Right plant, right place results in Florida-friendly landscape

Tree roots impacting parking area. Photo courtesy of IFAS

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to speak at the International Flower and Garden Festival at Epcot in Orlando. I provided eight presentations on the topic “Right Plant, Right Place.”

The audiences consisted of people mostly from Florida but there were attendees from other parts of the U.S. and even from other countries in attendance. I started each presentation with the question, “Do any of you have all the right plants in all the right places in your landscape?” Not a single hand was raised in response to this question.

Most people do not have all the right plants in all the right places in their landscapes, including myself. Hopefully, no one is on the other extreme of having all the wrong plants in all the wrong places, either.

Most people fall somewhere in between these two extremes. As a Florida gardener, you’d be wise to better implement this idea into your landscape.

Right plant, right place does require some knowledge of your property’s site conditions and knowledge of plants to be used on the site. The main idea is to best match the plants to the existing site conditions.

How often do we place shade loving plants in full sun or poor salt tolerant plants along the coast or plants that are native to wet areas such as wax myrtles on deep sandy, dry sites? These misplaced plants will not be “happy” and eventually will have problems.

How often do we take a plant in a gallon size container, plant it under a low window and expect it to stay the same size? Or, what about the sixty-foot tree under a twenty-foot power line. Plants are designed to grow. Find out the mature size, in height and width, and place the plant where it has plenty of room to develop into its mature size.

Right plant, right place involves choosing plants that will stand up to our wind climate, humidity, heat, rain, winter weather, etc. Certain plants such as tulip and lilac don’t perform well here because of the lack of sufficient cold weather and the fact that it becomes too hot too early. But we can grow other flowering bulbs such as amaryllis and other flowering shrubs and trees such as crape myrtle and chaste tree.

With some planning and forethought in selecting and placing plants, your Florida landscape can be aesthetically pleasing, easier to maintain and more Florida-friendly.

For additional information on selecting the right plants for your landscape, contact the UF/IFAS Extension Office in your County or visit the below website. https://ffl.ifas.ufl.edu

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent

North Florida lawns are frustrating

I’ll be the first to admit that North Florida lawns are frustrating. With time, most people discover this.

Why are lawns so difficult here? The answer involves a combination of factors.

We are not far enough north to benefit from the better soils. Florida is known for sandy, low fertility, low water holding capacity soils. Some areas of the country enjoy richer soils with better water and nutrient holding capacities. These better soils result in a more favorable lawn root environment with roots being more competitive and resilient.

Something else happens in more northern areas. The heavier soils and colder temperatures (sometimes resulting in the soil freezing) are natural means of inhibiting and/or controlling certain soil dwelling pests. For example, nematodes are not nearly the concern in northern lawns. Many people that move to our area have never heard of these microscopic roundworms that play havoc in our low fertility, warm, sandy soils. After a lawn has been in place for a number of years, allowing the nematode population to reach a threshold, the lawn begins to decline. And we have few legal, effective chemical control options for nematodes in Florida lawns.

Some other soil dwelling pests that northerners don’t have to deal with include ground pearls, small scale-like insects that bother centipedegrass roots. Mole crickets are not a pest much north of Central Alabama. Years ago, a representative with the company that manufactured the once popular mole cricket insecticide Oftanol told me that in the absence of the state of Florida, they would not sell enough Oftanol to keep it on the market. Take-all Root Rot, a common soil dwelling fungus, plays havoc in our Florida lawns and it is difficult to control.

We are not far enough north to use the more trouble-free northern grasses to create a permanent lawn. These include bluegrasses, fescues and perennial ryegrass. At best, these grasses can be used to overseed our lawns during the cooler fall and winter months to create a temporary winter lawn. But they will not survive our hot, wet summers.

We are not far enough south to benefit from the lack of freezing temperatures during winter. A late freeze that occurred on April 8 a number of years ago resulted in much lawn injury. I saw lawns with seventy percent kill from this late freeze. This is something that typically does not happen in Central and South Florida.

We deal with saltwater issues, high humidity, hurricanes and tropical storms, an array of lawn insects and diseases and extremes in rainfall and temperatures.

It’s no wonder most people become dissatisfied with their lawns. Perhaps we should lower our expectations and enjoy the natural flora and fauna of our state.

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent

Making water count in the landscape

There are several things you can do to help make your landscape more water-efficient without having to resort to the extreme of having nothing but cacti and rocks. 

Landscape planning and design are keys to a more water-efficient landscape. An efficient water use design includes dividing the landscape into three water-use zones: low, medium, and high.

Low water-use zones require little to no supplemental water after establishment. Moderate water-use zones contain plants that need some supplemental irrigation during hot, dry periods. High water-use zones should be limited in the landscape to small, high-impact, or most visible areas of the home, such as the entrance. 

Use practical turf areas. Locate turfgrass in areas of the landscape to provide the most functional benefit, such as recreational areas or slopes, to prevent erosion. Separate turfgrasses from ornamental plants in the landscape so they can be watered separately. Most turfgrasses can be located in any of the three water-use zones, but the amount and frequency of irrigation should be adjusted accordingly. 

Only water plants that need to be watered. An irrigation system is nothing more than a tool to supplement rainfall, not to water in addition to rainfall. Daily watering is bad for plants. It encourages shallow root systems and causes plants to demand more water. 

Midday watering of lawns is not recommended because much of the applied water can be lost to evaporation and wind blowing the water off-site. Water between 2 and 8 a.m. to minimize evaporation and foliar diseases. 

Consider the use of drip or micro-irrigation in ornamental plant beds, vegetable gardens, and fruit garden areas. Drip or micro-irrigation uses less water and is more efficient than traditional irrigation systems. 

Mulch is vital to a water-efficient landscape. Mulch helps conserve soil moisture and keeps the root area cooler during hot, dry weather. A two to three-inch layer of organic mulch such as pine straw, pine bark mini-nuggets, or woodchips helps create a more water-efficient landscape. 

Try to match the right plant for the site conditions and preserve as many native plants as possible. Native plants are generally well adapted to the environment and may require no supplemental irrigation. 

During dry weather, mowing turfgrasses so that no more than 1/3 of the leaf tissue is removed at each mowing will reduce plant stress and water demand. Reduce fertilization during dry weather because it can damage plant roots in dry soils. 

For additional water-saving ideas, contact the UF/IFAS Extension Office in your County or visit the following UF/IFAS Websites. 



Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent

Centipedegrass decline

I’ve driven through a number of relatively new subdivisions in Okaloosa County this spring and I can easily pick out the centipedegrass lawns that will be declining next spring. Right now, these lawns stand out as some of the darker green lawns. They’ve been over fertilized. The lawn’s owner does not realize that this is a mistake. Short term, the lawn will look good. Long term, it will decline.

Fertilizing a centipedegrass lawn to create a dark green color will cuase a condition called centipedegrass decline.

The causes for centipedegrass decline are complex but a major contributing factor is over fertilization. If you wanted to induce this condition in a centipedegrass yard, all you need to do is to be a little heavy handed with fertilizer. And, in a year or two, you will see classic centipedegrass decline – patches that turn yellow and then begin to die at spring green up or shortly thereafter.

Centipedegrass has a naturally light green color. My advice is to fertilize centipedegrass sparingly, accept its light crabapple green color and low maintenance requirements.

Following this checklist can help prevent centipedegrass decline.

  • Don’t apply fertilizer until warm spring weather is here to stay. Fertilizing before the last frost invites disaster. It’s best to wait until well into the month of April or May before fertilizing.
  • Water immediately after the application in order to activate the fertilizer and prevent burning.
  • Choose the fertilizer type carefully. Look for one that has about 30 percent of the total nitrogen in a slow release form (listed as water insoluble nitrogen, usually on the back of the bag.) The product should contain about as much potassium (the third number on the bag) as it does nitrogen (the first number on the bag.) Most people apply too much nitrogen and too little potassium.
  • Avoid fertilizers that are high in nitrogen, yet contain low percentages of potassium.
  • Avoid the use of high phosphorus containing fertilizer. Phosphorus is the middle number listed on the fertilizer container. Excessively high levels of phosphorus in the soil have also been implicated in centipedegrass decline and the inability of the grass to take up iron and other micronutrients.
  • Avoid heavily fertilizing a centipedegrass lawn. One or two light application(s) per year is/are the maximum a centipedegrass lawn will ever need.
  • Never apply a high nitrogen fertilizer after July.

If your centipedegrass lawn is already dark green, it’s a matter of time before the decline begins. Centipedegrass decline is prevented, not cured.

Here is a UF/IFAS Extension publication on centipedegrass, which includes more information on how to correctly fertilize a centipedegrass lawn. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/lh009

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent

Common lawn insects

Mole crickets, chinch bugs and spittlebugs are a few insects to watch for in our North Florida Lawns.

Even though mole crickets may injure any of the lawn grasses we grow in Florida, bermuda, bahia and centipede are most severely damaged. But just because you have St. Augustinegrass doesn’t mean you can rule out mole crickets.

Even though mole crickets can be active spring through fall, the best time to control them is in June and July in North Florida.

Soap flush is a technique to survey or scout for mole crickets. Simply mix two ounces of liquid dishwashing soap in two gallons of water and apply with a sprinkling can to four square feet of turf in several areas where mole crickets are suspected. If an average of two to four mole crickets appear on the surface within several minutes, then control may be needed.

Chinch bugs only damage St. Augustinegrass. So, if your lawn grass is something other than St. Augustine, you don’t need to worry about this insect.

Chinch bugs like hot weather. As a result, they are most often active during summer through fall, especially if it is dry. They favor open sunny areas of the yard.

Inspect a St. Augustine lawn weekly during late spring, summer and fall. Look for

off-color areas that quickly turn yellow and then straw brown. Part the grass at the margin of the yellowed areas and closely examine the soil surface and base of the turf for tiny insects. Immature chinch bugs are pink to red and are about the size of a pinhead. Adults are only 1/5-inch-long and black with white wings.

Spittlebugs favor centipedegrass and St. Augustinegrass. The first generation of adult spittlebugs is abundant in June and the peak population is usually in August to early September.

An early sign of spittlebug activity are masses of white, frothy spittle found in the turf. Each piece of spittle contains a single larva. Damage resembles chinch bug injury but usually first appears in shady areas. Closer inspection reveals discolored individual grass blades with cream colored and pinkish-purple streaks running the length of individual blades. As the population builds, the ¼ inch long adults are abundant. As you walk through or mow an infested area, numerous adult spittlebugs fly for short distances when disturbed. The adults are black with two orange transverse stripes across their wings.

Correct management of a lawn can minimize many pest problems. If a pesticide becomes necessary to control a lawn pest, be sure to follow the product’s label instructions and precautions.

More on lawn insects is found at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/ig001.

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent

When to aerate and de-thatch a lawn

Q: When should a lawn be aerated and what is the recommended method?

A: Core aeration is done when the soil is compacted or where there are distinctly different textures of soil creating layers in the upper several inches of soil. The compaction problem can occur over time from foot traffic, mowing equipment, vehicles parking on lawn, etc. If it’s difficult to push a screwdriver several inches into the soil, this can indicate a compaction problem. You can determine if there are different layers of different textures (examples: one layer of sand and one layer of clay) by taking a shovel and cutting a vertical slice of soil to a depth of six to eight inches and then looking at the cross section to see if there is evidence of layers with distinctly different textures. These are the main two reasons for aerating a lawn. Soil compaction is the most common reason for having to aerate. With either test, it’s best to check several areas of the lawn. In either case, aeration is done to help increase air and water movement into the soil. When needed, it’s best to use an aerator that takes out plugs of soil instead of one that has solid spikes that just pokes holes into the ground. The best time to aerate is when the lawn is actively growing but not when it’s under stress from hot or dry weather. The best window of opportunity to aerate is mid-April to mid-June.

Q: What can be done about thatch in a lawn?

A: Many times, what people are calling thatch is really not thatch – it’s just dead leaves on the soil surface. True thatch cannot easily be removed. It is a layer of dead and, in some cases, living plant debris (mainly dead grass stems, runners and roots.) It is a layer that builds up over time under the grass and above the soil. It forms a layer that looks somewhat like peat moss. Dead leaf blades do not contribute to this thatch layer. They simply break down too fast. A brisk raking will remove the dead grass blades that are intermingled in the grass. In order to remove thatch, you have to use a vertical mower (dethatcher.) Or, some people will top dress the lawn to help more quickly break down the thatch. If the thatch layer becomes too thick, it can cause problems in a lawn. Fertilizing too much, watering too much and sometimes overusing fungicides can result in thatch. Basically, you’re growing the grass faster than the microorganisms can break down the debris.

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent

Getting ahead of drought

Drought impacted centipede grass

Periods of low rainfall occur naturally in Florida. The average annual rainfall in Florida is 54 inches (greater than any other state but Louisiana.) The average annual rainfall for Okaloosa County is 62 inches. Our rain, however, is not evenly distributed.

Up to one-half of the public water supply in Florida is devoted to landscape irrigation. Given Florida’s limited water resources, in combination with a rapidly growing population, wise irrigation practices will play an essential role in providing a sustainable water future for our state. Proper landscape design and irrigation system standards can help save significant amounts of water and money and achieve both attractive landscapes and protection of our natural resources.

Set priorities in irrigating your landscape. Water highly visible and intensively managed areas first. Drought-sensitive plants should have high priority, and grass should have lower priority. 

Watering early (between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m.) while it is cooler and less windy results in less water loss from evaporation and wind drift. 

On established plantings, irrigate deeply at long intervals rather than watering frequently and shallowly. Deep watering improves drought resistance by promoting deeper, more extensive root systems. Depth of watering should be six to twelve inches for turf and bedding plants and twelve inches for perennials, shrubs, and trees. One inch of irrigation wets sandy soil to a depth of about twelve inches. To determine how long it takes your irrigation system to apply ½ to ¾ inch of water, place empty coffee or tuna fish cans in the irrigated area and see how long it takes to fill them to the desired depth.

Examine your irrigation system and repair leaks promptly. Make sure the water lands on your plants and grass and not on paved areas.

Make the most out of rainwater. Turn downspouts from rain gutters towards areas with plantings. Rainwater can also be collected and stored in rain barrels for dry spells.

Avoid excessive fertilization. Don’t fertilize or, if you do, use a low nitrogen fertilizer. Fertilization stimulates growth and increases water needs.

Raise the cutting height of turf. A higher cutting height promotes deeper rooting and maintains turf quality longer.

Add mulch to beds to reduce soil evaporation and moderate soil temperature, reducing stress on roots. The final depth of mulch should be three to four inches after settling.

If possible, don’t use overhead sprinklers for shrub and flowerbeds: hand water or use trickle, drip, or micro-irrigation. More significant water loss can occur with overhead irrigation because of evaporation and wind drift.

Visit this UF/IFAS Extension website for more on landscape irrigation. 


Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent

A Time to Celebrate Trees

I’ve always enjoyed trees in one way or another – climbing them as a kid, eating their fruits, using them to build tree houses, etc. As an adult, I still enjoy and appreciate trees for their beauty and benefits. Can you imagine our parks, roadsides, schoolyards, and landscapes without trees?

Trees were everywhere in my small hometown in Georgia. I remember two large pecan trees growing on either side of our driveway. As a child, I claimed one tree as my own, and my twin sister claimed one as her tree (and I better not touch it). But, I not only touched it, but I also climbed it, too. It wasn’t the best climbing tree, though. But It produced the best pecans. I think that’s really why she picked the tree.

I remember a large black cherry tree in our backyard. It was a good climbing tree. It was one of the tallest black cherry trees I’ve ever seen. Some birds like the ½ inch fruit produced by black cherry trees. The seeds will go through their digestive system, remain viable and then germinate from bird droppings. This is probably how the tree I climbed got its start.

There were many other types of trees in our yard. We had various fruit trees, including peach, plum, apple, and pear. While in high school, I had the responsibility of caring for the fruit trees. Actually, I volunteered to do this because, at the time, I was involved in FFA and agriculture, horticulture, and forestry classes. We had an outstanding Vocational Agriculture and FFA program at my high school.

I remember cracking black walnuts with a hammer on our concrete drive to get to this nut’s “meat.” By the time the extremely hard-shell breaks into tiny pieces, you’re left with small bits of walnut meat to carefully pick through and separate from the bits of shell. My mother planted the tree. She collected a single walnut and planted it. It grew into a nice tree, but I don’t think my dad cared for the tree. The walnut fruit with husk included is about 2 inches in diameter. Most years, a bearing tree will produce an abundance of walnuts to be picked up off the lawn and driveway. This was the case with our tree. My dad usually had the job of picking up the walnuts.

Arbor Day allows everyone to celebrate, recognize, appreciate, and plant trees. Florida’s Arbor Day is celebrated on the third Friday in January. I encourage you to take time to enjoy the trees around you, and if you can, plant a tree. There just might be some child that will remember you for doing so.

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent, Okaloosa County

Extension and Electricity

In 2021, having electricity in our homes may be taken for granted. But did you know that the UF/IFAS Extension Office played a major role in getting electricity out to rural areas in Okaloosa County?

In 2001, John Hentz, Jr. shared his involvement in getting electricity to rural areas in Okaloosa and Walton Counties back in 1940.

Hentz became the County Agricultural Agent in Okaloosa County in 1940. He described Okaloosa as an “agricultural county” with the only paved roads being Highway 90 through the center of the county, Highway 98 “skirting the coast,” Highway 20 through Niceville and Valparaiso, a paved road from Crestview to Laurel Hill, and a paved road through Baker into Blackmon. All other roads were dirt.

Hentz explained that Crestview, Milligan, Baker, Laurel Hill, Niceville, Valparaiso, and Fort Walton Beach had electricity furnished by Gulf Power, but the “smaller villages” and rural areas had no electrical service.

During this time, Rural Electric started to get established around the country through the federal Rural Electrification Administration (REA) during the Roosevelt administration. The REA was created to bring electricity to farms. Nearly ninety percent of farms lacked electricity due to the high costs to get it to rural areas.

As a County Agent, Hentz recognized the need and value for rural areas to have electricity. With help from a few residents near Holt, Hentz arranged a public meeting at the “Holt schoolhouse” and invited John Hudson, County Agent in Santa Rosa County, as a speaker to explain the REA plan and its operation, as Santa Rosa already had electricity through the REA. Hentz said that the school auditorium was packed. He continued with this project in Baker, Blackmon, Escambia Farms, Laurel Hill, and Svea, holding public meetings in local schools and churches.

Once organized, REA officials from Washington took over. Hentz said that they sent a young engineer from Atlanta to map the project using his car’s odometer, locating each applicant. Hentz stated, “I rode every mile of it with him and identified every applicant.”

As with any project, there were challenges and resistance. Hentz remembered one farmer who didn’t want anything to do with this “newfangled” electricity that could “burn his barn down.” In one community, Hentz was accused of running some sort of “scheme” to get money. There was resistance to obtaining right-of-way by some property owners to run the electrical lines, etc.

Choctawhatchee Electric Cooperative, CHELCO now serves more than 56,000 accounts, providing electrical service to rural areas in Walton, Okaloosa, Holmes, and Santa Rosa counties.

Hentz stated, “The Choctawhatchee project became a reality, and it changed people’s way of life in the outlying rural areas. With Rural Electricity’s coming, people could live in the country and have most of the town living comforts. The Choctawhatchee Electric Coop was in full operation by late summer of 1941.”

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent, Okaloosa County

New Year’s Resolution

Avoid “calendar” control of lawn pests

Q: I plan to install a new St. Augustine lawn in 2021. Can you provide a calendar schedule for applying insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides to a lawn in North Florida?

A: It’s difficult or impossible to offer a “schedule” or “calendar” approach to pest control on a lawn. Pests should be treated as needed. The primary pests of St. Augustinegrass are chinch bugs and gray leaf spot fungus. Chinch bugs are most active during the hotter, drier weather of spring and summer. Gray leaf spot is mostly active during warmer, wet weather. Mole crickets and large patch fungus are not as much a problem as chinch bugs and gray leaf spots. Mole crickets are wrongly blamed for many lawn problems. It’s best to target the immature stage of the mole cricket, which means treating during June or July. Large patch is the most active during the cooler weather of spring and fall. Weeds should be dealt with based on the type of weeds your lawn has. But it is not a given that you’ll have to treat any of these pests regularly. Learn to monitor for these pests and treat the lawn only as needed. Correct maintenance (fertilizing correctly, watering on an as-needed basis, and mowing at the correct height) is the major factor.

Additional information on growing a Florida lawn, including pest identification and management, is available online at https://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/yourfloridalawn or through contacting my office.

You may also be interested in the UF/IFAS Extension North Florida Gardening Calendar, available at this link. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep451.

Below is a sample of things to do for the month of January. You’ll find that calendar items for North Florida lawns begin to happen more in the spring and summer months.

In the vegetable garden, Irish potatoes can be planted now. Start with healthy seed pieces purchased from a local nursery or online seed catalog. Continue planting cool-season crops, including broccoli, kale, carrots, and lettuce. See Vegetable Gardening in Florida: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_vegetable_gardening.

Plant deciduous fruit trees to give their roots time to develop before the warm, dry spring months. Prune and fertilize existing trees. See Temperate Fruit for the Home Landscape: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_home_temperate_fruit.

Be ready to cover tender plants to minimize damage. Frost or freezes are likely this month and next. See Cold Protection and Chilling Damage of Landscape Plants: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_landscapes_and_cold.

Celebrate Florida Arbor Day (the third Friday of January) by planting a tree in your yard or community. Consider a hurricane-resistant tree, such as live oak, bald cypress, cabbage palm, or crape myrtle. See Arbor Day in Florida: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_arbor_day.

Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent, Okaloosa County