Ask Wendy

Weekly Home Horticulture Column

By: Wendy L. Wilber, Extension Agent - Environmental Horticulture

Azaleas | Cutworms (4/5/2014)
Fragrant Plants
| Soil Test (3/22/2014)
Using Leaves as Mulch
| Olive Tree (3/8/2014)
Tree Pollen | Sugarcane (2/22/2014)
Crape Myrtle
| Crabgrass (2/8/2014)
Air Potato Beetle
Protecting Plants from Cold Weather
| Florida's Arbor Day(01/11/2014)

Archive - 2004, 2005, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013



Q. This year, my azaleas weren't as beautiful as in years past. The flowers didn't all bloom at the same time, and, when they did, there were brown spots on the flowers and they sort of melted. What happened?
A. Azaleas are a Southern favorite and standard in most North Central Florida gardens.
The old-fashioned Southern indica azaleas are "one-hit wonders" and normally put on a beautiful show in late February to early March.
This year, the weather delayed the bloom by about two weeks, and many of the cultivars, like Formosa, George L. Taber, Mrs. G. G. Gerbing and Southern Charm, didn't bloom in unison. More consistent temperatures next year should get them to flower at the same time.
The spots on the blooms are another problem called petal blight. It is caused by a fungus, and also is referred to as Ovulinia petal blight. It only damages the flowers. It is worse in years we have wet, cool weather during the flowering period.
The symptoms start as pale or white spots on the flower petals. The spots enlarge quickly and then the blossom collapses and is slimy. The fungal spore germination occurs when temperatures are in the mid-60s with mist and fog.
The pathogen can persist through the rest of the year as a small, compact mass of the fungal strands (sclerotia) in the fallen diseased flowers, or lying on the mulch below. When the flowers start to form in the spring, spores germinate and infect the flower. The best thing you can do to break the cycle is to rake up the spent flowers from under the shrub, and consider replacing the mulch, if possible.
Use of fungicides is not normally recommended because you can control the disease by removing the flowers and replacing the mulch. Hopefully, the weather will cooperate for a more beautiful azalea bloom for you next year.
For more information on growing azaleas, visit the University of Florida/IFAS Extension website at


Q. My new eggplant and pepper seedlings that I just planted have been snapped off 1 to 2 inches above the ground. What is doing this, and how can I stop it?
A. It is more than likely a cutworm caterpillar that is nibbling and snipping off the tops of your young seedlings.
These are brown or green plump caterpillars that hide in the garden soil. If you touch one, it would curl into a "C" shape. Normally, we don't see them because they eat at night.
They mow down seedlings at about soil level. On older plants, you might see channels or scars on the stems.
The best way to deal with them is to make a cutworm collar. Take a cardboard tube from a paper towel roll and cut it into 2-inch tall rings. Place these cylinders around each small seedling directly on the ground with the seedling in the center. Cutworms usually won't climb over these barriers.
Also, crop rotation will help to keep populations down. Some of my farming friends say that letting the chickens scratch through the garden at the end of the season helps to keep caterpillar populations down.
For more information about vegetable gardening, contact the UF/IFAS Extension Alachua County Master Gardeners volunteers at 352-955-2402.

Fragrant Plants

Q. I would like to add more fragrant plants to my landscape. I planted roses, but the ones I have really don't smell. What hardy plants would you recommend to spice up my yard?
A. Using fragrant plants in your garden really expands the experience you have in your yard. Usually, we buy plants only for their flower color or the form of the plant.
Selecting plants with different aromas of leaves or flowers allows you to take in the garden in a totally different way. Many new roses don't smell as intensely as the old-fashion ones, but I think you are seeking plants that will fill the yard with the heady smell of sweet memories.
Here are a few fragrant favorites for your North Central Florida garden:

  • Banana shrub (Michelia figo) is a magnolia relative that is a large shrub. It is evergreen, and has deep green, glossy leaves. In the early spring the plant gets covered with fuzzy flower buds, and then the magic happens; creamy yellow-colored flowers open up to about 2 inches wide, and they smell just like a banana smoothie. This is the kind of fragrance you can smell before you see the plant. Use this plant in partial sun with improved soil.
  • The Sweet Almond bush or incense bush (Aloysia virgata) is a large shrub that grows to 15 feet. The flowers are white spikes and have the aroma of almonds or amaretto liquor. They bloom intermittently all through the growing season and fill the air with the sweet smell of almond cookies.

Plant in full sun and close to your butterfly garden because the butterflies really enjoy the flowers.

  • Tea Olive (Osmanthus spp.), a winter or early-spring bloomer, is an evergreen shrub that somewhat resembles a holly. Clusters of small, star-shaped flowers bloom along the stems of the plant and release a heavenly aroma. These plants often are planted along decks or patios to scent outdoor living areas. Most gardeners wouldn't describe this shrub as beautiful because they can get a little scraggly, but they wouldn't consider their North Florida landscape complete without the powerfully fragrant tea olive.
  • Jasmine. When people think of Southern scents, jasmine usually comes to mind. Confederate Jasmine or star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) is a climbing vine that can perfume the whole backyard. As an evergreen vine, it needs to be trained to a fence, trellis or over an arbor. By early summer, the stems are heavy with clusters of white flowers that give off a heady aroma.
  • Citrus trees. Don't forget that your citrus trees can add wonderful smells to your landscape. Lemons, tangerines, oranges and kumquats all flower in the spring and bring delicious fragrance as well as fruit to your yard.

For more information about these fragrant favorites, visit the University of Florida/IFAS Extension website at

Soil Test

Q. I have already started my vegetable garden, and a friend told me I should have had my soil tested. Is it too late?
A. It's really never too late to have your soil tested. Normally, you would test for the pH of the soil before planting to see if it is too acidic (low pH) or too alkaline (high pH) to grow your vegetables.
It also is a good idea to test the soil to check the nutrient status so you know how much to fertilize. If the soil pH is too acidic, you may have to add lime to the soil to get the pH to about 6.5. When the pH level in the soil is closer to neutral or 7, your fertilizer will be absorbed more efficiently.
You might like to take advantage of an opportunity to get your soil tested for free at the Lawn and Garden Fest Open House at the Soil Testing Lab on the University of Florida campus, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on March 29.
Many IFAS experts will be on hand that day to talk about your lawn and garden. The Soil Lab is located at the corner of Hull and Mowry Roads.

Using Leaves as Mulch

Q. here are so many leaves falling from my oak trees. Usually, I just bag them up and put them on the curb on trash pickup day. But this year, I would like to use them as mulch. I heard this was possible.
A. March is the month when live oaks, water oaks and laurel oaks drop their leaves.
You can rake the yard one day, and it will fill up with leaves the next. It is best to wait until the majority of the drop is over to collect the leaves.
But don't kick these leaves to the curb because they can be used as free mulch. Fallen leaves are like Mother Nature's mulch; you just need a few tips on how to use them.
To use the leaves as mulch in your landscape beds, it is best to chop up the leaves in some manner. Do this by raking the leaves in a line and mowing over them with lawn mower, or putting them through a shredding machine.
Chopped up leaves break down more quickly and help to improve the soil. Apply the leaves to the landscape at a thickness of 3-4 inches deep. If the mulch layer is too thin, weeds will grow through it. A mulch layer that is too thick will not allow water to move through it, and the soil beneath will dry out.
It takes about a year for the mulched leaves to break down, and by then it will be time to start raking again.
By using the leaves in your own landscape you are saving the yard-waste truck a trip, and improving your soil and the health of your plants. Remember, too, that the leaves you rake or blow into the street often end up in the storm drain and can cause the drains to clog and add unnecessary nutrients to our creeks and ultimately to our aquifer.

Olive Tree

Q. I have been thinking about adding an olive tree to my edible landscape. Will an olive tree do well here in North Central Florida?
A. We normally think of olives as a Mediterranean crop that is grown in Spain, Italy or California.
They prefer a climate that has temperatures between 50 and 120 degrees, and receives 200 to 400 hours of chilling (temperatures below 45 degrees) a year.
Olives will grow in soil that is well-drained and has a pH between 5 and 8.5, and they are drought-tolerant.
This is sounding pretty promising right? They don't stand too much humidity in the spring and summer, though, so that could be a fallback, but we do, sometimes, have dry springs and summers.
In fact, many folks are growing olives in their backyard, and some farmers in South Georgia are trying them as a commercial crop for the oil.
There are several nurseries in the North Central Florida area that sell olive trees in containers. The trees have a beautiful silver foliage, deeply furrowed bark and can reach 20 to 30 feet tall. They are evergreen and flower in the spring.
Trees can require a pollinator partner to ensure fruit set. Some of the varieties that are growing well in Florida are Arbequina, Manzanillo and Mission.
You will produce olives in a few years from a healthy tree growing in full sun. But you cannot eat olives fresh off the tree. They must either be pressed into oil or brined for table olives.
For more information about olive trees in Florida, visit the University of Florida/IFAS Extension website at

Tree Pollen

Q. The tree pollen from our trees is starting to fall. It is coating my car and our deck. Which trees is it coming from, and is there anything we can do?
A. It seems that we go directly from winter season to pollen season within just a few days.
I noticed on the news that the pollen index is considered very high for our area, and it probably will be for the next several weeks. If you have strong pollen allergies, you may already be hiding indoors and upping your allergy medication.
The pines and the oak trees are the main culprits in our urban forest that are producing all the pollen. These trees are wind-pollenated, and are known to produce copious amounts of pollen that can travel as far as three miles or more under the right conditions.
Pollen quantities will vary from one tree to the next, and from one season to the next, as well. Weather also has a big influence on the pollen count. Rain dampens the pollen and prevents it from flying in the air. Cold weather can slow pollen production and windy dry weather keeps the pollen flowing all over town.
A survey done by the University of Florida Forestry department found that trees most likely to produce a high amount of pollen in the Gainesville area are laurel and water oaks, loblolly and slash pines, as well as sweet gums and cherry laurels. If you are negatively impacted on days with high pollen counts, you can use a few strategies to stay more comfortable. Restrict your outdoor activities during days with high winds and low humidity. Shower after spending time outdoors to remove pollen from your hair and skin. Don't use trees that have a high pollen count in your landscape; trees like magnolia, tulip poplar and red maple would be better choices.
For more information about trees and pollen, visit the University of Florida IFAS extension website


Q. Last spring, we planted a few canes of sugarcane just to see if it would grow. It grew really well and we love it as an ornamental grass. But is has died back in the freezes. Will it come back, and should we prune the dead canes off?
A. Sugarcane grows really well in North Central Florida. It was often grown in the homesteads of early settlers for cane syrup and as a sweetener. Normally, the canes are harvested in late November to early December before a hard freeze kills them back. The roots are perennial, and soon new shoots will appear at the base of the old ones.
It is fine to prune the old canes off once the temperatures warm up. Fertilize the cane patch with a balanced fertilizer like 8-8-8 at least once during the growing season. Irrigate one to two times a week to provide about 1 inch of water.
You will grow an ornamental and edible grass that is beautiful to look at and sweet to eat. For more information about gardening, contact the Alachua County Master Gardener office at 352/955-2402.

Crape Myrtle

Q. Is it too late to prune my crape myrtle tree? It is sort of a small tree, and I am not sure if I need to prune it or not.
A. In North Central Florida, we usually prune crape myrtle (if needed) in January or February, so you still have time to prune your tree. If the tree is small, you may not need to prune at all. Generally, we prune to maintain the size and shape as well as to increase flowering.
Crape myrtle produce flowers on the new growth, so a late-winter pruning for them is fine. When you prune this month, evaluate the shape of the tree: Do you want a multi-trunk tree or a single-trunk tree? Since your tree is small, you can easily correct any problems with the shape or the growth habit of the tree. If you want a multi-trunked specimen, select the three or four strongest trunks and prune the smaller side suckers down to the ground. This will provide more vigor to the primary trunks.
Do not over-prune the top of the tree or commit "crape murder." Everybody has seen this practice where overzealous pruners cut them way back.
This destroys the beautiful cascading form that the crape myrtle tree is known for. Removing more than one-third of the plant at any given pruning is stressful for the tree. Instead, give a gentle pruning by only pruning back the branch to a point that is about as wide as your thumb, or a 1-inch diameter. This encourages healthy growth and more blooms for the late spring.
For more information about crape myrtles and pruning them, visit the University of Florida/IFAS Extension website at


Q. I know it is time to treat the trouble spots in my St. Augustine lawn for crabgrass. While I was out shopping for a weed killer, I noticed a product that was made of cinnamon bark that said it would kill crabgrass. Do you think it will work?
A. February is the month to apply a pre-emergence weed killer for crabgrass. Crabgrass is an annual weed that doesn't start sprouting until the summer. So, if you had a crabgrass problem last year, treat with a pre-emergent herbicide in February to prevent the germination of the seeds.
Quick reviews of the cinnamon-bark product lead me to believe it is used on green and growing crabgrass, and doesn't have any pre-emergent effect on the seeds. The product information states that with a couple applications, it will get rid of the crabgrass.
An extension agent colleague in South Florida tested the product last year and found that the cinnamon-bark herbicide only burned the top of the crabgrass, and the plant re-sprouted from the roots. I really like the idea of a natural approach for this recurring summer weed, so maybe the formula can be improved.
In the meantime, treat your crabgrass trouble spots with an herbicide that contains pendamethalin (Halts crabgrass killer or Pendulum) to keep the crab at bay.
Give the UF/IFAS Alachua County Master Gardeners a call to help with weed issues at 352/955-2402.

Air Potato Beetle

Q. I have been overrun with air potato vines for many years. They grow on the back side of my property and in a spot that is next to a natural area. This past fall, I noticed lots and lots of holes in the leaves, and the vines seemed weaker. This must have been the work of the air potato beetle, right? I am worried that now that the vines have died down for the winter, this bug will come after my landscape plants. Should I be concerned about it?
A. This is the time of year that the invasive air potato vines die down, and it is the best time to pick up and destroy the bulbils or the "air potatoes." The city of Gainesville will host the Great Air Potato Round-Up in many of our local parks and natural areas this month. During the roundup volunteers pick up thousands of pounds of the potatoes to prevent the further spread of this invasive exotic vine. This year, there may be fewer potatoes collected because of the newly released air potato beetle (Lilioceris cheni).
Air potato vine (Dioscorea bulbifera) was an ornamental plant that was introduced to Florida in 1905. Since then, it has escaped from cultivation and grows unchecked in natural areas as well as Gainesville backyards. The vines can reach heights of 60 feet, and it will cover and smother the trees and shrubs it grows on. The vines are spread by an inedible bulbil, or air potato.
In Florida, nothing eats the leaves of the vine or the potato, so the vines spread aggressively — until now. Scientists have discovered a small beetle that feeds only on air potato. It was found in Asia where the vine is native, too. After extensive testing by the USDA/ARS, and the Florida Department of Agriculture, these beetles were found to only feed on air potato. The insect will not complete its life cycle on any other host plant. They feed almost entirely on the leaves of air potato vine, and sometimes on the bulbils. The beetle larva, as well as the adults, feed on the newly developing leaves, and this really reduces the plant growth and its ability to spread. Extensive damage usually is noticed on a stand of air potato vines within three months of release of the beetles.
The beetles do not die out in the winter, nor do they look for other things to eat. The adult beetles will go into a hibernation of sorts. The beetles will hide out under leaf litter or mulch. In the spring, the overwintering adults will emerge, and the females will start laying eggs. The young beetles will keep eating the air potato vines.
The beetles will not be released to the public for a couple of years yet, but they will be available at some point. For more information about the air potato beetle, visit the University of Florida IFAS Extension website at

Protecting Plants from Cold Weather

Q. Several of my plants, like hibiscus, ginger and pentas, were burned back during the freeze. What should I do now? Should I prune them back or pull them up?
A. The cold temperatures of January can burn back some of our favorite plants in North Central Florida.
We recommend covering these plants with frost cloths or fabric that extends all the way to the ground. If it is going to be windy as well as cold, you should weight the clothes down so they do not blow off. Tropical and subtropical plants such as hibiscus and pentas should be covered when temperatures drop below 32 degrees. Plants like citrus and cold-weather vegetable crops (broccoli and collards) can stand temperatures slightly lower without protection. But, if it is going to be a "hard freeze" (below 28 degrees for more than five hours), you should protect your citrus and veggies, too.
The roots and lower portions of hibiscus, pentas and ginger will more than likely survive freezing temperatures, so pulling them up should not be necessary. The freeze damage should not be pruned back until you see new growth emerging later in the spring. If you prune the plants back now, it could stimulate new growth that might be further damaged by the cold. If it is possible to postpone clipping the plant back, try to hold off until at least March. If new green leaves start to grow from the stems, cover them with frost cloth to prevent further damage.
For more information about cold protection on plants, visit the University of Florida IFAS Extension website at, or call the Alachua County Master Gardener Volunteer at 352-955-2402.

Florida's Arbor Day

Q. I heard that Arbor Day is this month, but I know for a fact that Arbor Day is on April 25.
A. You are correct on both accounts. Florida's Arbor Day is always the third Friday of January. National Arbor Day is in April.
January is a good time to plant trees. You can celebrate by planting a tree in your yard or community. Consider strong trees like the live oak, bald cypress, winged elm or cabbage palm. Also flowering trees like crape myrtle, magnolia and dogwood can be planted now.
Gainesville is a designated Tree City USA. To keep this designation, the city must have an active tree board, a tree-care ordinance and community forestry program, and have an Arbor Day observance event. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Tree City USA for Gainesville. The Arbor Day celebration will take place 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Jan. 16 at The Depot Park. There will be speakers, music and a shade tree give-away.
For more information about the event, contact Ella Brooks at 393-8181, or Earline Luhrman at 393-8188.









Wendy Wilber

Questions? Ask Wendy at



Magnolia Leaves and Blooms


Rake with mulch


Pine Pollen

Pine Pollen

Crape Myrtle

Crape Myrtle

Air Potato Beetle

Air Potato Beetle

Cold Damaged Plant

Cold Damaged Plant