Home Grounds Blog

​Fall is upon us once again. Although it may not feel quite fall-like to us, deciduous trees and shrubs are starting to reflect the change. Forests throughout the state are already emblazoned with shades or red, yellow, and orange, with more plants transitioning all the time. But some observant individuals may have noticed the fall flush is a bit more ephemeral now compared to years past, with some trees shedding their leaves practically the same instant they change color. What's the cause of these short-lived displays? Is the lack of rainfall in our area to blame? To answer these questions and others, we'll need to take a trip back to middle school biology class and examine the science of why leaves change color in fall. 

sugar maple 4.JPG

Deciduous trees and shrubs begin their annual growth in spring, when days become long enough and temperatures become warm enough to support the emergence of overwintering buds into new stems. This growth is typically completed by late June for most trees in the Northern Hemisphere. At this time, trees also begin to set next year's buds, which won't open themselves until they experience the chill of winter followed by the warmth of spring. Once this year's leaves are expanded and next year's buds are set, the tree will begin to manufacture carbohydrates through photosynthesis and store them to support next year's growth.

In late summer or early fall, days become shorter and nights longer. Deciduous trees and shrubs, like most plants, are very sensitive to night length. Once a certain threshold is reached and nights become long enough, these plants respond by forming what's known as an "abscission layer" where the leaves connect with the stems. This corky layer blocks the passage of material into and out of the leaves, including the green pigment chlorophyll. In the absence of chlorophyll, two new pigments become visible, the yellow pigments known as xanthophylls and the orange pigments called carotenoids. These are always present in leaves throughout the growing season, but are normally masked by the green of chlorophyll. Because these pigments are always present in leaves, yellows and golds tend to be fairly constant from year to year. One other group of pigments, the anthocyanins responsible for red and purple fall colors, are manufactured during fall from carbohydrates stored in leaves. These alone are not typically present during the growing season. The amount of these pigments produced depends on the amount of carbohydrates stored in leaves, and so the intensity of reds and purples is more variable in a given year.

Eventually, the abscission layer will thicken and the leaves will drop. 

A number of environmental factors impact the intensity and duration of fall colors. Lots of sunlight and low temperatures after the time the abscission layer forms cause the chlorophyll to be destroyed more rapidly, resulting in earlier fall colors. Cool night temperatures combined with abundant sunlight promote the formation of more anthocyanins, and thus more intense reds and purples. Freezing conditions halt the production of anthocyanins, so early frost means an early end to colorful foliage. A growing season with ample moisture that is followed by a dry, cool, sunny fall with warm days and cool (but frostless) nights provides the best weather conditions for development of the brightest fall colors. Lack of wind and rain in the fall prolongs the display; wind or heavy rain may cause the leaves to be lost before they develop their full color potential. 

Drought, in particular, can have a severe impact on fall colors. Drought conditions can slow the process of color change, and lead to less colorful, muted displays. Drought stress during the growing season can also sometimes trigger the early formation of the abscission layer, and leaves may drop before they even have a chance to develop fall coloration. Lack of moisture should have less of an impact on yellows and oranges than reds and purples, but these leaves also won't be hanging around too long.

So there you have it. Enjoy the splash of colors while you can, because like fall in the South, it won't last long. 

Mitchell Vaughan, Auburn University Department or Horticulture and Extension Graduate Student, Fall 2016

5489208[1] Bumble Bee Whitney Cranshaw.jpg

Did you know that about one third of our garden fruits and vegetables, and the flower seeds we harvest from our gardens, are the result of bees? Having a garden "friendly" for bees' means it is also friendly for many other beneficial forms of wildlife, such as butterflies and hummingbirds.                                                              

Of the 2,500 or more species of bees in the U.S., nearly all are gentle and won't sting you unless they feel threatened or provoked. This is not their goal. Nor is it to pollinate our flowers for our use. They don't chew up our flowers either, as some people believe. Rather, they are merely trying to find food for themselves and their young, or to gather home building supplies. In doing so, they end up pollinating our flowers, fruit trees, and shrubs.

The most common bees, especially early in the season, are the honeybees. As they hibernate for the winter, they must make and store plenty of honey. Bumblebees appear later in the season. Male bumblebees die after mating, the workers die at the end of the season, and so only the females survive. They hibernate in holes in the ground, old mouse nests, and similar places.

The worker honeybee collects pollen on brushy hairs, storing it in leg pockets. Worker bumblebees have a long proboscis to collect nectar, something other bees can't do. The other common bees are the solitary ones (Adrenidae family) that don't live in colonies.

Bees are attracted to flowers that are colorful or contrast well with their background, or have an ultraviolet coloration that serves as a nectar guide. This is especially true in the case of red flowers, which bees don't see unless they contain some ultraviolet light, which we usually don't see.

Purple and blue are bees' favorite colors, followed by yellow and orange. Many newer cultivars of flowers, especially annuals that have been highly bred, are deceptive to bees. Even though they may have attractive colors, they lack the pollen and nectar that bees like because these traits have been bred out.

In addition to flowers, bees need a source of water if one is not nearby.  A small pond, puddle, birdbath, or even dripping faucet usually fulfills this need.

Bees need protection from predators, a place to call home.  Many bees live in old or dead wood, often in tunnels created by wood-boring beetles. This is true for most bees in the leafcutter bee family (Megachilidae). If you spot some elliptical holes in leaves on garden plants, they are likely from these bees gathering leaf pieces that they use for homes for their young.

So, think of these bees before cutting down dead trees, or even limbs.  Dead trees will also be attractive to several species of woodpeckers. In addition, many bees live in holes in the ground, so leave some bare ground for them in an out-of-your-way part of your yard or garden.

The final point crucial to bee survival is to avoid using pesticides that will harm them. Either avoid using pesticides, or if this is not possible, use them after dark when bees are not active. And be sure to read all label directions. The label will tell you if the material is toxic to bees and methods of protecting them from the product. Remember that you usually have other, less toxic choices, so always choose the least toxic product for the pest management job.

Dr. Leonard Perry, University of Vermont Horticulturist was used as resource for this article.

​In my opinion, there are two types of gardeners: those that already are, and those that want to be. I firmly believe that anyone can garden. It’s amazing that some people contend they can’t, for one reason or another. So finding a short unofficial study of reasons why people don’t garden, I decided to share with gardeners and potential gardeners alike. And in the process, convince a few folks there are many ways to garden, one of which will work for them. (photo credit: Adrienne Bourland)

coleus and annuals - Adrienne Bourland, Alabama Extension.jpg1. I kill everything I touch
2. I’m under a doctor’s care for [fill in blank]
3. I’m afraid gardening will hurt my [fill in blank]
4. I don’t have any place to plant a garden
5. I can’t stand the heat
6. I can’t stand the cold
7. I can’t stand
8. I don’t like to sweat/get dirty/mess up my nails
9. I don’t have the time
10. Why should I when there’s a store for that?

A friend confessed “I can kill an African violet just by looking at it”. Since she is an accomplished gardener, my glee in discovering she isn’t perfect was tempered by the realization that some plants just don’t work for me either. So get over it, accept that we all have affinities for certain people, pets, and plants, and keep trying. The plantsman J.C. Raulston put it this way – “You’re not stretching yourself as a gardener if you’re not killing plants.” Well, I’m certainly in the “stretched” category, and honestly that’s usually how we learn – by our mistakes rather than successes.

Physical limitations are a fact of life, and not only with older citizens. From small children with less strength and attention span to seniors whose joints “talk” to them and who find bending over not an option, there is a way to garden. Gardens are used for mental and physical therapy, including cancer patients, those with dementia, limited sight, those trying to assimilate into our local culture and environment. Gardening speaks a universal language.

Do check with your physician before undertaking any new activity but be aware that gardening can be gentle as well as intense. There are calories burned and muscles stretched associated with almost any gardening activity, and if done correctly (we do know how to pick up items using our legs instead of our backs), can benefit our overall health.

No place to plant a garden? Houseplants qualify, as do container gardens, raised bed gardens, windowsill gardens, bathtub gardens, back porch and patio gardens, and a college student’s bookcase garden. The concept that only an in-ground plot of flowers, vegetables, or whatever is a “garden” is not only outdated, but an insult to those who garden no matter where and to what degree. I’ve seen some fabulous gardens on the 4th floor of high-rise apartments in the most urban of environments. I wouldn’t begin to dismiss those passionate folks as anything other than gardening “soilmates.”

Weather conditions certainly impact our ability to garden but if plants can handle hot, cold, dry, wet and survive, certainly we can adjust our gardening practices to accommodate a variety of conditions. That includes wearing appropriate clothing, such as gloves. Not only will they keep hands clean, they’ll protect against thorny plants (think roses) that need tending. From head to toe, hats to boots, garden suppliers offer both functional and whimsical items for use in our gardens.

Naturally the bigger the garden, we’d expect to spend relatively more time tending to it. So, if you’re in the “wanna be a gardener” group, keep it simple and start small. Pots or containers can be easier to handle but keep in mind that plants will need monitoring. Everything that makes plants grow is confined to what’s available within the width and depth of its growing environment, i.e. pot.

Yes, there’s a store selling the flower or vegetable, but you don’t get the same rush as growing it yourself! Nor the freshness, nor control of what was sprayed on the plant. There’s undeniable satisfaction in the planting, nurturing, and enjoyment associated with “I grew that!”

So … why don’t you garden?

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. Email questions to Sallie at leesall@auburn.edu or call 205-879-6964 x11. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Alabama A&M University and Auburn University), is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Everyone is welcome!

​We're all (unfortunately) familiar with the red imported fire ants that have become so prolific in lawns across the southern United States. These were introduced from South America early last century through our own Mobile, Alabama on cargo ships. We might not be aware of the billions of dollars these ants cost anually in agricultural damage, pest control costs, and hospital bills from treating their painful and even potentially deadly stings. Still less familiar to most people are one of the fire ants' natural enemies, the phorid flies, otherwise known as ant-decapitating flies. 

These flies, also native to South America, belong to the genus Pseudacteon, and are parasitoids of fire ants. Unlike true parasites which depend on their hosts for survival, parasitoids eventually sterilize or kill their hosts. As the name ant-decapitating fly suggests, the host insect's death might be seem as brutal. 

Female phorid flies, in an ironic twist, are attracted by the smell of the ants' alarm pheromones, a chemical substance which the ants themselves release to warn their fellow ants of impending danger. Once she has a target in site, the female fly deposits an egg inside the ant's thorax. The egg then hatches and the newly hatched larvae migrates to the ant's head, where it feeds on its host's bodily fluids and later its brain. 

Eventually, the fly larvae releases an enzyme which causes the ant's head to fall off. The fly larvae completes its development within the decapitated ant head, until it emerges like something out of a horror movie and begins the process anew. ..............................

Newly hatched phorid fly emerging from a hosts headAlabama is home to dozens of species of native phorid flies, most of which are believed to be parasitoids of other insect species. This includes phorid flies in the genus Apocephalus, which are parasitoids of our native carpenter ants, and which grow much larger than their tropical cousins. This is because the host carpenter ants themselves are much larger (and have much larger heads) than fire ants, meaning a larger food source for larger flies. 

Since we have these ant-decapitating flies right here in the United States, you may be wondering why we still have so many fire ants around. That's because these phorid flies are very host-specific in their feeding. The native phorid flies here in the US attack native ant species, but very rarely touch imported ant species. As is often the case with imported (and many times invasive) organisms, we need to also import the accompanying parasitoids and other pests that keep their populations low in their native homeland. 

The good news is, pest control companies and entomologists alike are doing just that. Since 1997, South American phorid flies have been introduced across the Southeast, from Texas to Mobile. Preliminary results from these introductions point to a 10 to 20 percent drop in invasive fire ant populations.

Look forward to many decapitated fire ants coming soon to a lawn near you!

Mitchell Vaughan, Auburn University Department or Horticulture and Extension Graduate Student, Fall 2016

Research from the University of Otago in New Zealand helped to solve a botanical mystery most folks on this side of the Pacific might not know. Namely, this research solved the mystery of why so many plants on New Zealand's otherwise bleak subantarctic islands developed deeply colored flowers and large, thick, and hairy leaves. 

These so-called "megaherbs" are quite unique compared to the rest of the islands' flora, which is typically comprised of small, wind-pollinated plants with equally small, pale flowers. These megaherbs also stand out from their peers in being insect-pollinated. 
A megaherb community on Campbell Island
Researchers selected six species of megaherbs from uninhabited Campbell Island for thermal imaging. They found that leaf and flower temperatures of all six species were considerably higher than their surroundings. These species are able to rapidly generate heat in a process known as thermogenesis. This heat is is then trapped underneath their large, thick leaves, creating a sort of miniature greenhouse effect which helps to draw in insect pollinators seeking reprieve from the islands' otherwise cold climates. The richly pigmented flowers are also able to more efficiently capture the intermittent sunshine they experience between the predominantly cool and cloudy conditions in which they grow. So both leaves and flowers contribute to the photosynthetic capacity which benefits these plants.

These unique adaptations mirror those of tropical alpine plants, which face similar growing conditions, particularly at night. 

The findings appear in the journal Polar Research.
Story Source: reprinted from materials provided by University of Otago.

As football season begins, many of our vegetable gardens shut down.  I get excited about gardening in February and March, but after the heat of summer and filling my shelves and freezer with produce – I'm tired of gardening.  I won't plant a fall/winter garden this year.  I know many of you plant a fall garden, but I bet the majority of us won't look at the garden again until spring.  If you are like me and don't want to tend a cool season garden, prepare your garden now for next spring; cover the soil in your garden spot.

As I travel through central Alabama in the winter months, the vast majority of gardens I see are bare.  The soil is exposed to the elements; sun, rain, wind, and cold all take its toll on the garden.  Year after year soil exposure causes reduced yields in gardens.  Heavy winter rains can wash the soil right out of the garden.  Even if the rain doesn't wash the soil out, it can wash all of the nutrients out.  Wind can easily transport your soil into the adjacent county if it is not protected.  Thirdly, winter weeds can overtake a garden with exposed soil.  Normally we don't think about winter weeds because we just till them into the soil in the spring.  As I consider this, I think of the hundreds of weed seeds I just tilled into my garden, which will stay dormant just waiting of the light of day to sprout.  Instead of leaving your soil bare, try covering it with something.

Some years all I do is rake all my leaves into my garden.  At 60' x 30' or 1800 square feet, my wife says ours is a large garden, however, it's not too large to accept all of our leaves each fall.  Those leaves and the compost pile will sit on top of the soil until April, when I till it in.  Two weeks later, I begin planting.  Some years however, I plant a cover crop.  Planting a cover crop in the unused portion of the garden protects and adds nutrients to the soil.  What plants should a gardener consider when planting a cover crop?  For that answer let us learn from hunters and wildlife biologists.  Every fall when many gardeners are laying fallow their gardens, many hunters are planting food plots, hoping to attract deer and turkey.  Extension has a great publication, ANR-0485, "Plantings for Wildlife" http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-0485/ANR-0485.pdf used by hunters.  In this publication, wildlife biologists list the 50 top crops planted for wildlife.  In the list planting dates, seeding rates, planting depth, and growth type are listed. Nineteen crops are listed as cool season annuals; these are the plants to use as a cover crop.  Cereals such as barley, oats, wheat, and rye grow throughout the winter.  Brassicas such as rape, kale, turnips, and canola have deep roots and large leaves.  Legumes like Austrian winter & Caley peas; arrowleaf, ball, button, crimson, red, & white clovers; blue lupine, common and hairy vetch all add nutrients to the soil.  In the spring, all one has to do is rototill these plants into the garden, allow two weeks for decomposing, and then begin spring planting.  These cover crops in companion with any portion used for winter gardening will provide the soil the protection needed to over winter for next spring.

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

​The other day I was at a meeting in the Birmingham Metro area. The reason for this meeting was to see what community leaders thought I needed to cover in my educational programing for 2017. I try to keep in touch with the pulse of the community which I serve, but at this meeting I was totally caught off guard. My subject area is Forestry, Wildlife, and Natural Resources. My specialty is forestry; to which I owe a 35 year career. Walking into the meeting, I expected community leaders say they wanted to hear more about nuisance wildlife. Many of you have written me, thanking me for my articles on armadillos, chipmunks, squirrels, etc. Dealing with nuisance wildlife is the number one thing I do in the Metro. However, at this meeting, community leaders stated they wanted to hear more about invasive species.

Throughout the county, the US Forest Service conducts a survey of forestland. One fifth of the acreage is surveyed on a rotational basis, so that, every five years we have a new survey of our land. While here in Alabama, we may have 23 million acres in timber, we also have almost 5 million acres in invasive plants. Our number one invasive with around three million acres in coverage is Japanese Honeysuckle. Planted as a wildlife food source, Japanese honeysuckle can completely cover the ground preventing regeneration and overtopping trees to kill them. Following in a distant second with one million acres is Chinese privet. Privet loves moist forests. For those of you who love hardwoods and hate pine plantations, you should be concerned with privet. After Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina, beautiful hardwood forests were replaced with privet tangles after the big trees fell.

Andrew J. Baril, Alabama Extension.Following privet is, Kudzu, Cogongrass, and Japanese Climbing Fern. Rounding out the top seven are the two trees Mimosa, and the Popcorn-tree. Just these seven species occupy almost five million acres of timberland. The invasive species problem is not just a forestry problem. Farmland and our waterways are fighting the battle too. This time of year I spend most of my time helping pond owners identify weeds in their ponds, and how to kill these weeds. Most of the weeds I encounter are invasive weeds like Alligatorweed, Hydrilla, Eurasian Water Milfoil, and Water Lettuce. If these plants are not controlled, they will over-take a pond, streams, rivers, and even our reservoirs.

What can you do? Number one, become informed! There are a number of resources to help you understand the problem. Here in Alabama, our best resource is the Alabama Invasive Plant Council (ALIPC) http://www.se-eppc.org/alabama/. Every year we gather for an annual meeting to discuss where we are with the plants, how to kill these plants, and what's new on the horizon. Another source of good materials is the University of Georgia's, Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health at http://www.invasive.org/. UG's Center not only covers plants, but any other type of invasive. The second way you can help is once you find an invasive learn how to kill it. This may mean changing the landscaping around your house. It is a difficult decision to make, but if we do not stand up for our native plants and protect them from these invaders, one day the natives will be gone.

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.

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.

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