Home Grounds Blog

With hot, dry days comes many problems for many home gardeners across the state. As moisture levels become inconsistent, blossom end rot becomes a situation for tomatoes, peppers and even watermelons. With an increased need for water, overhead watering can increase disease and other pest problems. And lastly, the sun & heat can cause damage on fruit and vegetables.

While all of our summer vegetables are heat loving plants, there is such a thing as too much heat. Peppers, tomatoes and some tree fruit are especially vulnerable to sun scald, a condition that can cause fruit and vegetables to be both aesthetically and physically damaged. This damage generally occurs in late summer, but we are experiencing this problem earlier than normal this year due to the high humidity and temperatures.

Sunscald is common on thin skinned fruit such as peppers and tomatoes and is the result of overexposure to bright and direct sunlight. We all know that these plants require over 6 hours of sun a day to be productive, but what we may not always take into account is the need to cover the fruit to protect them from too much sun. Excess light can cause the fruit to become woody, tough, and even increase the chance of rot. Damaged areas on fruit can range from light, tough tissue to sunken and leathery spots on the fruit. ​These areas can be entry points for fungus and bacteria, allowing the fruit to rot. While the damage does not ruin fruit, most often the area can be pared off and the rest of the fruit can be eaten, there is the potential that rot can set in and the sunscald can make the fruit and vegetables subpar for the market.

Sunscald on pepper.jpgSunscald on tomatoes and peppers can be a common problem for home gardeners and commercial producers alike.

Sunscald can be prevented by ensuring that there is plenty of leaf cover on the plant to shade the fruit from light. Many people that prune plants, especially tomatoes, are likely to see sunscald, along with those that underuse fertilizer or have disease problems. For those that prefer to prune tomatoes, remember that you need plenty of leaves, not only for shading the tomatoes, but also for production of sugars through photosynthesis keeping the plant healthy. These sugars are needed to make the fruits sweet, juicy and delicious. Poor fertility can lead to a lack of leaves, so it is important to fertilize LIGHTLY throughout the season to ensure that the tomato can stay healthy and vigorous. Remember that too much fertilizer, especially Nitrogen, can lead to large, healthy plants with lots of leaves but no fruit, so there is a fine balance to be kept. Diseases like Early Blight, Septoria Leaf Spot and Bacterial Spot can exasperate the situation, causing damaged and diseased leaves to fall off prematurely, and exposing the fruits to harsh light. Lastly, and most importantly, maintain constant moisture levels throughout the season to make sure that you have happy and healthy plants (think drip irrigation and/or soaker hose). Other methods of prevention include planting sunscald resistant plants, especially bell peppers, and using row covers to shade plants in the heat of the day.

As with most problems that occur in the garden, being aware and on top of things can help with many situations. Catching diseases or physiological disorders early can be the difference in a great harvest or one that leaves you wanting something better. For more information about sunscald or other gardening topics, contact your local Extension Office or call the Master Gardener Helpline toll free at 1-877-252-GROW (4769)

Written by Hunter McBrayer, Urban Regional Extension Agent, of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). He is housed at the Marshall County Extension Office, which is based at the Marshall County Courthouse in Guntersville, AL. 

Q. It has been extremely dry for quite some time in many areas of Central Alabama. We get an occasional hit and miss shower, but nothing substantial. Will the plants in most landscapes survive this extended dry spell without supplemental watering?

A: Yes, it has been (and unfortunately continues to be) rather dry, so I am not surprised that your plants are showing symptoms. Also, the problem has only been compounded by the fact that we had an unusually cool, wet spring. Plants became accustomed to just the right amount of rain, at just the right time. Now, with this hot, dry weather, they are having trouble acclimating themselves. Trees and shrubs that have been planted a year or less are the most vulnerable. However, plants that are well established and healthy can withstand much more drought stress than we have experienced to date. Of course there are exceptions to all generalities. For instance, very well established Azaleas and Hydrangeas can show drought symptoms. These plants have relatively small root systems adapted to semi-shady light conditions and moist soil environments. If these plants are located in less than optimal conditions, they suffer as a result. There are numerous other examples and plant needs must be looked on in a case by case basis. Therefore, it pays you to learn a little about specific plant needs prior to planting. drought stress - Becker.jpg

In the western part of the country many people have adopted a gardening practice called xeriscaping. I don't really like the word because it implies "dry habitat" and is limited to cacti or succulent plants only. Actually, the practice is much more balanced and involves grouping plants by water needs and limiting heavy water use areas. It also involves implementing some very common sense water use practices. I have a few of these tips listed below and I encourage you to put them into practice.

  •  Only water the plants – not the street or sidewalk. If you see water running down the street, your irrigation system needs to be adjusted. It could mean the water is being applied too rapidly for the soil to absorb or the sprinklers are not properly located and are simply aimed wrong.
  • Water plants according to their needs. This means you need to know something about the specific plants in your landscape. Plants will be healthier and you'll have a lower water bill. Water no more than twice a week in any garden area, including established lawns and only in the absence of rain. Set watering priorities - which plants will suffer first, and which are hardest to replace? Established herbaceous plants, like flowers, need water once per week, but established large trees can go much longer.
  • Warm season turf is tougher than you think. Well established turf can be weaned off frequent irrigation by slightly raising the mowing height, reducing fertilization and reducing irrigation frequency while increasing irrigation depth. Zoysia and Bermuda grasses can be allowed to go summer dormant if you wean them off the heavy fertilization and irrigation regime that so many people have adopted. Centipede and St. Augustine are less drought tolerant and may need more irrigation to rebound from drought stress. Regardless of the type of grass you have, if we continue in a prolonged dry period, even dormant grass may need some supplemental water, but it does not need to stay green to survive.
  • Water during the coolest part of the day. Water between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m. to decrease disease problems and water lost to evaporation. Some municipalities may regulate watering times. Set your timer to water during permissible time periods.
  • Use soaker hoses or trickle irrigation systems for garden plants. Drip irrigation and soakers put water where it is needed – the roots. Spray irrigation sprinklers lose lots of water output to evaporation and wind. Drip systems and soakers have the added benefit of applying the water slowly enough so that it all soaks in rather than running off the targeted area. This method is actually more efficient than hand watering. (see image above - credit: Chris Becker, ACES)
  • Don't over water. However, make sure the water soaks into the top 8 to 12 inches of the soil, where most shrub and tree roots are concentrated. For turf, flowers, and other small plants, the water need only soak about 4 to 6 inches deep. Avoid frequent and brief, shallow watering which encourages shallow roots. This actually increases the chance of drought stress later should water become less available.
  • Water based on the weather, not the clock. Use rain sensors to prevent your clock-based controller from watering during a rain. Check the soil periodically to determine moisture depth. Consider collecting rain water using rain barrels or a cistern.
  • Mulch! A two to four inch mulch layer helps plants through weather extremes by moderating moisture loss and soil temperatures. Mulch as large an area as possible around trees and shrubs. Mulch is especially important to shallow rooted ornamentals like dogwoods and azaleas. But, don't add too much. Excessive mulch may have the reverse effect because the roots will grow up into thick mulch and die when it finally dries out during drought times.
  • Minimize gardening activities. Avoid pruning (other than removing dead wood) and fertilizing in droughty weather. Pruning and fertilizing both stimulate growth, which can additionally stress plants. Also avoid planting and transplanting in dry weather. New plants thrive best with natural rainfall and mildconditions. Transplants require extra water for establishing newroots. Fall is still the best time to plant. Hold off until more suitable weather for any landscape improvements that involve setting out new plants. 

For more tips and information on drought tolerant plants visit the following link:http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-1336/ANR-1336.pdf or call the Master Gardener Helpline toll free at 877-252-GROW.

Written by Bethany A. O'Rear of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

Q: My neighbor has a rather unusual tree in her front yard that I first noticed a couple of months ago when it suddenly seemed to be loaded with pretty yellow fruit. She said it is a loquat tree and offered me some to taste. Now I would like to know more about this tree.

A: The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), also known as a Japanese medlar, Chinese plum and Japanese plum, is a tree in the Rosaceae family that tends to blend into the landscape until it flowers in late autumn or early winter, with a very nice fragrance one can enjoy even from a distance. Then, in the spring or early summer, there’s fruit and … wow! It really is a beautiful tree with clusters of small, pear-shaped, yellow or orange fruit, 1-2 inches long, that tastes like a mixture of peach, orange and mango.

This fruit is similar to the apple in that it has high sugar, acid and pectin. Depending on the cultivar, the flesh can be anywhere from very sweet to acid. It can be eaten fresh, used in fruit cups and salads, or for making jellies, jams, pies or light wine.

(Photo | Courtesy of Nancy Adams) The loquat, also known as a Japanese medlar, Chinese plum and Japanese plum, is a small, pear-shaped, yellow or orange fruit that tastes like a mixture of peach, orange and mango.

(Photo | Courtesy of Nancy Adams) The loquat, also known as a Japanese medlar, Chinese plum and Japanese plum, is a small, pear-shaped, yellow or orange fruit that tastes like a mixture of peach, orange and mango.

The tree is an evergreen with a short trunk and textured foliage that is easy to grow and adds a nice tropical look to the landscape when mixed with other plants. It can grow 20 to 30 feet high, with the average being about 10 feet. It also works well as an ornamental grown in large containers.

The loquat has been grown in China and Japan for over a thousand years and was brought to the United States in the late 1700s. Japan is still the leading producer of loquats, followed by Israel and Brazil. It grows well in subtropical to mild temperatures around the world, and in the U.S. it is known to be grown in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Hawaii and California.

Although the trees will grow as ornamentals in climates that are too cool or too warm, they will generally not bear fruit there. Each fruit has three to five seeds, and they are surprisingly large in proportion to the fruit. The loquat is usually pollinated by bees, although some cultivars are at least partially self-fertile. Fruit size can be enhanced by thinning of flowers or early fruit clusters.

Loquats grow well in full sun or partial shade and are wind tolerant. They make great shade trees and are often used as espaliers on walls or fences. Although they are quite drought tolerant, they produce a better quality of fruit with regular, deep watering. But be cautious about watering too often, as they cannot tolerate standing water. They can be grown in a variety of soils, from sandy to clay or limestone, and they seem to especially like our Gulf Coast sandy soil.

As far as adding nutrients, some authorities recommend fertilizing once a year in midwinter to avoid excessive growth. Others recommend applying 6-6-6 fertilizer (for trees 8-10 feet high) three times per year during the period of active growth. The best idea may be to get your soil tested and then talk with a horticulture agent at the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service if you have questions.

Loquat fruits mature from full flower opening in about 90 days. As with other fruits, they taste much better if allowed to ripen on the tree. To avoid tearing the fruit, clip each individually or remove the whole cluster before snipping the individual fruits. Ripe fruit can be refrigerated for up to two weeks.

Pruning is recommended on young trees soon after harvest to allow light into the center of the tree and to control terminal shoots that can harm the tree’s growth and fruit production. Controlling the height of the tree allows for easier fruit-thinning and harvest, and the trees respond well — even to severe pruning.

Seeds can be used for propagation or for rootstock. For rootstock the seeds are taken from the fruit and planted in flats; when the seedlings are 6-7 inches high, they are transplanted. When the seedlings are big enough, they are used for grafting. Loquat trees grown using this method generally bear fruit in two to three years; those grown directly from seed take eight to 10 years to bear fruit.

Some popular orange-fleshed varieties of loquats are Big Jim, Early Red, and Gold Nugget. White-fleshed varieties include Advance, Champagne and Victory.

Interesting note: In Central America, loquat trees are sometimes grown specifically for fence posts and furniture because of the wood’s hardness, durability and resistance to disease.

Resource: California Rare Fruit Growers Inc.

When you think of summertime, what comes to mind? Vacation? Gardening? Having grown up in rural Blount County, running barefoot through the grass is synonymous with summertime.  But as many of my neighbors, friends, and colleagues are finding, frolicking in the lawn can quickly turn into a painful experience due to a small winter annual, lawn burweed.

burweed.jpgBurweed (by John D. Byrd, Mississippi State University, Bugwood.org) 

Lawn b​urwe​​ed, Soliva sessilis, is a small, inconspicuous weed that is making a major appearance in lawns across our area and the Southeastern United States. Originally native to South America, this tiny weed has been slowly making its way into our lawns for several years now. Low growing with tiny leaves and un-noticeable flowers, this weed is difficult to recognize before late spring. The seed capsules are the "bur" in burweed, having tiny but very sharp burs on them, making them hard to see, but easy to feel!

This is a common call for nurseries, landscape companies and extension offices alike around this time of year. Much to the disappointment of many clients, this weed, though easy to identify, is both impossible and pointless to control at this point in the season. Being a winter annual, lawn burweed germinates in October (soil temperatures affect germination times) and grows but stays very small and inconspicuous in the cold of winter. Once spring arrives, the plant experiences a period of rapid growth and flowering, leading to visible patches and painful seed capsules. So, what can you do to keep this tiny but terrible weed from affecting you, your loved ones, and even your four-legged friends? It all starts with proper soil and lawn health.

The easiest and most effective control of this and many other winter and summer annuals is to promote a healthy and dense lawn. Lawns with adequate soil fertility, proper watering, and management provide a canopy that shades out would be weeds. Along with cultural practices, proper and timely chemical applications can be helpful in controlling lawn burweed. While applying herbicides at this point in the growing season would be wasteful, fall and early winter applications are highly effective. Pre-emergent applications made in late September through early October can prevent small seeded plants from emerging from the soil, killing them just as they germinate from the seed. If you miss that window, making post-emergent applications with herbicides during October, November and December can kill lawn burweed, henbit, and many other problematic or nuisance weeds. As always, read all chemical labels carefully to ensure that they are safe for your lawn type. Also, consult these labels for usage rates, and for proper application techniques for the most effective control.

While it may be disappointing to hear that there is not much that you can do about lawn burweed now, know that before long the burs that cause so much pain will be gone. With summer heat coming on strong, turfgrasses will soon provide a thick layer to shield your bare feet from terrible weeds. For more information about this and other home horticulture questions, contact your local County Extension Office.

Written by Hunter McBrayer, Urban Regional Extension Agent, of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). He is housed at the Marshall County Extension Office, which is based at the Marshall County Courthouse in Guntersville, AL.

​Q.  Every summer I notice those pretty orange flowers blooming in masses along the highway.  What are they?  Do they only come in one color?  Will they grow in my yard?  I am new to gardening, and need all the helpful information that I can get.

A.  You have just mentioned one of my favorite, easy-to-grow, tough-as-nails plants – the daylily!  If you are a beginner gardener, this is a great plant to help break in your newfound green thumb!

Daylilies belong to the genus Hemerocallis and are not true lilies. This Greek word is made up of two parts: hemera meaning day and kallos meaning beauty.

The old orange daylily and the yellow "lemon lily" are the most famous wild daylilies. There are 20 daylily species, worldwide. From those 20 plants, more than 20,000 hybrids have been created.

The best time of year to plant daylilies in the far South is early spring or very late fall. It is best to stay away from the months of July, August, and September or when temperatures and humidity are extremely high, potentially causing the plants to rot.

Daylilies are perennial plants that easily adapt, grow vigorously and can even survive winters.  These plants grow best in full sun. They will tolerate light shade, but flower best with a minimum of six hours of direct sun. Light shade during the hottest part of the day keeps the flowers fresh. Daylilies should not be planted near trees and shrubs that are likely to compete for moisture and nutrients. Although daylilies are adaptable to most soils, they do best in a slightly acidic, moist soil that is high in organic matter and well drained.

When planting your daylilies, the soil where you intend to plant your daylilies should be worked into a good loose condition to a depth of at least one foot. daylily pic.jpg

  • Dig a hole larger than the root mass.
  • Make a mound in the center of the hole.
  • Set the plant in place with the roots spread on all sides of the mound.
  • New plants should be planted about as deep as they grew originally. The original depth can be determined easily by the band of white at the base of the foliage which indicates the part of the plant which was underground.
  • Do not set the crown where foliage and roots join more than 1 inch below the surface of the soil.
  • Work the soil around and between the roots as you cover the plant.
  • Firm the soil and water well.
  • Make sure that there are no air pockets; this can cause the plant to grow poorly.
  • When all the water has soaked in, finish filling in the soil, leaving a slight depression around the plant.

Bloom time varies quite a bit depending on the cultivar.  Some daylilies bloom early in the season and then rebloom later on.

The reblooming daylily craze began with the "Stella d'Oro," which blooms once during late spring then again in late August and into fall. There are hundreds of re-bloomers, from dwarfs to full-size beauties.

Daylilies can be purchased from nurseries, reliable online sources and if friends are growing varieties that make you green with envy, ask if they will share.

Happy gardening! 

Written by Bethany A. O'Rear of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.


​It is just about that time- time to plant the summer garden! While many are still harvesting cool-season crops like lettuce, kale and cabbage, the time for tomato and squash has yet to come. Whether you are a first time gardener getting ready to jump into an exciting new hobby or a long time enthusiast that’s gearing up for another year, planting the garden is an exciting time of anticipation. No matter your “experience level” consider a pest management plan before you plant. You might already know to choose resistant varieties, but do you know about companion plantings? They are a good addition to your pest management tool box.  mountain mint w- scoliid waspsB - tia gonzales.jpg

Companion planting by definition, is using different crops in close proximity for pest control, pollination, providing habitat for beneficial creatures, maximizing use of space, and to otherwise increase the harvest crop productivity. So what does this mean for the home gardener? The benefits of companion plants includes providing cover for shade loving plants, repelling harmful insects, attracting beneficial insects, or by providing necessary soil requirements for other plants.

While the term companion planting may be new to you, this technique has been used for quite a while. Have you ever seen marigolds interplanted with okra or squash? What about planting basil near tomatoes? All of these are examples of companion planting. Marigolds have long been the garden superhero when intermixed in our vegetable gardens. While both African and French marigolds produce biochemicals from their roots that are toxic to root-knot nematodes, the benefit is greatest when these pungent plants are tilled into the soil the year prior to planting tomatoes in that spot. That being said, there are a lot of gardeners who swear that marigolds will repel beetles, nematodes and even some animal pests. I just say that they are pretty, they add diversity to the garden, and can attract butterflies to our garden which is always a plus. Another example of this is to plant dill and basil near the tomatoes. This can be for more than making bruschetta a bit easier; both crops have been documented to reduce the pressure from tomato hornworms.

While many gardeners focus on eradicating all insects from the vegetable garden, it is important to remember that there are far more beneficial insects than those that cause harm to our plants. Planting carrots, fennel, parsley, and cilantro can actually attract beneficial insects like praying mantis, lady bugs and spiders by providing shelter for them and other beneficial or parasitic insects. These “good guys” are protectors of the garden, seeking out harmful insects and eating them! Other good bug attractive plants? - thyme, rosemary, yarrow, chamomile, and cover crops like clover and buckwheat. [See native plant, mountain mint, above with Scoliid wasps]

Companion plantings are also used to actually attract harmful insects. Plants like nasturtium are more appetizing to aphids than many vegetables in the garden; luring these tiny but harmful pests away from our “cash crop”. In several experiments by Alabama Extension, we have seen that planting these crops that are more appetizing to the harmful insects greatly reduces their numbers on the harvest crop we're trying to protect. This also allows us to direct insecticides where the larger group of pest are feeding (on the trap crop) and reduce the need for insecticides on the harvest crops; like tomatoes and squash.

Lastly, we can use companion planting to create micro-climates in an otherwise over-heated garden. This is a technique we use outside of the vegetable garden as well, like planting blueberries, azaleas and camellias under the filtered shade of pines and oaks. This provides them with needed cover which minimizes afternoon heat. In the vegetable garden, plants like lettuce, kale, broccoli and other cool season crops can be planted on the garden's east side where they can be shaded by taller plants in the afternoon. Afternoon shade can delay their tendency to bolt as the days heat up and lengthen the harvest season.

With a little planning, we can better plant our garden to naturally avoid some pest and disease problems. Remember to check last year's garden notes to prepare for cyclical problems and avoid surprises where possible. Though planting these companions helps, there is still a need for a balanced IPM program using cultural, mechanical, biological, and chemical (natural or synthetic) controls to keep crop plants healthy and productive. For more information on companion planting, vegetable gardening, and other gardening questions, contact your local Alabama Extension Office. Check out or website, www.aces.edu for more information and publications.

Written by Hunter McBrayer, Urban Regional Extension Agent, of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). He is housed at the Marshall County Extension Office, which is based at the Marshall County Courthouse in Guntersville, AL. 

Q.  I am looking to add some native plants to a natural area in my landscape.  A friend mentioned planting some native azaleas, but I know relatively nothing about this group of plants.  Can you help? 
A.  First, you get a big pat on the back for choosing to add natives to your existing landscape.  As a general rule, native plants are easier for homeowners to grow and maintain because they are better adapted to our ever-changing Alabama climate. Once established, they can handle the heavy rains we get in the spring and can also withstand our summer droughts.  Additionally, native plants are also resistant to Alabama insects, resulting in reduced pesticide usage. 
native azalea - Alabama - jack.JPG
Secondly, your friend gets an extra pat on the back for recommending some of my favorite natives – native azaleas.  These guys have it all – they are tough, come in several beautiful colors, and most are amazingly fragrant!  
As a group native azaleas are greatly underused in the southern landscape. Most native azalea varieties flower in the spring and their beautiful bloom display is a breath of fresh air. Some have unusual yellow to orange and orange to red flowers, such as the Florida Flame azalea. They are either native to Alabama or will grow well in most areas of the state. The individual florets are trumpet shaped and usually borne in large terminal clusters. The sweet smelling blooms have led to the common name, wild honeysuckle bush. Identification of native azaleas can be difficult because of the similarities between species. Natural hybridization has complicated the matter by producing many intermediate forms with unusual flower colors. 
native azalea - Piedmont - Dani C.JPG 
Many southerners first encountered native deciduous azaleas while walking in the woods. There they may have spotted the pink, fragrant, delicate flowers of the Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens; Photo: ​Chuck Browne) or the orange-yellow blooms of the Florida Flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum). Maybe it was the white, yellow-blotched and lemon scented flowers of our namesake Alabama Azalea (Rhododendron alabamense). Alabama Azalea (photo: Jack LeCroy), while not the showiest flower, may be the most fragrant of all the native azaleas.
Deciduous azaleas prefer moist, sandy, well-drained soil. Morning sun with afternoon shade will enhance blooming and reduce excessive drying. Pine straw or pine bark mulch should be added to protect the shallow root system. A light application of slow release azalea fertilizer just after blooming should be sufficient to keep deciduous azaleas growing and blooming. If your soil is not well drained, consider planting in a raised bed or individual mounds.
As landscape specimens in wooded areas, deciduous azaleas are a wonderful addition to any landscape. They look best when left un-pruned and allowed to maintain an open natural habit. Deciduous azaleas are not always available in nurseries, but ask for them and this will encourage nurseries to stock a wider selection.  Happy gardening!

written by Bethany A. O’Rear of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. 


​Although there may not be much to do in the winter garden, February can be an important and critical time if growing and caring for fruit crops. So much has to be done each year during this month to ensure fruit trees and small fruits grow and produce successfully. The number one chore is pruning.  (photo credit: Andrew Butko)

cydonia - Andrew Butko - wiki commons.jpgPruning fruit crops each year will result in healthy plants and better production of quality fruit. Once fruit trees and small fruit crops have been planted, training must begin next. Since fruits are being grown for the production of food, proper pruning is needed to maximize production, and to make sure the plant is strong enough to physically hold up all the weight of the fruit. Young plants are typically pruned and trained for the first several years primarily to develop the plants' proper structure and size. Once flowering and fruiting begins, usually in the third or fourth year, some additional pruning is done to help prevent the breakage of limbs.

For established fruit trees, the first pruning cuts are to remove any sucker growth that may have sprouted below the graft. Next, all diseased and damaged wood is taken out. Then look at the fruit tree and cut out all growth that crosses or rubs other branches. Since fruit develops best where it gets adequate sunlight and air, areas that are thick in growth or crowded must also be thinned, or opened up, to allow more light and air movement. Lastly, prune and trim back any other growth down to a more reachable, comfortable size.

Small fruit crops such as muscadine grapes, blueberries, and blackberries require more specific pruning techniques. For more information, contact the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Willie Datcher, Regional Extension Agent (home office - Greene County)

​Q. It is finally beginning to feel like fall.  The temperatures are cooling down, the leaves are beginning to change colors, and we are spending a lot more time outside, enjoying our surroundings.  However, I had the unfortunate experience of stepping into a fire ant mound that seemed to appear overnight.  Needless to say, it was not pleasant in the least.  Is now a good time to treat for these angry little nuisances?  

A. Ouch - not exactly how anyone would want to start the fall season!  However, now is the perfect time to rid your lawn or landscape of these unwelcome invaders!

fireant mound - sallie lee.jpg“Fall is a great time to treat fire ants,” Dr. Kathy Flanders, an Alabama Cooperative Extension Entomologist said. “Fall temperatures are perfect for fire ant activity and foraging, making it an opportune time to put out fire ant bait.”

While the warm weather is rolling out and cooler air moves in, fire ants are still actively foraging. Fire ants look for protein-rich foods all year, but especially in the late spring and early fall.  Foragers usually continue searching for food until temperatures drop below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Using treatment plans like the

Two Step Method (details listed below), can provide specific and continued control of fire ants, in a cost-effective way. 
Two Step Method
Step 1. Broadcast a fire ant bait once or twice a year to reduce fire ant colonies by 80 to 90 percent.
Step 2. Treat nuisance mounds or colonies that move into the bait-treated areas. Step 2 may not be needed

Not only are fire ants a nuisance outdoors, but they can wreak havoc indoors, as well.  Fire ants will be looking for a warm place to overwinter. Double-checking door seals, pipe coverings and concrete foundations can help prevent a home invasion in the winter. As temperatures drop, fire ants begin searching for warm places to spend the cold months. Often, this means mounds inside the house or built against the foundation.

Alabama Cooperative Extension professionals developed management options for treating fire ants inside homes and buildings. The first and most important suggestion: treat fire ants in the surrounding landscape to prevent fire ant infestations near the home.

Be sure to inspect your pile of leaves, wood stack or winter garden, for fire ants.  Outdoor temperatures determine the amount of activity present in a fire ant mound. When the temperatures are right, leaf or compost piles, wood stacks and winter gardens are all likely hiding places for fire ants.

Flanders said it is important to check for fire ants before playing, working or carrying wood inside. A proactive approach to controlling fire ants in these areas would be best. This is also a time to consider a slow-acting bait for continued control going into the cold season. Treat the areas before piling up leaves to play in or for compost, treat your preferred firewood location and treat your garden before planting.

For increased success, controlling fire ants should definitely be a team effort.  Working with neighbors or surrounding landowners can boost your chances of knocking a dent in the population.  Fire ant control is more effective when larger areas are treated. When an 80-90% control rate is acceptable, consider participating in a community- or neighborhood-wide treatment program. If the problem is widespread, a large treatment plan could be more effective than treating in small areas. Flanders said Extension professionals have developed a community-wide management program that is available for use and implementation.

For more information on controlling fire ants, please visit www.aces.edu or http://www.extension.org/fire_ants . Happy Fall! 

written by Bethany A. O’Rear of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

​Whether fried, baked, candied or in pies and casseroles, I love sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes have long since been a staple in Southern gardens. An easy crop to grow, these delicious tubers are becoming a common appearance on restaurant menus. Whether this is your first time to grow the plants or if you have been growing sweet potatoes for years, you are sure to be pleasantly surprised with the coming harvest.

sweet potato - wikimedia Llez.jpgSweet potatoes, (Ipomea batatas), are thought to have originated in Central and South America; with sweet potato remains being dated back to 8000 BC! Today, sweet potatoes are grown around the world, often called a yam. One important note is that a sweet potato is a sweet potato and not a yam. Yams are a completely different crop botanically speaking, that originates from Africa. To prevent confusion, the United States Department of Agriculture requires that sweet potatoes be labeled as sweet potatoes.

Growing sweet potatoes is easy, assuming that you have plenty of water, well-drained soil and a strong back for harvest time. Sweet potatoes are grown from transplants or sprouts called "slips" produced from the roots of the previous season's crop and from vine cuttings. If choosing slips, be sure to ask for "certified" slips to avoid plant diseases. Being one of our warm season crops, sweet potatoes are extremely susceptible to frost, so they should be planted well after the last threat of frost in spring. Generally speaking, these plants are not very susceptible to insects or disease, making it a great crop for home gardens.

One of the most common questions that I receive as an Extension Agent concerning sweet potatoes is “When can I harvest these?”. As mentioned before, sweet potatoes are sensitive to cold temperatures, so harvest should occur well before cold temperatures begin to set in. The tubers generally begin to mature after about 90 days and should peak by 120 days after planting. For those gardeners who are not very good at record keeping, harvest the sweet potatoes when 30 percent are larger than 3½ inches in diameter. Harvest before frost because cool soil temperatures can reduce the quality and storage life of the tubors. When harvesting, it is best to cut and remove the vines before digging; be gentle while digging due to the soft, thin skins of fresh tubers.

Lastly, one of the most important things to remember is that you can grow some of the best potatoes in the county, but if not cured and stored properly, you will lose them to various rots and other quality reducing factors. Sweet potatoes should be cured to heal wounds and to convert some of the starch in the roots to sugar. The optimal conditions for curing are to expose the roots to 85 °F and 90-percent humidity for one week. Few home gardeners can supply these conditions, so place the sweet potatoes in the warmest room in the house, usually the kitchen, for 14 days. No curing will occur at temperatures below 70 °F. Never refrigerate sweet potatoes but keep them stored in a cool dry place where temperatures will not drop below 50 °F.

Sweet potatoes are an easy crop that, if watered and harvested correctly, can be a crop that lends to a winter of healthy and delicious meals. For more information about sweet potatoes and other gardening topics, contact your local Alabama Extension office or visit us online at ww.aces.edu.

Written by Hunter McBrayer, Urban Regional Extension Agent, of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). He is housed at the Marshall County Extension Office, which is based at the Marshall County Courthouse in Guntersville, AL.

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