Ask Wendy

Weekly Home Horticulture Column

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

Mistletoe | Christmas Cactus (12/13/2014)
Composting | Pyracantha (11/24/2014)
Satsuma Tangerines | Ferns in Palms (11/15/2014)
St. Augustine Sod | Water Oak (11/01/2014)
Japanese Maple | Italian Cypress Trees (10/18/2014)

Archive - 2004, 2005, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014



Q. I'm noticing what I think is mistletoe in one of my oak trees. Do I have to get rid of it right way?

A. Mistletoe (Phorandendron serotinum) is a parasitic plant that can live in many of our hardwood trees. It is easy to notice during the winter months because the deciduous trees lose their leaves and the evergreen mistletoe keeps its greenery. This parasite has root-like protrusions that penetrate through the bark of the tree and enter the vascular system of the host. Mistletoe will continue to grow in the tree for the life of your oak.

If you just have one or two bunches of mistletoe in a large tree, you should not have to worry about it. If possible, prune out the mistletoe, cutting the branch at least 12 inches behind where the parasite was attached. If you have many balls of mistletoe, you may have a bigger problem. The presence of large amounts of mistletoe may be an indication that the tree is failing, especially if the tree has been compromised by pests, storms or old age. The tree might need to be evaluated by an arborist for removal.

This mistletoe is a host plant for a Florida butterfly called the great purple hairstreak, so if you are a butterfly gardener, you may consider keeping a bunch in the tree.

Though it is customary to kiss under a bunch of mistletoe during the holidays, beware that ingesting the leaves is toxic to people and pets. For more information about mistletoe, visit the University of Florida IFAS website,

Christmas Cactus

Q. A friend gave me a Christmas cactus last week, and not long after, all the buds fell off. It was completely covered with buds and now there are only a few left. What did I do wrong?

A. When a plant moves from a greenhouse environment to your home, there is a big humidity change. If you put it near an air-conditioning vent or a heat vent, that change can be even more pronounced.

Also, the lighting where you put your new Christmas cactus might not be bright enough. They do pretty well in low light, but would prefer a bright window with no artificial lighting.

Your plant will ultimately adapt to the humidity and lighting in your home. Be patient. You will have to wait until next season to have lots of beautiful flowers. There are a few tricks to it, so be sure to visit the UF/IFAS extension website, www.solutionsforyourlife, for more information.


Q. I have been raking all the leaves off of my lawn.  How can I compost them?

A. Composting is a great thing to do with your landscape waste.  It is an environmentally friendly way to reduce the solid waste that you put at the curb and it provides a useful product for your yard and garden.  Finished compost is a dark crumbly material that is produced when microorganisms break down leaves, grass clippings and kitchen waste.  You can layer your raked leaves with kitchen scraps in a composter or a wire bin.  Twigs and branches can also be put in the compost pile but they should be less than 1/4 inch in diameter.  Waxy leaves like from live oak, laurel oak, water oak and magnolia break down faster if you put them through a chipper or mow over them several times with a lawn mower.  The smaller the size of the leaves the faster they break down to compost.  Your kitchen wastes such as coffee grounds, vegetable trimmings and peelings are also added to the compost pile.  Don't ever compost meat, bones, and foods with oils and fats.  They can create odors and may attract animals.

The important animals in the compost pile are the microorganisms.  They need food, water, and oxygen to break down the pile.  The food you provide in the form of leaves and kitchen waste.  You also will need to add moisture to the pile so make sure the hose can reach your compost bin.  Turning provides the oxygen that the microorganisms need to consume the leaves and other materials.

To begin the pile, layer the leaves and twigs with your kitchen scraps and grass clippings.  Add water to get the layers moist.  In about 7 days turn the pile.  Keep adding your layers of leaves and scraps and when the material begins to break down and look more like decomposed material, stop adding to the pile but keep it moist and continue to turn it weekly.  Soon you will have compost to add to your garden bed or to use as a mulch around your landscape plants. 

For more information about composting visit the UF/IFAS Extension website at or the Alachua County Waste Alternatives website or call 352-374-5213 for compost information or to pick up a free wire bin composter.


My neighbor has a shrub that I don't usually notice until fall when it is covered in orange berries.  When I went to snip a branch to decorate with I saw that it had a lot of thorns.  What is this bush and should I plant one?

Even though it has thorns, pyracantha or Firethorn is one of my favorite shurgs for North Central Florida.  It is super tough in the landscape and will survive full sun and sandy soils even during drought periods once it is established.  The 8-10 food shrub has small leaves and a spreading habit.  It can be used as specimen plant, a hedge row, and it is a favorite subject for espalier.  The tree will get small whitish flowers in the spring, but the real show happens mid-November through the winter.  Pyracantha produces so many beautiful red/orange berries that you can hardly see the leaves of the plant.  It is a great source of color in the landscape during an otherwise bland time.  You will need to prune pyracantha to keep it to the size you want.  Wear gloves for the thorns!  Look for an improved cultivar like "Red Elf" or "Lowboy" for a lower growing more compact shrub.

For more information about great shrubs for your yard contact the UF/IFAS Alachua County Master Gardeners at 352-955-2402.

Satsuma Tangerines

Q. My Satsuma tangerines are beginning to turn orange. How do I know when they are really ripe?

A. How wonderful it is to have citrus to pick from your own backyard. It is one of the joys of living in Florida. Knowing when to harvest the fruit isn't too hard to figure out once you have done it a time or two. You want the fruit to be to full-sized. For a Satsuma, this is about 2¼ to 2½ inches in diameter. It also should be orange in color. The Satsuma is one of the earliest types of mandarin-type citrus we grow in Florida. The harvest window for Satsuma mandarins is September through the end of November. The eating quality can be quite acceptable before the rind color goes completely orange, so it is best to cut a few fruit and evaluate the juice sacs. If they are plump and full of juice, they are ready to pick. You don't have to pick them all at once; they will hold a while on the tree. If the fruit is exposed to cooler temperatures in the mid-30s, the citrus can become even sweeter. Satsumas have a loose skin, so use clippers or scissors when picking the fruit so you don't tear the rind. This will lengthen the shelf life of your backyard citrus harvest. To learn about other citrus or threats to our citrus trees, visit the University of Florida IFAS extension website at

Ferns in Palms

Q. There are two palms in my yard that are covered in ferns. The entire trunk, and the area around the base, are involved. I removed some of these ferns, and some of the palm boots were rotted and fell away from the trunk when I pulled off the ferns. There also is an abundance of organic material trapped by old fern roots next to the trunk. I like the look of the fern growing in the palm, but I think it might be injuring the plant.

A. Ferns growing in the boots or leaf bases of palm trees is an exotic look that we see in our North Central Florida landscapes. Sometimes, it is a native fern that grows in harmony with the palm. In other cases, I have seen Boston fern trying to take over the leaf bases and growing out of control. You were right in trying to remove the fern from the palm if it was growing too aggressively. The ferns growing there will increase the organic matter and moisture close to the palm trunk. This is a surefire way of introducing fungal rots to the tree. If it is possible, continue your pulling campaign. I don't expect you will remove all of the fern, but reducing it will greatly improve the health and longevity of your palm trees. For more information on growing palms and other trees, contact the UF/IFAS Extension Alachua County Master Gardeners at 352-955-2402, or 

St. Augustine Sod

Q. We lost a big patch of lawn this summer from a fungus. I would like to put sod in the bare spot. Is it too late to put down St. Augustine sod?

A. You can install St. Augustine sod at any time of the year. The warm growing season is ideal, but the sod will take hold in the cooler months, too.

It is important to properly prepare the area that is to be sodded before the grass gets delivered. The area should be lightly tilled and raked smooth. Moisten the soil before fitting the sod squares tightly together. Don't leave any cracks, because that is where the weeds will spring up.

Once the sod is down, tamp it down to remove air pockets and to make sure the roots are contacting the ground. Keep the soil moist for the first seven days after planting.

Do not fertilize the sod for at least six weeks. By covering the ground with sod you will prevent winter weeds from moving into that bare area.

Another method of filling in this spot would be to overseed with annual winter rye. You would then install sod in the spring. Winter rye seed can be spread at a rate of 10 pounds of seeds per 1,000 square feet.

With a little water, the seeds sprout quickly. The color of green will not be an exact match to your St. Augustine, but it will keep the weeds at bay until you are ready to put down the sod in the spring. Once the temperatures go above 85 degrees, the rye dies out and you are ready for your new sod.

For information about establishing your lawn, visit the University of Florida IFAS Extension website at

Water Oak

We have an older water oak tree near our garage that is having some problems. I notice holes in the bark of some of the branches where woodpeckers have been drilling. Saw dust comes out of these areas. Also, there are some branches that have a gray coating on the bark. Should we take the tree out?

Woodpeckers feeding on the tree leads me to believe that the wood they are working on is dead or has insects inside it.

This is not the sign of a healthy tree. The gray material on the bark is probably a disease called Hypoxylon fungus. This is a secondary problem that moves into weakened trees. Water oaks live less than 50 years in a residential setting. If your tree is getting to the end of its lifespan, you can expect to see these and other problems.

Canopy decline, dropping of large limbs and black stains on the bark are all indicators that the tree is failing. You can decide with a certified arborist if the tree needs to be removed. If it is not considered a hazard, you can take a wait-and-see approach. But, if the tree is near structures and/or human activity, you should consider removal. For more information on growing healthy trees, contact the Master Gardeners at the UF/IFAS Alachua County Extension Office at 352-955-2402. 

Japanese Maple

Q. I have tried to grow a Japanese maple a couple of times, but I haven't had much success. Do you have any tips? They were much easier to grow in northern Georgia.

A. North Central Florida climate can be a little tricky for Japanese maples, and that's why variety selection and finding the right spot in the landscape is critical for success. These beautiful maples, known for their fall foliage, do best in USDA hardiness zones 5-8. Most of our gardens are in zones 8b and 9, so we are a tad bit warm for this ornamental tree. Find a spot in your landscape that has partial shade, or at least shade from the hot afternoon sun, to plant your maple tree. The soil should be moist but well-drained. If possible, you can improve the soil by top-dressing with an inch or two of compost, annually. Be sure you mulch around the root ball of the tree to keep the soil cool. Plan on watering the tree until it becomes established, and during long drought periods.

Japanese maples have a beautiful form and can get to a top height of 20 feet. Some cultivars are much shorter, but those have a hard time with our heat. There are two varieties that seem to hold up to our hot summers and sandy soils. "Bloodgood" has bright red new foliage that, later in the season, turns to a dark green. "Glowing Embers" has good heat tolerance and, in the fall, the leaves can be orange to yellow.

Even if your Japanese maple is planted in the perfect spot, you might notice some leaf scorch or browning by September. For more information about Japanese maples, visit the UF/IFAS Extension website at

Italian Cypress Trees

Q. I'm considering planting about four Italian Cypress trees in our yard (full sun area). I did a bit of research, and it looks like the trees are highly susceptible to spider mites. We're using it as a property border. Anything we should be aware of in regard to planting/maintenance?

A. Italian Cypress trees, or Tuscan Cypress trees, are tall, columnar evergreens that can grow to 40 feet tall. They used to be widely planted across Florida, but you don't always see them for sale in the nurseries anymore. They are prone to spider mites and a fungus that can cause branches to brown out and defoliate. This fungus (needle blight), and the mite issue, are made worse where there is poor airflow around the trees. Planting them in full sun, where there is plenty of air flow and where the foliage of the tree can easily dry out from dew, rain or irrigation, will help keep the fungus at bay. Hot and dry conditions favor spider mites; scout for these insects during times of drought, and be prepared to use an insecticidal soap or organic oil spray to control them.

You may want to consider other evergreens that have a columnar form, like sky pencil holly or columnar Japanese yew. For more plant suggestions, contact the UF/IFAS Alachua County Master Gardeners at 352-955-2402.










Wendy Wilber

Questions? Ask Wendy at


Pyracantha Berries

Pyracantha Berries

Citrus Tree

Citrus Tree

St. Augustine Sod

St. Augustine Sod

Japanese Maple LeavesJapanese Maple Leaves