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November 30
Controlling Fire Ants This Fall

​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 or . 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.

September 25
Break out the shovels - it’s sweet potatoes time!

​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

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.

September 15
​The Trail Builders of Our Lawns

Earlier this summer, I began a series of articles on Lawn and Landscape Pests.  We have looked at chipmunks and armadillos.  As I watch the highway construction around the I-65/I-22 intersection, I think of the trail builders of our lawns.  Moles and voles build a series of trails that kill large patches of grass as they crisscross through the grass in search of food.  Last month we looked at moles, today let’s look at voles. vole - andy baril or web.png

Voles, also called meadow mice or field mice, are compact rodents with stocky bodies, short legs, and short tails. Their eyes are small and their ears partially hidden; which distinguish them from true mice with bulbous eyes and erect ears.  There are 23 vole species in the United States.  Here in the Eastern US, we have the small Woodland or Pine Vole (Microtus pinetorum).  Its total length is 4 to 6 inches. Its brown fur is soft and dense. The underparts are gray mixed with some yellow to cinnamon.

Voles occupy a wide variety of habitats.  They prefer areas with heavy ground cover of grasses, grass-like plants, or litter.  The pine vole inhabits a variety of habitats such as deciduous and pine forests.  They also like to use habitats modified by humans, such as orchards, fencerows, windbreaks, abandoned and cultivated fields.  Voles eat a wide variety of plants, most frequently grasses and forbs.  In late summer and fall, they store seeds, tubers, bulbs, and rhizomes. They eat bark primarily in winter; will eat crops, and at times snails, insects, and carrion.

Voles are active day and night, year round.  Home range is usually 1/4 acre or less but varies with season, population density, habitat, food supply, and other factors. Voles construct many tunnels and surface runways with numerous burrow entrances. A single burrow system may contain several adults and young.  Voles normally breed in spring and summer, can have up to 5 litters/year, and average 3 to 6 pups/litter. The gestation period is about 21 days, the young are weaned by 21 days old, and females mature in 40 days. Lifespans are short, lasting around a year, but mortality is very high; about 80% never make it past the first month.  Large population fluctuations are characteristic of voles.

During these high population swings, voles may cause extensive damage to orchards, ornamentals, and tree plantings due to their girdling of seedlings and mature trees. Girdling damage usually occurs in fall and winter.  Field crops (for example, alfalfa, clover, grains, potatoes, and sweet potatoes) may be damaged or destroyed by voles. Voles not only eat crops, but they also damage them when they build extensive runway and tunnel systems.  Voles also can ruin lawns, golf courses, and ground covers through their gnawing and runway systems.

The best control for a large farm is toxicants, for the average homeowner the mouse/rat trap or a crew of cats work fine.

Written by Andrew J. Baril of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. 

August 24
​Fall Vegetable Gardening

Q:  My summer vegetable garden has finally bit the dust (no pun intended), but I am just not quite ready to put the garden tools up for the season. Can you give some details on growing vegetables in the fall?

A: As summer nears its end, it is time to gear up for another planting (and future harvest) season. This month is the perfect time to get your cool-season vegetable seeds and/or transplants in the ground. While several cool-weather crops can survive when planted in spring, they typically do not thrive, especially in spring weather like we experienced this year.  Many cool-season vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, produce their best flavor and quality when they mature during cool weather.  In Alabama, the spring temperatures often heat up quickly making vegetables such as lettuce and spinach bolt or develop a bitter flavor when they mature during hot summer weather. spring 2013 - dennis' spring garden.jpg

As with any garden, careful planning and good garden management are crucial to your success. The first step is site preparation.  Before preparing the soil for a fall garden, you must decide what to do with the remains of the spring/summer garden. In most cases, the decision is not difficult because the warm-season vegetables are beginning to look ragged. Remove all crop residues and weed growth, and till or spade the soil to a minimum depth of 6-8 inches. 

If the spring crops were heavily fertilized, you may not need to make an initial preplant fertilization.  If not, you can apply 1 to 2 pounds of a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10 per 100 square feet of bed space.  Be sure to thoroughly incorporate the fertilizer.

The next step is deciding on a planting method. Most cool-season varieties are available in seed and transplant form. If you choose to sow seed, maintaining adequate moisture is imperative to germination as well as continued growth after germination. An overhead sprinkler can help provide seeds with sufficient moisture to germinate. We all know how hot and dry late summer in Alabama can be, so be sure to keep the soil moist until the young seedlings have emerged.

Now, you should begin your regular vegetable garden maintenance routine. Continue to water based on the needs of the plants. As the plants mature, move from frequent, light waterings to single, deep applications. Like their spring-maturing relatives, most fall-maturing vegetables benefit from nitrogen sidedressing.

It is not uncommon for insects and diseases to be more abundant in the fall, mostly as a result of a buildup in their populations during the spring and summer.  You may be able to keep these pests at tolerable levels, if you follow a few strategies. Strive to keep fall vegetables healthy and actively growing.  Check plants frequently for insect or disease damage.  If significant damage is detected, use an approved pesticide.

You can extend the season of tender vegetables by protecting them through the first early frost.  In Alabama, we often enjoy several weeks of good growing conditions after the first frost.  Cover growing beds or rows with burlap or a floating row cover supported by stakes or wire to keep the material from directly touching the plants.  You can protect individual plants by covering them with milk jugs, paper caps, or water-holding walls.

Good luck and 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.

August 13
​Dealing with a Dry Spell

Q. We've had some super hot and dry weather this summer. We get an occasional hit and miss shower, but some of my plants still look rough.  Will the plants in most landscapes survive the dry spells without supplemental watering?
ASY Logo color - update w-bug - fall 2013.jpg
A. Yes, it has been a doozy this summer, 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 before summer so the heat effect is exaggerated.  Plants became accustomed to just the right amount of rain, at just the right time.  With hot, dry weather, they have 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. Of course there are exceptions to all generalities.


For instance, very well established Azaleas and Hydrangeas easily show drought symptoms. These plants have relatively shallow root systems adapted to semi-shady light conditions and moist (not wet) soil environments. Many times these plants are located in less than optimal landscape conditions and they suffer as a result from the heat of full sun. 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.


In the western part of the country many people have adopted a gardening practice called xeriscaping. I don’t really like the word for our region because it implies you must grow cactus or succulent plants only. Actually, the priciple 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 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 survive. 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 vegetable 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.
  • 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.

All in all, this summer has actually been luxurious considering we had at least some rainfall in each month. In past summers, we've missed seeing rain for a month or longer. For more tips and information on drought tolerant plants visit the following link: 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.

July 31
Master Gardener Helpline

​Do you have garden or landscape questions and can't find answers?  Master Gardener volunteers answer this toll-free line, 877-252-4769 (ALA-GROW) giving advice to all residential landscape questions.  Call them today! 

japanese beetle.jpg


July 27
​Beware of Boxwood Blight

Q.  I read about a new disease affecting boxwoods.  I have quite a few boxwoods in my landscape, and I am a little worried.  What is this disease and what does it look like?

A. Unfortunately, you heard correctly.  Our cool, wet spring this year, set the stage for the development and spread of a new landscape disease - boxwood blight.  The disease has been present in other southeastern states several years, but just recently arrived in Alabama.

Boxwood blight is a fungal disease that was detected in installed landscapes across Alabama this spring.  When infected boxwoods are planted in a landscape, the pathogen can easily spread to other established boxwoods via splashing water, whether irrigation or rain.  Additionally, equipment, soil, shoes, clothing and even animals can aid in the dispersal of this disease.

boxwood blight - leaf sposts2 - jim jacobi.jpgSo, what should you look for?  Symptoms of boxwood blight include circular, tan leaf spots with darker borders.  The spots may develop a bulls-eye appearance.  Infected leaves will turn brown and rapidly drop from the plant.  The sudden defoliation and resulting leaf litter scattered around the base of the plant are important symptoms to look for, as well. 

boxwood blight - Adria Bordas, VT Institute and State University,




Defoliated stems may produce new shoots, giving the appearance that the plants will recover, only to have another round of leaf spots and related leaf drop.  The stems develop dark brown or black thin lesions or streaks that are also unique to boxwood blight.  (Photo: Adria Bordas, VT Institute and State University,

What can you do?  There is no known cure for boxwood blight.  However, a number of steps can be taken to prevent the spread of the blight.

  • In established landscapes with healthy boxwoods, do not bring in new boxwoods.
  • For new plantings, carefully inspect plants for symptoms.
  • Use drip irrigation, rather than overhead sprinkler irrigation.
  • Improve air circulation around plants through proper pruning and plant spacing.  Avoid shearing plants.
  • Don’t compost infected leaves or other boxwood plant material.
  • Clean and sterilize pruning/shearing tools between usage to prevent the spread of the pathogen on contaminated tools.
  • If you find an infected plant, remove the entire plant and place in a plastic bag.  Also, carefully rake up and dispose of all fallen leaves.  The pathogen can live on infected leaves for up to five years. 
  • Fungicides won’t cure plants, but they can be used to protect landscape plants from the disease.  The most effective fungicides contain these active ingredients: chlorothalonil, chlorothalonil + thiophanate-methyl, and tebuconazole.
  • Use resistant boxwood cultivars.  Buxus harlandii, Buxus microphylla var. japonica ‘Green Beauty’ and Buxux sinica var. insularis ‘Nana’ are some of the cultivars with good resistance to boxwood blight.
  • Consider plants other than boxwoods like rosemary, box-leaf euonymous, sweet box in shady spots, and Japanese hollies.

While this disease is not yet widespread, we should become aware of it and be observant.  Following the steps listed above can greatly inhibit the distribution of boxwood blight throughout our Alabama landscapes.  If you suspect that one or more of your boxwoods are showing symptoms, please consult with your local extension agent.  Also, for further diagnosis, you may send pictures or samples to the Plant Diagnostic Laboratory in Birmingham, .

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.

July 21
Watering Tips for Picky Veggies

​Boy has it been dry lately! With summer temps reaching well above 90 degrees and the rain being scattered, there are a lot of gardens in Alabama that are taking a beating. The number of calls over the last few weeks have really gone up, mostly about problems in the vegetable department, tomatoes always being the “problem child” in the home garden. When summer temperatures start rising, so does the stress on plants, so proper watering is critical to reduce the overall strain on plants. As I commonly tell my callers, healthy plants are happy plants and happy plants make happy gardeners!

j-ville summer 15 - tomato.jpgSo, how much water is enough water?  The best answer is “That depends on ......”  Every environment is different, starting with the location of the garden. Is the soil sandy, full of loam, or is it just that Alabama red clay? How much sun does the garden get throughout the day? Are the plants mulched in the ground or sitting on the patio in pots? All of these details must be considered before making the decision on how much water to throw to your plants.

Potted plants, particularly tomatoes, will most likely need water every day. Tomatoes that are in the garden may only need a deep, DEEP watering twice a week.  Tomatoes are heavy drinkers and the fruit (or vegetable, but that is a different article) is composed mostly of water, often over 90%! That is a lot of water and a growing and productive tomato plant needs between 1 ½ to 2 inches of rain per week, or its equivalent. A lot of my callers get really wrapped up in the amount, but I emphasize that the amount isn’t necessarily the take home point, the management of that amount is what can make or break, quite literally, your tomato crop.

Tomatoes are most likely the pickiest of plants in the vegetable garden when it comes to water. Too much water and you will have a great big lush tomato plant with no fruit. Too little water and you will have a wilted and dried stick that once resembled a tomato plant. As I mentioned before, managing the water, or more specifically the soil moisture is key to producing the best tomatoes. Letting plants get dry, wet, dry, wet, dry and wet again is the best way to cause the physiological disorder that we call blossom end rot, or BER. BER is one of the most common complaints that I have for tomatoes. BER is not a disease, but is caused by a calcium deficiency. Calcium can be present in the soil, but if there is not enough consistent water to carry that calcium from the soil, through the roots and up to the fruits, BER can occur. Though there are products that are made to boost calcium levels in the soil, proper water management will often prevent a lot of the problem.

In addition to blossom end rot, tomato plants exposed to dry, then wet conditions often produce cracked tomatoes. Now, some varieties are known to crack across the top of the tomato near the stem, especially some of those heirlooms that are so popular. The cracks that I am writing of are those forming on the sides and bottom of the fruit. Rain, especially after droughty conditions, can cause developing tomatoe fruits to grow rapidly, causing the skin of the fruit to crack. Pulling almost ripe tomatoes before or right after a heavy down pour can prevent this from happening.

So, how can you maintain moisture around the plants in the garden? The best solution is to use an organic mulch. Mulching in the vegetable garden is beneficial in more ways that I will tell in this article, but disease management, weed control and maintaining moisture are the big three that I will mention. A thick, 2”-3” of organic mulch will do the trick. Pine straw, grass clippings (combo with other), compost, shredded leaves and most any other organic materials will suffice for mulch. A word of caution: if using grass clippings, hay or straw, be sure to ask about chemicals that were applied to the crop before harvest. Some herbicides have residuals effects that can cause problems for tomatoes. Another benefit of organic mulches is that you can leave them in place and just add more next year, leading to rich, loamy soils that stabalize soil nutriotion and support beneficial biological organisms that encourage plant growth.

With a little preparation, mulching and knowledge, you can help your tomatoes and other vegetables survive through the dry, hot summer that we all love, leaving you with a bountiful harvest of home grown veggies. For more information on mulching, tomatoes, or all things home and garden, contact your local Extension office or visit .  

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.

July 21
Basics of Backyard Livestock

Question:  I grew up in a rural farming community, and couldn’t wait to leave for the big city and bright lights! Now, many years older and perhaps a bit wiser, I’d like for my young family members to experience the fun and responsibility of raising critters other than pet dogs, cats, or hamsters. I have friends who raise honey bees and chickens in urban areas, both of those are great, but I’m curious about other possibilities.

pygmy goat - sallie or istock.jpgWe had 4-H clubs when I was growing up, members raised cows, sheep, goats, even pigs to show at fairs and in competitions.  Are those programs still around, and how can I learn more about creating an “urban farm”?

By the way, I have about an acre of land for this project.

Answer: Along with growing some of our own food, recent trends include harvesting honey from our own bee hives, gathering eggs from our own chickens, or making cheese from our own goat’s milk.

Honey bees, chickens, ducks, sheep, rabbits, goats, and even cows in some cases have become part of backyard barnyards, urban farms, or living with livestock movements, however they’re referenced.  But, all that backyard bonding comes with issues, pros and cons that need to be investigated prior to sinking the first dollar into your project. 

For instance, other than sharing unforgettable (both good and not so great) memories with family members, what else might you do with the animals?  Chickens can be raised for meat or eggs, or both.  Rabbits for fur or meat, honey bees are used for pollinating gardens as well as harvesting honey, and so on.  Will your family members want to bond with critters destined for Sunday dinner? 

And before you get to the bonding stage, what are the zoning regulations in your municipality?  Some cities have restrictions on types of livestock (think roosters crowing), or have rules regarding how far animal housing has to be from human housing.  You may be in an area that doesn’t have regulations but if your neighbors complain about noise, smell, flies, etc., rules could be imposed that re-classify your backyard farm as an illegal operation!

Needing about the same space as average sized dogs, some city dwellers-turned-urban-farmers have opted for dwarf or pygmy versions of goats (see photo).  Though small in stature, production of sweet milk can reach 2 quarts per day, and there’s no scale for their ‘cuteness’.

Rabbits and some breeds of duck are practically noiseless, which can be a huge selling point for those wanting a very quiet urban farm.  Rabbits offer meat and hides, in addition to offering children (and adults) a chance to show off their prize bunnies.  Rabbits offer droppings for fertilizer, a boon for gardeners, and if the Angora breed is raised, yarn fiber rather than fur is produced, a sought-after material for knitted garments.  Do Angoras thrive in our AL climate?  Ask the questions before sinking money and time into a pen and hutch.

Is there a clutch of chickens in your future?  Family members bonding with goats or rabbits?  Fresh honey from your hives topping hot buttered biscuits? 
There are several online resources that offer information to potential backyard farmers and livestock folk, and books such as “Barnyard in your Backyard” edited by Gail Damerow.  To provide “live” expertise, the Alabama Cooperative Extension is hosting a “Basics of Backyard Livestock” program on June 17th.  Call your county Extension office for additional information.

By the way, 4-H programs are still around and yes, they’re excellent avenues for teaching children about raising livestock.

Written by Sallie Lee 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.

June 24
Squash Pollination Problems

​Q. I was walking in my vegetable garden the other day and noticed that some of my squash blossoms are falling off. What is going on? Is this an insect problem? What should I do?

A. I have gotten several calls recently similar to yours, so don’t feel alone. There are several different issues that may result in blossom drop, but none of them are serious. In fact, your plants may just grow right out of their problem.

squash flowers

Most squash (and cucumbers, melons, and pumpkins for that matter) have separate male and female flowers on the same plant (pictures show female flower on left and male on right - photo's courtesy Chris Becker, Alabama Cooperative Extension System). So, it is important to know which flowers are dropping – male or female. In the center of the female flower, you will find several bumpy structures surrounding a central opening. These structures make up the stigma. Also, female blossoms have what appears to be a tiny squash fruit just below the flower. Male flowers grow on a long narrow stem and contain only the stamens. Each stamen grows on a long stalk and has anthers, filled with sticky pollen. The anthers look a lot like the applicators that are used to apply eye shadow. (My analogy is probably not the best, but hopefully, this gives you a good mental picture).

Now, that we have finished the brief plant biology lesson, let’s move on to your problem. If the earliest blooms are the ones that fall off, don’t worry. Often, the male squash flowers will bloom and wither before the female flowers even appear. In this particular instance, patience is the recommendation. Eventually, your plants will produce both male and female flowers, and fruit set should soon follow.

Notice that I ended my previous sentence with "should" and not "will". If both flower sexes are present and fruit set does not occur, you have a pollination issue. Squash pollen is a very sticky substance, so it cannot be transferred via wind, like some of our other vegetable varieties. We depend on insect pollinators, primarily bees, to successfully pollinate our squash plants. Reduced or nonexistent bee populations or activity in your garden directly affect your squash harvest, or lack thereof. Cloudy, rainy days reduce and sometimes prevent insect flight.

So, is home-grown squash off of your summertime menu if no bees are around? Absolutely not – it will just require a little extra effort on your part. In the absence of bees, squash flowers can be hand-pollinated. The first step is to find a male flower. Cut it off where the flower stem meets the main stem of the plant. Next, all of the petals should be removed, carefully, from the flower, leaving you with a stem and exposed anther. Now, locate a female flower and use your stem and anther to transfer the pollen to the stigma, located in the center of the female flower. Gently rub the anther over the stigma several times, and then move on to the next female flower. Each anther can be used to pollinate approximately five flowers. Instead of using the anther, you can also use an artist’s paint brush or cotton swab to transfer the pollen to the female flower.

No matter the method of pollen transfer, timing is important. Flowers open early in the morning and are only receptive for one day. Be sure to use freshly opened flowers to ensure your hand-pollination success! 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.

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