by Teresa Watkins (twatkins(at)mail.ifas.ufl.edu)
In the summer, our thoughts turn to flowers, green grass, and the joy of being outdoors. It seems that all of Mother Nature thinks that way, too! With the warmer temperatures here in Florida, it is helpful to walk about and look at your lawn and gardens on a daily basis. Damage from insects seem to happen overnight, but if you are alert, use restraint and preventative measures, you can control them.
Did you know that overwatering and overfertilizing your lawn can create a welcome mat for hungry bugs? Lawns that get daily watering might as well have a "Happy Hour" sign posted in the front yard. Watering each day, particularly for a short time, encourages a shallow root system since the roots do not have to grow as deep to obtain water. These shallow roots make a very attractive lunch for hungry bugs. Watering daily also encourages disease and less drought tolerance, particularly if you experience high humidity in the summer. Forcing grass to need daily watering will ensure that if your water is restricted due to drought, your lawn will be the first in the neighborhood to suffer. For even the most massive lawns, watering for twenty to thirty minutes three times a week in the summertime and once a week in the winter is sufficient to ensure a green lawn. Of course, you should also cut back or water more depending on your water pressure and rainfall. Here's a tip to see approximately how much time you should spend behind the hose: Take an empty cat food or tuna fish can and place it in each zone. Turn sprinkler on and time how long it takes your sprinkler to fill the can. This is approximately how much water your lawn will need each time you turn your sprinklers on. Make sure you check your sprinkler heads out every month and before you go on vacation to see that they are not clogged.
Applying more than the recommended nitrogen applications to your yard encourages rapid leaf and chlorophyll growth. This is almost tantamount to being a neon light to the insect world, announcing a new lawn buffet opened on your street! Be conservative with your fertilizer and you will not run the risk of inviting strangers to dinner. Also, do not cut your grass shorter just because you are going on vacation or because you think you will have to mow it less. The longer length of the grass leaves helps keep bugs out of your lawn and helps the grass retain moisture. Grass that is mowed too often and too short can become burned.
Plant or grass damage can differ widely depending on the pest. Deciding what causes the problem will help you choose the best control. Bugs do not cause spots or yellowing discoloration to appear on leaves, instead their chewing or sucking on them can speckle the leaves. Small green, black, orange, or pink insects called aphids, can cluster on new leaves, which will cause them to pucker and drop. On azalea leaves, look for tiny colored dots on the bottom that leave the tops speckled. This may be a sign of lacebugs or spider mites. Using an oil spray will get rid of aphids, lacebugs and spider mites quickly. You may need to repeat application. Stunted rose buds or flowers are usually a sign of thrips, a silvery insect that is almost too tiny to see. A good way to prevent these hungry insects from making snacks out of your roses is Ortho's Rose Pride, a six week fertilizer and systemic. Using that along with a weekly spray of Funginex will keep your roses looking great throughout the summer. When you are walking your gardens, run your hands over the top of your shrubs. Do little white fluttery insects rise up? If so, you may have whiteflies. They are very common in the summertime, especially with crape myrtles and citrus trees. An oil-based spray will work nicely as will malathion or diazinon. The black sooty mold, which is left by the whiteflies, will wash off easily with a water hose. This is honeydew, which is excreted by the insect. It becomes moldy and prevents the leaves from receiving sunlight and oxygen, and will cause the plant to become stressed.
Are the leaves slimy, or can the stains be wiped off? This could be a sign of disease. Disease comes for many reasons such as poor air circulation, stress, overwatering, bad housekeeping practices and humidity. Using fungicides or pesticides as preventative measures is a waste of time and money. It is best to be aware of your lawn and shrubs, so that at the first sign of trouble, you will be able to catch it quickly with either a home made remedy or commercial product. Pick up all diseased leaves and branches and throw them away. Do not discard them into a compost pile, especially any roses with black spots. The spores for the fungus are airborne carried and can re-infect your bushes if you leave them on the ground under the plants. Also, if you plan on using a commercial or organic spray, read the instructions carefully. Adding more chemicals than necessary may do more harm than good. If you have a question regarding the safety of a chemical or directional use, look at the back of the product for a toll-free number that you can call for assistance.
Remember - if you use organic or chemical products, you also run the risk of hurting your beneficial bugs and butterflies. If you would like to have the beneficial insects to help you maintain a pest-free environment, patience is a virtue. Ladybugs will arrive in droves to eat your aphids if you can wait. There are also parasitic wasps that will attack caterpillars, given enough time to arrive on the scene. Praying mantises are very useful in the garden, as are earwigs. Earwigs are amazing, under-appreciated insects that can devouring mole crickets and eat up to fifty chinch bugs a night! Be aware that if you see earwigs, it may be a sign that you have lawn-eating bugs, too!
So, if you are meandering around in your beautiful lawn and you become aware of a problem, don't put it off until the weekend or your next day off to take care of the problem. Immediately cut off and destroy severely infested branches. If you only notice a few aphids, then you can dispel them with a strong blast of water sprayed directly at them. If after a few days, the insects are not gone, then you can try Soap-Shield. Repeat every two to three days for two weeks until the insects disappear. Please be mindful that you can still harm plants with home remedies very easily! More is not better! Make sure you do not spray your plants in the heat of the day. Plants are extremely susceptible to the heat and by using an oil spray you will almost always do damage if you are not careful. Water the plant or shrub needing the soap spray well the day before you treat it so that it is not dehydrated. Keep in mind that no matter how organic you want to keep your environment, sometimes it is necessary to use a commercial product. Don't let the insects destroy the plant by withholding a cure. Commercial sprays and pesticides available for retail use on the market are considered relatively safe if used correctly and occasionally.
By visiting your lawn and garden on a regular basis and keeping a watchful eye out for hungry pests, you will help your plants keep a step ahead of the dinner bell. I know they will appreciate all the help they can get.
About the Author Teresa Watkins, University of Florida's Florida Yards & Neighborhoods' multi-county program coordinator, recognized as a leader on xeriscape principles in "environmentally-friendly" landscapes. Watkins teaches educational and motivating workshops to Central Florida homeowners on how to create and maintain "Florida-friendly" yards that are attractive and almost carefree with "earth-smart" practices.
Her background ranges from working in private nurseries, commercial garden centers, and homeowner associations, as well as assisting county utilities and municipalities with their water conservation efforts. Master Gardener and landscape consultant, Teresa provides down to earth advice in 'Gardening with Soul', a monthly column in Lifestyles magazine, National publications, Internet websites, and gardening magazines have quoted Teresa's articles and philosophy of "ecologically aware" gardening.
An award-winning radio and TV host, Teresa Watkins designed the landscaping of the "first energy and environmentally efficient" DREAM home in the state of Florida to be certified as a "green home" by the Florida Green Building Coalition and Florida Solar Energy Center. Currently she hosts a weekly radio show, "In My Backyard" on WLBE 790 AM Tuesdays at 11am, sponsored by the Lake County Water Authority, which features environmental issues and landscaping advice for Central Florida.
When not putting her hands in someone else's backyard, you can find Teresa digging in her own garden, looking for slugs and lubber grasshoppers — creatures, that she adamantly swears do not have souls — aided in that effort by Sheila, her loyal Scottish terrier and legendary lubber killer.