Thursday, April 19, 2012

Saving Water Can Help Your Lawn and Landscape

Even though watering restrictions are not yet commonplace
throughout Alabama, homeowners should still take measures to conserve water. I have seen more plants killed by overwatering
than under-watering. Overwatering does more than deplete the water supply and our bank account; it also makes plants more prone to pests, more drought sensitive and adds to our collective stormwater runoff problem. Stormwater runoff pollutes our streams and
lakes by moving fertilizers, soil and chemicals into the waterways.

By choosing and operating a watering system correctly, you can reduce water bills, insect and disease problems, make grass or shrubs more drought tolerant and reduce maintenance requirements. To maintain a healthy lawn in sandy soils may require as much as 2" of water per week during peak growing season but in most soils 1” per week is sufficient. The more you
water your lawn, the faster it grows and the more it needs to be mowed. Warm season grasses are generally very drought tolerant and will simply go dormant during a drought if the roots are trained to grow deep. You train deep roots by watering infrequently but deeply after initial establishment. Many irrigation systems are set to run three times or more per week and those lawns lose a lot of water to evaporation and encourage shallow root development. Many
homeowners feel compelled to run the irrigation even if the lawn does not need the water because they feel it justifies the initial expense of the system. However, we should think of the
irrigation system as insurance or maybe like a vitamin. Our body needs vitamins but we can get too much of a good thing and cause other problems. We also like insurance but mostly we like having the peace of mind it gives us and we are not anxious to use it -especially life insurance.

What’s true for turf is even more true for established trees and shrubs which may require less than half as much water as an established turf. In most years we get enough rainfall for well-established trees and shrubs and they do not need regular irrigation. If you have thirsty plants like hydrangeas, azaleas or dogwoods low volume drip or micro-sprinklers are a much more efficient way to water than solid set sprinkler systems.

To save water don’t rely too heavily on these thirsty landscape plants but choose mostly water efficient and drought tolerant plants, including tough heirloom shrubs, trees and the sturdier native plants. If you group plants according to their water needs (called a hydrozone), you can simplify watering methods and systems. For example, turf areas and shrub areas should always be separated into different hydrozones. They do not need the same amount or frequency of water. Enclose trees and shrubs into large mulched beds rather than small rings or worse no
rings surrounded by turf. For turf areas, install a rain shutoff device or soil moisture sensor (if you have an automatic sprinkler system) that will override the system when it rains or when the soil reaches a preset moisture level. Your county’s Extension office, the Natural Resources Conservation Service or a certified irrigation professional can provide technical assistance. Except for the first couple years of establishment time you do not need permanent irrigation for most shrub and tree beds. Flowers and thirsty shrubs are the exception and should be watered on an as needed basis rather than on a regular schedule like turf.

Water turf in the early morning from 4:00 am to 7 am. This is the most efficient time because
temperature and wind speeds are usually at their lowest, this in turn reduces evaporation and, more importantly, off target drift. Also, grasses are less susceptible to fungal problems if water is applied at the time that dew normally forms. Avoid watering between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. temperature and wind speeds are at their highest during this time so water waste is more likely. Do not continue to water during the winter months.In most years you can turn the system off and drain it in November and leave it off till late spring. An exception would be the year of establishment.

Lastly, calibrate your sprinkler system regularly. Make sure it is putting out water evenly over
the entire area. Also, look for broken or leaky sprinkler heads. Sometimes what you think is a leaky sprinkler head is really low head drainage. If you are on a slope water will run to the
lowest head and drain from the pipe. You can stop this problem by installing heads with built in check valves or by adding check valves under existing sprinkler heads.

There are many ways to save water and reduce stormwater runoff. Visit the Alabama Cooperative
Extension System website and look at the Alabama Smart Yards Handbook for more good tips.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Rain gardens offer a low tech solution for excess rain water

Question: The rain barrel I installed this summer seems very small in view of the large quantities of rain we have gotten. What other strategies can I use to reduce the water runoff from my property?

Answer: Rain barrels or cisterns have their place in water management, but as you have seen they are totally inadequate alone to deal with large amounts of rainfall. There are several ways to deal with excess rain, but clearly the way we do it now in urban areas does not work very well. We have large areas of impervious surfaces and we direct water into storm water systems that often become overwhelmed. What if every home, apartment complex, business or neighborhood could capture the first inch or so of rainfall in any rain event? I believe this could be done and would go a long way towards reducing storm water and associated non-point source pollution problems.

Rain gardens are an old idea whose time has come again. Let’s face facts. We in the southeast live in a climate where we always have and always will have a feast or famine of rainfall. Even those with a short term memory can recall the severe drought of 2007. However, those of us with better memories and a few years behind us knew the day would come when flooding would be a problem again. Rain gardens offer a low tech and low cost way of slowing down water, letting it infiltrate rather than contribute to the storm water problem and reducing the amount of non-point pollution that enters our streams and rivers.

Simply speaking a rain garden is a depression or swale in the landscape designed to capture and retain runoff for short periods of time. If designed properly rain gardens should drain in three days or less and provide a way to direct overflow in periods of continual rainfall such as we have recently experienced in much of the southeast. Rain gardens can and should be a landscape asset both in terms of function and beauty. Ideally they should be located several feet away from the home to avoid contributing to water related problems in the basement or foundation. Water that currently runs off the house, walks, parking areas and driveways should be diverted to these depressions to slowly soak into the ground.

Do not think of a rain garden as a pond that does not hold water very well. Think of it as a true garden in every sense of the word. It is not a landscape feature but a critical component of the functionality and beauty of the landscape. Choose plants that can tolerate both occasional flooding and fairly extreme drought. Fortunately, we have many southeast natives that fit the bill very well because many of them have had a feast or famine relationship with water for a very long time. Because of this long standing weather pattern many native plants have become adapted to these environmental conditions. However, not all native plants will thrive in these conditions so you must do a little research before choosing your plants. Native plants fill niches within our environment so look for those plants that naturally grow in the light and soil conditions you have or will create within a rain garden. Do not forget about the many tried and true non-native plants that also grow well under these conditions.

Many books are available to help you make the right plant choices but for a more comprehensive look at this topic I strongly recommend Rain Gardening in the South, by Helen Kraus and Anne Spafford. As the name implies this book focuses on strategies as well as plants that work for southern conditions. The plant lists are great even though there are many plants that would work that are not included and a plant or two I would avoid that are included, such as Japanese Flowering Apricot. However, the information on design is well worth the modest cost of this book. Even though rain gardens are low tech they are not simple given that they are a small ecosystem unto themselves. Therefore, careful attention to design is important to make certain it functions as intended. For instance, you do not want to build a mosquito haven and this must be addressed early to avoid costly “do over’s”.

Fall is an excellent time to build a rain garden and an even better time to establish trees, shrubs and many perennials that may be used. It won’t rain forever, so start working on your plans and when it dries out get your shovel and go to work. Don’t forget to call before you dig to avoid costly and potentially dangerous encounters with underground utilities. For help locating buried utilities contact “Alabama One Call”. For further information on building your own rain garden visit the Alabama Cooperative Extension System web site and type in rain garden in the search box at the top.
Image by North Carolina State University

Friday, June 19, 2009

Rain Water Harvesting

Question: We have had an abundance of rain this spring but I know I will wish I had stored some of it for the hotter and drier weather that is soon to come. Is it difficult and costly to install a cistern system to store water?

Answer: Cisterns have been used for centuries and the technology is well developed. We in the Southeast have not taken advantage of these systems as much as our neighbors to the west for many reasons. Cheap and plentiful water not to mention our fairly high average rainfall are the main reasons. Water is still pretty cheap considering it is necessary to sustain life but the cost has gone up dramatically over the past several years. A large percentage of potable water is used for landscape purposes and this must come to an end if we continue to increase in population in the Southeast. Cisterns offer a great opportunity to capture rain water during the rainy periods for later use in the landscape or possibly to even wash clothes or flush commodes.

Cisterns can vary tremendously in cost depending on size and desired appearance. If you want to try rain water harvesting on the cheap I would suggest you start with a simple rain barrel attached to your gutter downspout. A 55 gallon drum barrel can be attached in a couple hours with a few simple tools at a cost of fifty to a hundred dollars depending on how much of a “do it yourselfer” you are.

A rain barrel will not provide enough water to maintain a thirsty lawn or a large garden but would provide an inexpensive drink for a container garden or a small vegetable or flower garden. If the barrel is above the area to be watered or you are just filling up a watering can you will only need the help of gravity to water your plants. However, a small submersible pump can be dropped into the tank to pump the needed water out through a water hose to any part of the landscape.

Larger cisterns can be much more expensive but can be designed to provide all of your irrigation needs and some of your non potable water needs in the home. These systems may consist of large plastic, concrete or metal tanks that can be either above or below ground. You can even purchase large water bags that are flat when empty and expand as they fill. These bags can be stored under a porch in a basement or even in the crawl space of a home.

If you plan to irrigate a large area and you want enough water stored to do the job you will need to do some math. North Carolina State University has a great web site with lots of rain water harvesting information to help design a large system and to calculate the estimated time it will take to recoup your investment.

On a smaller scale the Alabama Cooperative Extension System will conduct a Rain Water Harvesting workshop at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens on July 14th , from 1:00 – 3:00 PM. This workshop will cover the basics of rain water harvesting and demonstrate the conversion of a 55 gallon drum into a ready to use rain barrel.


Question: What can I do about the large cockroaches invading my house?

Answer: Cockroaches are problems to homeowners, and they may transfer diseases or cause allergic reaction. Some cockroaches live their entire lives inside homes or buildings. These are referred to as domestic cockroaches and the primary example is German cockroaches. The larger cockroaches like you are seeing live both inside and outside. The main species are the American cockroach, oriental cockroaches, and the smokybrown cockroach. They often move indoors when the weather outside becomes too cold, too hot, too wet, or too dry. Though they normally do not survive well inside, the American and oriental cockroaches can make a good living and successfully breed indoors if they can find an area with enough moisture and food.

Here are some tips for inspecting and managing these pest from Dr. Xing Ping Hu, Extension Entomolgy Specialist from Auburn University.

The best time to inspect is just after sunset when roaches become active. Inspection should start with checking the building exterior. Roaches may hide in cracks and crevices on outside walls and foundations, under siding and weep holes/openings around pipes, wire, and cables where they enter buildings.

Check landscaping and building surroundings: Since roaches like moist and shady areas, inspect around garbage cans and dumpster area. Check areas under trees and shrubs that have lots of leaf litter or mulch. Also, check rotting stumps or logs on the ground, wood piles and tree holes, compost or debris piles, planters and pots near the foundation of the building. Sewers are another place you should not miss, especially for the American cockroach that often lives and breeds in sewers and can invade buildings directly from the sewer system.

Check above, too. These cockroaches also can be found under roof overhangs and in roof gutters where they live and feed on collected leaves and debris.

The key to successful management involves an integrated approach of prevention, exclusion and pesticide usage. The following six-step program will greatly reduce your problem with these larger cockroach species.

One, when cockroaches are found on the exterior, treat the cracks and crevices where they are hiding with a residual insecticide. Use liquid insecticides or granular insecticides in infested sites around the foundation, especially around windows, doors and other entry points. Treat infested cracks and crevices with a liquid residual or dust based insecticide.

Two, make sure cracks and crevices are then caulked or sealed. Seal openings around windows, doors, vents, pipes and electrical conduits.

Three, install door sweeps, thresholds and weather seals on doors.

Four, reduce outside lighting and/or use yellow instead of white bulbs.

Five, move stacks of firewood, lumber, stones, etc., away from the homes foundation. Clean gutters and avoid heavy mulching around the foundation. Also, dead tree stumps and debris piles that can’t be moved should be treated with a granular bait insecticide.

Finally, apply a regular perimeter barrier insecticide treatment to keep these cockroaches from moving into the home.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Native Azaleas

Question: My neighbor has a type of azalea that has a light pink bloom, it is very fragrant and it does not have leaves on it yet. Do you know what kind of azalea this might be?

Answer: As a group these are called deciduous azaleas and are most likely native species. Although there are many native species of Azaleas the one your neighbor has is likely Rhododendron canescens, the Piedmont Azalea. Native azaleas such as the Piedmont Azalea, often called wild honeysuckle bush, are at least as beautiful as their non-native evergreen cousins and are much more fragrant. As a group they are greatly underused in the southern landscape. Some have unusual yellow to orange and orange-red flowers, such as the Florida Flame azalea. Most of them 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.

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 mentioned above 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 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 them growing and blooming. If your soil is not well drained consider planting on a raised bed or individual mounds.As landscape specimens, in woody areas, deciduous azaleas are a wonderful addition to any landscape. They do best when left unpruned 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. Some plants that may be more readily available are native hybrids that were developed for superior quality. A friend of mine in Mobile, Tom Dodd, III has developed several of these hybrids that he calls the Confederate series. These hybrids are well adapted to our climate, have larger blooms than the native azaleas and they're all fragrant. Some names to look for in this series include 'Admiral Semmes' that has big, fragrant yellow flowers and 'Col. Mosby' with large fragrant deep pink flowers that fade to light pink with a yellow blotch. At the front door of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, General N.B. Forrest is now in full bloom. It has large ruffled, red-orange blooms in clusters that show off in late April. If you want to look at pictures of these and other great native plants go to the Dodd Natives site.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Asian Lady Beetle

Question: My house has been invaded by lady beetles. They are coming out of the wall by the hundreds. Why are they here and what can I do about them?

Answer: Lady beetles are normally considered beneficial insects because they feed on pest insects such as aphids in gardens and landscapes. However, the multicolored Asian lady beetle (which is the one you have) can become a serious household problem. These beetles have been reported to congregate on the sides of buildings by the thousands. They will move inside if given the opportunity, and will stain carpeting, wallpaper, and anything else and they stink badly when crushed. However, these beetles are not poisonous, do not sting, are not carriers of disease, and do not eat wood.

The Asian lady beetle was originally released as a biological control agent for pecan aphids in California. They have a very wide host range and can feed on rose, apple, poplar, conifer, and crape myrtle aphids. Although they can be a nuisance overall they are quite beneficial.
The beetles seem to be attracted to light, reflective surfaces such as large windows, or light-colored walls and trim. Beetles usually are found on the sunniest areas of buildings. In Japan, Asian lady beetles overwinter in the cracks and crevices of mountain rocks. In the United States, they use buildings as protection from winter. They seem to be attracted to blue and gray colors that look like the mountainous rocks in their native habitat. The beetles begin to invade homes through cracks and crevices during the fall (around October or November in Alabama). People with log homes may find this beetle particularly troublesome due to the beetles' preference to dwell in cracks and crevices. Common overwintering sites include door and window frames, porches, underneath siding, roof shingles, wall voids, attics, and soffits.

This time of year, as the temperature increases, so will beetle activity. They have been in your home all winter and now are looking for a way out. As they try to escape, beetles can be found along large glass windows and in light fixtures because they are attracted to light, and around doors, baseboards, and drop ceilings.

Control involves a multi-pronged approach. Prevention is the key to keeping this lady beetle from getting into homes. A space less than 1/8 inch will allow lady beetles entry. To prevent entry you can use many of the same techniques that can save you energy as well: Caulk cracks along windows, doors, or other portals of entry. Seal and screen attic vents and install tight fitting door sweeps. Gaps under glass sliding doors may be sealed with foam weather stripping. Also, seal utility openings such as pipes, dryer vents, and cable TV wiring ports, with caulk, steel wool, or other mesh.

Once they are indoors chemicals are generally not recommended. The beetles have to be sprayed directly or walk over treated surfaces to obtain a toxic dose. Vacuuming or sweeping is the first line of defense. Do not crush the beetles as they can stain and they smell horrible. If you can empty the vacuum contents or sweepings outside some of the beetles may survive and pay you back by eating some of the bad bugs in your garden this summer.

Original photo by: Timothy J. Gibb, Extension Entomologist, Department of Entomology, Purdue University

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Spring Lawn Care in the South

I have a lawn weed problem and I was wondering if I should use a weed killer and herbicide blended product?

The so called “crab grass/weed preventer with fertilizer” products are marketed as convenient to use but that convenience may come at a price. The first cost is the product itself which can be quite expensive. Another cost may be the decreased health of your turf. Those products which contain fertilizer plus pre-emergent weed killers must be applied before warm season weeds (like crabgrass) germinate, which may be in mid to late February, in order to effectively kill those weeds. Unfortunately, that is much too early to apply fertilizer for all grasses except fescue or bluegrass. When fertilizer is applied that early the grass may start to grow much too soon if we have a couple of weeks of warm weather. Past experience has taught us (remember the Easter weekend freeze of 2007) that a late frost can do a lot of damage to warm season turf grasses. Bermuda, Zoysia, Centipede and St. Augustine grass are all tropical grasses that are much better adapted to heat than cold. These grasses can be easily “tricked” into growing too early in the spring. This can be true for any warm season grass but according to Jim Jacobi, Extension Pathologist, it is especially damaging to Centipede grass.

The more prevalent “weed and feed” products have a fertilizer plus a post-emergent weed killer. These products are normally applied to young developing weeds. In most years these weeds are most susceptible to herbicides during the same time the grass is in the “green up” stage. This is the correct time to fertilize but it can be a very bad time to apply herbicides. The reason it can be bad is because warm season grasses are most easily damaged or stressed at this stage of their growth.

You may be wondering if there is a correct time at all to use “weed and feed” products and that is a very good question. Those products that contain a post-emergent weed killer and fertilizer blends may have a window of usefulness after spring green up when late germinating summer weeds are small. For instance, if you use a pre-emergent weed killer (without fertilizer) in mid to late February it may wear off enough that some later weeds emerge. These weeds could be controlled with a “weed and feed” in late May or early June after the grass has past the stressful green up phase.

There is a correct way to approach weed control and proper fertilization but it involves an extra bit of effort. Pre-emergent weed killers may be used by themselves at the time just mentioned and fertilizer should be applied by itself in late April to early May. Fertilization type and amounts should be based on soil test results not guess work and this is a good time to have a test done to add lime if needed and find the correct fertilizer for your lawn.

I have had people tell me they have done it the “wrong” way for many years without a problem. My response has always been I know people who live very unhealthy lifestyles and live to a ripe old age but we seldom hear about all those who die young because the former is the exception not the rule. For instance, we regularly see soil test reports with excessively high amounts of phosphorus and potassium. These lawns may go for a long time with no problem but problems may arise at some point down the road. Even if you never see severe problems you are at the very least wasting fertilizer and possibly polluting ground water, streams and rivers. Also, we regularly see lawns that are fertilized too early get hammered by a late frost. If you fertilize too early the law of averages will eventually catch up with the luckiest gardener. Lastly, we see turf with unexplained lack of vigor and poor health problems that may have been severely weakened by a poorly timed herbicide application. For information on proper care of your turf grass visit the publications area with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.