Home Grounds Blog

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.

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. 


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