Gardening: Winter-spring transition brings challenges
Toward the end of February temperatures will begin to warm a little. However, temperatures in the 40s are still quite common. The little rainfall we get in February will usually come off the Gulf of Mexico with accompanying winds or from the north as cold fronts. This is what we have been experiencing recently.
It is a good idea to wait until February has passed, along with the cold weather, to fertilize or heavily prune shrubs and trees. Once again, you don't want to encourage tender new growth which would be susceptible to damage from the cold. An exception is citrus which should be fertilized in January or early February at the latest. If citrus is already blooming wait until the fruit has set to fertilize. The nitrogen in the fertilizer can cause the blossoms to drop resulting in a reduced crop of fruit.
Normally you need to be careful of using lawn weed killers now as lawn grasses can be dormant due to cold winter temperatures and the grass should be growing vigorously for the best results. While we just had a cold spell, we have had some warmer temperatures and lawns have been active enough for effective weed control.
Chinch bugs have also been active due to the warm weather so watch for them and treat as needed. While mole crickets prefer Bahia grass, I have seen them more and more frequently in St. Augustine lawns. Watch for small hills of sand in your lawn which look like ant hills. These may indicate mole crickets. The soil under your lawn may feel soft and give way with your footsteps. This is their tunnels collapsing as you walk on them. You may want to apply mole cricket bait for control.
Mites may be active as the hot, dry weather begins this winter. Mite infestations appear as yellow or grey stippled patterns on plant leaves. The undersides of infested leaves will have fine silk webbing across them. Heavy infestations turn leaves totally yellow, grey, or brownish and eventually they fall off. Webbing may be spun over entire branches. To check for mites, take a piece of white paper and hold it under the plant leaves and shake. The mites will be tiny and crawling around.
Also watch for scale and aphids if growth activity begins on your shrubs and trees. Aphids will appear in large numbers on the tender new stems and buds of plants. Their feeding often causes leaves to curl and distorts plant growth. Ants may be present as they feed on the sticky honeydew excreted by the aphids. This honeydew also serves as media for the fungus growth known as "sooty mold." This fungus will cover the leaves and turn them black. Aphid populations, along with the sooty mold, can be reduced by directing a strong stream of water from a garden hose on the infested plant. Also spraying with a mild soap solution of 1 tablespoon of dish soap per gallon of water will help. And don't forget the lady beetle who is a voracious aphid and mite eater. If lady beetles are present give them a chance to control the pests before you spray strong insecticides. Chances are they will get the problem under control.
Watch for dry patches in the lawn. The hot weather has increased the trans evaporation rate of plants and with little rain the stress of drought can begin showing up early. Check your irrigation systems for proper coverage now and you will be ready for the even dryer and warmer weather of spring due to arrive in another month.
On a more fun note, there are two ornamental shrubs common in our Marco Island yards that have edible fruit which will be ripening in February. They are the Surinam cherry and Carissa (natal plum). Try them! You'll be surprised at how tasty they are when perfectly ripe. Both will be a deep red when they are ready to eat.
February will be the last slow month for yard chores. Enjoy the rest and get ready for all the things you will need to do in March to prepare for the summer growing season.
Eileen and Peter Ward have owned a landscape and lawn maintenance company for 35 years. Eileen can be reached at Gswdmarco@comcast.net or 239-394-1413.