establish bedding plants of snapdragons, dianthus, pansies and petunias. Fertilize winter blooming annuals every four to six weeks with a slow release fertilizer. Plant hardy perennials like delphinium, rudbeckia and Shasta daisy. There is no need to fertilize hardy perennials and other trees and shrubs in December. Finish dividing and transplanting clumping perennials such as daylilies, mondo grass, ajuga and liriope. Clean up the garden, pull up spent annuals and renew the mulch. Plant bare root roses now. Select those that have been grafted on Fortuniana rootstock for best results. When cold weather is forecast, protect the graft from frost or freeze with mulch. Refer to this UF/IFAS Extension publication on roses.

Finish planting spring blooming bulbs such as narcissus as soon as possible. Plant pre-cooled tulips and hyacinths before December 15. Finish planting wildflower seeds this month.

Plant herbs that do well in winter including parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and lavender. Clean up the garden. Remove dead vegetation and weeds to prevent a buildup of diseases, weeds and insects. Continue planting cool season vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, radish, carrots, cauliflower, kohlrabi, mustard, onions and turnips. Keep cool season weeds in check before they get too established. Henbit, chickweed and dandelion will grow all winter. Plant bare-root and container-grown fruit trees or blueberries all month.

You can request a copy of this list by contacting the Okaloosa County Extension Office. The phone number is (850) 689-5850.Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent, Okaloosa County