August 31, 2009

Plant Health Starts With the Soil

By Jane Morse, University of Florida/IFAS Extension Agent, Pinellas County Extension

Did you know there are more than 70,000 different kinds of soil in the United States?

With all these different kinds of soil you can imagine the variations of their soil properties. How much water or nutrients they hold, their pH and drainage can all be wildly different. Unfortunately for most Florida gardeners our soils are mainly sand. Sand does not hold on to much of anything, so water, nutrients and pollutants flow right through and into our ground water.

Soils are also characterized by their alkalinity (high pH) or acidity (low pH). Most plants prefer soils in the 5.5 to 6.5 pH range, which is slightly acidic. This is also the pH range where most plant nutrients are easily available to plants. When soil pH is either above or below this optimum range plants may start to show nutritional deficiencies (hunger signs) or toxicity symptoms.

Our Florida coastal soils tend to be very alkaline, whereas soils that formed under pine flatwoods can be very acidic. Sea shells, marl and limestone are very high in calcium and are the main reason for our coastal soils being so alkaline. Some calcium-rich building materials such as concrete and stucco can also raise the soil pH. Plants grown in alkaline soils are commonly lacking these plant nutrients: iron, manganese, zinc and boron.

To determine your soil pH you can send a sample to a trustworthy lab such as the University of Florida Extension Soil Testing Laboratory ( Once you know the pH of your soil you can choose the plants best suited to your soil, or understand why some plants are not growing well. Strongly alkaline soils are generally a greater problem in landscapes and proper plant selection is very important. Acid-loving plants such as azalea, ixora, gardenia and blueberry will never do well in an alkaline soil. There is no way to permanently lower the pH of soils formed from high calcium materials, so proper plant selection is critical for plant health.

The University of Florida Extension Soil Testing Laboratory (ESTL) can also provide a fertility analysis. This test tells you how much phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) are in your soil. This report also includes pH, lime and fertilizer recommendations for selected lawn and landscape plants based on your soil sample.

To avoid damage to your landscape plants, always have your soil tested for pH and/or lime requirement before adding lime or sulfur to the soil. If you want to grow plants that are not suited to your soil pH, consider growing them in pots with another soil amended to provide the proper pH.

How to Collect a Soil Sample
1. Identify the area to be sampled. Turf areas, vegetable gardens and ornamental beds should all be sampled separately. Also, any problem areas (such as depressions, rocky areas, etc.) should be sampled separately to avoid contaminating samples from good areas.

2. Using a shovel (or soil probe), remove soil from 10 to 15 locations within the sampling area. Soil should be removed from the top 6 inches. Walk in a zigzag pattern, stopping occasionally to remove soil for the sample.

3. After taking each sub-sample, remove any plant material or mulch and deposit the soil into the plastic bucket. Mix the soil in the bucket to ensure it is well blended.

4. Spread the soil out on a newspaper or paper grocery bag and allow it to dry thoroughly.

5. Once dry, pack approximately 1 pint of soil (fill to the dotted line) into a soil sample bag (available free from your county Extension office). Alternatively, you may pack soil into a zip-top plastic bag.
Soil samples being submitted to the Extension Soil Testing Lab (ESTL) should be accompanied by a completed Landscape & Vegetable Garden Soil Test Information Form ( ) or you can pick up the form at the Extension Office, 12520 Ulmerton Road, Largo. The ESTL offers two soil tests for the home lawn, landscape and vegetable garden. Test A ($3) includes soil pH and lime requirement analyses; Test B ($7) adds analysis of phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg). Include your check or money order for the test you’ve chosen, along with the form and your soil sample.

If using another soil testing lab, you should contact it first to obtain instructions on how to submit soil samples. Be aware that private laboratories may not use soil tests that are calibrated for our region.

August 26, 2009

Fall into Knowledge!

Attend Pinellas County Extension’s September Classes

Pinellas County Extension offers residents a wide variety of classes to help them make sustainable decisions. Be sure to check out our lunch break on-line classes, Solutions in 30.

The classes being offered in September are:

Solutions in 30:
September 2nd - Incentives for Saving Energy
September 9th - Healthy Home, Healthy Family
September 16th - Don’t get Scammed!
September 23rd - Saving Money by Going Green
September 30th - Green Office

Lawn & Garden:
September 9th @ 2:00pm and 6:15pm - Exploring the World of Bromeliads
September 9th - Landscaping for Wildlife
September 16th - Hurricane Preparedness for the Landscape
September 23rd - Gardening with Wildlife
September 24th - Drought Tolerant Plants
September 26th - Compost Happens
September 30th - Managing Common Landscape Problems

Sustainable Living:
September 12th - Healthy Home, Healthy Family

4-H Youth Development:
Starting September 17th – Embryology 101

You can register for classes on-line at Please look for the “Online Class Registration” button on the right hand side near the top of the page.

August 24, 2009

An Alien Invader

By Dale Armstrong, Coordinator Florida Yards & Neighborhoods

Brazilian pepper, Schinus terebinthifolius, is a fast-growing, multi-trunked shrub or tree that can grow to 30 feet or more in height. In the past, it has commonly been called “Florida Holly”, probably because of the attractive clusters of red berries produced in winter. However, it is neither from Florida nor is it a holly. It is in fact, an alien species from Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.

Actually, we refer to a non-native species as an exotic rather than alien. And when an exotic has the ability to outgrow native species in Florida, we call it invasive. Brazilian pepper certainly qualifies as invasive. Most likely everyone has seen thick growths of Brazilian pepper where virtually all other plants have been smothered and died. Since there are no natural controls here other than freezing temperatures, Brazilian pepper grows unrestrained in south and central Florida.

Controlling this runaway plant in natural areas is difficult and costly, especially in large, remote areas. There isn’t a park or preserve in Pinellas County that does not have to deal with controlling Brazilian pepper and other non-native invasive species. In the home landscape many homeowners do not realize that their Brazilian pepper tree may be spreading thousands of seeds throughout their neighborhood and into natural areas via birds and other wildlife. And when an owner does become aware of the nature of this tree and is interested in getting rid it, the process tends to be expensive. Trees can be cut down and removed, but the stump and roots will re-sprout if not completely removed or treated with herbicides.

You can help by learning to identify Brazilian pepper, both seedlings and mature plants. Many seedlings grow amongst existing landscape plants and are watered, fertilized, and pruned along with other plants in the bed by unsuspecting homeowners and landscape company personnel. Removing seedlings while small is much easier and less costly than dealing with a large tree or shrub later. Brazilian pepper is in the same family as poison ivy, so use caution if you personally handle any part of the plant.

There is much information available to you about Brazilian pepper and other invasive plant species. Certainly Pinellas County Extension is an excellent source for literature and advice from staff, but in addition I have included other resources below.

August 20, 2009

Back to School on a Budget

By: Karen Saley, Extension Specialist, Pinellas County Extension

Summer fun is almost over and it’s time to start thinking about getting the kids ready for school again. With all the other bills you may be having to deal with right now, the thought of buying all those school supplies, books and clothes may being weighing heavy on your mind.

According to the National Retail Federation, the economy has changed some of our shopping habits. We’re looking for more sales, using more coupons, buying more store and generic brands and overall spending less.

To help you keep back to school spending to a minimum here a just a few tips.

First and probably most important…have a plan and a budget. Make a list of all the things that your kids need to get them in shape for the new school year. A list will help you remember what you need to buy and keep you from making those impulse purchases. Then make sure you set a dollar amount. Setting a dollar amount and discussing it with you kids will keep all of you on the right track to staying within your budget. Having a plan and budget will save you time and energy. Another little tip is pay with cash. There is no point in doing all the bargain hunting only to charge the items and pay interest on the purchase. Paying with cash will also help keep you from overspending; handing over the greenbacks always hurts a little more than whipping out the credit card.

Before you head out the door and start trekking through all those stores, start at home. Take an inventory of what you already have laying around the house. Gather up all those pens, pencils, erasers and half used notebooks. You probably already have a calculator, backpack and other durable goods from previous years. Remember, recycling is an easy way to save money.

Now it’s time to actually start shopping…but where to start?

Those wonderful dollar stores are a favorite of mine. You can load up on notebooks, pens, pencils and all the other classroom paraphernalia you need for a fraction of the cost of buying it at drug stores and box stores.

Thrift stores are a good source for note books, binder, calculators and sometimes, even books. While you’re there, you can probably find a bargain on a backpack, lunch box or water bottle.

Garage sales are another place to find some great deals on everything from small electronics, to school supplies to clothing.

Speaking of clothing, thrift stores are a goldmine where you can find some real bargains. Shirts, slacks, dresses, jackets and more can be had for as little as a couple of dollars. Many of these stores even carry the latest name brand clothing. So if you have a child that likes the latest fashions, you may be in luck.

Discount outlets can be a great source for inexpensive clothing. Again, name brand clothing as well as off names can be found in these stores at significant savings. In exchange for the great prices, you may just need to invest a little time to search the racks for those great pieces of clothing.

Consignment shops are another great resource for finding trendy clothing. Some people just get tired of wearing the same clothes and decide to get a little cash for those items. Many times clothing in consignment shops shows very little wear and tear.

Trading with friends is another way of saving some big bucks. Kids have been lending their clothing to each other for years. Why not make it a game involving a bunch of friends and trade some of those clothes you’re a little tired of. What may be old and boring to someone else can be fresh and new to your kids.

Thankfully, there are not too many electronic devices that are essential for school. Calculators can be found at a reasonable price at many discount stores or you may know someone who has a slightly used one sitting in a drawer. Computers are another electronic device that can be found for much less than the going retail price if you do a little shopping. Manufacturers recondition some models due to small design flaws that do not really affect the overall performance of the machine. These reconditioned models can sometimes save you a substantial amount of money.

Don’t forget to check newspaper circulars and internet sources for sales and coupons. If you plan on shopping at one of the popular retail stores, check their website for coupons and sales before you go.

Get your kids involved in the back-to-school shopping experience. Just think. They will have had their first lesson in reading, writing, and arithmetic before the school bell actually rings.

August 17, 2009

Solar Power in the Sunshine State (Part II)

By James Stevenson, Extension Specalist, Pinellas County Extension

Photo-voltaic Electricity Generation

In Solar Power in the Sunshine State (Part I), we explored the benefits of including solar power in your overall energy-efficiency package. We then looked closely at the various water-heating systems that can save you approximately 20% of your monthly power bill.

This time we will cover making electricity from sunlight and some of the many ways switching to solar can make you money.

Converting sunlight is to electricity is a fascinating and only slightly complex process.

Light from the sun is referred to as solar electromagnetic radiation. This radiation is made up of little bundles of energy called photons which can behave like waves (think: microwaves and radio waves) as well as behaving like an object with physical properties. The wave-like radiation is broken down into five categories based on the wavelengths; these include familiar UV radiation as well as visible light.

When the photons behave like objects they can produce electricity. When these “solar fastballs” strike certain atoms, they can knock them with such force as to disrupt the electrons associated with those atoms. This disruption causes a release of energy and makes the electrons “excited”. When these “excited” electrons move in a particular direction this is referred to as “current.” Sound familiar?

The current produced is Direct Current (DC), which needs to be converted to Alternating Current (AC) for practical use. In order to do this you need a photovoltaic (PV) device. PV converters have very few parts: a surface covered with a material made up of “excitable” electrons, a simple magnet to move those electrons in one direction, a converter that will change DC power to AC, and the most important part: the Sun.

Currently the most popular material used to provide electrons for knocking about is silicon. Now, silicon is a pretty abundant material, it is what sand is made of. But getting PURE silicon is a tricky and expensive procedure. This makes PV systems costly. Other concerns with silicon are the production process and environmental impacts. However compared to the environmental, social, and geo-political impacts of our dependence on oil as our primary energy source, and solar comes up looking pretty good! In addition, materials other than silicone are being researched, with some success.

Some think that the heat of the sun is somehow a factor in producing PV electricity. Interestingly, the system works a bit less efficiently in extremely high temperatures. Therefore, even though the desert southwest of the US may receive more hours of daylight than Florida, the heat there makes PV systems much more inefficient, therefore making Florida nearly perfect for efficient solar energy production.

There are incentives for including solar energy, both thermal and photo-voltaic into your energy system. Any solar energy system, including the more affordable water-heating systems, is not subject to sales tax. In addition, you can claim 30% of the total cost of the project (including installation) as an income tax write-off as long as the system is operational by December 31st 2010. There is currently a measure before the Florida lawmakers that would prevent the addition of solar technology from adding to a home’s value and driving up the taxable value of that home.

If you are interested in learning more about Solar Power in the Sunshine State, please join us on Saturday, August 22nd here at Pinellas County Extension for a solar energy workshop. Experts from Progress Energy and the Solar Source Institute will be giving lectures and answering questions from 9:30 – 12:00. In addition several local vendors of solar products and services will be displaying their good in a mini-trade show, all right in our main auditorium.

This class is $15 and registration is required by Thursday, August 20. We can not accept walk-ins on the day as space is limited. To register, visit and select the “Online Class Registration” button. Then look for the Sustainable Living tab. We hope to see you there!

August 10, 2009

Embryology or Egg to Chick

By Betty Lipe, Extension Specialist, Pinellas County Extension

Have you ever thought about hatching fertile eggs for the educational experience? Embryology is an established way to teach the life sciences. Here are some things you need to consider:

~Setting up the incubator - The incubators commonly used in home or classroom operations are small Styrofoam units with a wafer or controller that regulates when the unit turns on and off. These can be purchased at the local feed store or on line at numerous sites. By doing a search for “incubator” you get a number of different suppliers. A thermometer is placed in the incubator so that it is resting at the height of the center of the egg. This allows the incubator to be run at 100 degrees which is a good hatching temperature. Water is placed in the center portion of the bottom to add humidity.

~Setting the eggs and how to care for them – when setting the eggs in the incubator, place a pencil mark on each side such as an “X” and “O”, this way you can tell when the eggs have been turned. Marker is not used as the ink can be toxic to the unborn chick. Eggs are then turned 3 times a day until day 18. Keep records of the time the eggs were turned and the temperature in the incubator at the time of turning. This is very important if you ever have to trouble shoot a problem with the incubator. The first 4 days are critical that the temperature, turning, humidity, and air flow are kept at the optimum level. The last 4 days are as important that the extra humidity and added airflow will make for a better hatch.

~Types of eggs - The easiest eggs to incubate are chicken eggs particularly those from white leghorn varieties. These are easy to candle and hatch in 21 days. Duck eggs which are larger and heavier, take a longer period (28) days and require much more humidity than chicken eggs. Whether you choose chicken, duck, quail, or any other species of bird, be sure you understand the hatch time and temperature needed for a good hatch.

~Development of a chick – In just 21 days, the embryo goes from a white germinal disk on the yolk to full grown chicks. To see the day-by-day development, go to:

~Hatching – On the day of hatch the chick begins to opens the egg from the inside with its egg tooth. At first you will see a small hole and as the day goes by the hole will get longer and longer. The chick is also pushing with its legs and back which is necessary so that it will be strong enough to survive when it gets out of the egg. After struggling for up to 24 hours the chick finally gets out of the shell. It is wet and tired, but within a few minutes will struggle to its feet. If a chick was in a poultry yard this would be a necessity as predators wait to prey on weak hatchlings.

~Brooder box - When the chicks are completely dry they are transferred to a brooder box. This is a large container of wood, plastic, or cardboard with food, water and a light to keep them warm. Always check the requirements of the chicks you are hatching. The chicks stay in the brooder box or brooder area until the temperature in the brooder is the same temperature as the outside air. Since the brooder starts out at 95- 98 degrees and only is lowered 5 degrees per week, it will be several weeks before the chicks are ready to join a flock. In the mean time they are getting their wing feathers and flight feathers and after about a week they can even hop out of a good size box unless it has a lid. The young birds are fed starter feed until they are ready to lay eggs at about 6 months. Then they are switched to a Laying mixture. For more information on raising a backyard flock check out the University of Florida website.
The embryology program can be done anywhere. Fertile eggs are available from commercial websites and can be ordered on-line.

On September 17 and 24, 2009 Pinellas County Extension will offer a two day workshop entitled Embryology 101. Everything you wanted to know about hatching eggs in two days. When you leave this program we hope that you will be comfortable with the process and interested enough to try it yourself. Go to the website and click the on-line registration button and look for Sept. 17.

Additional sources of information

August 3, 2009

Solar Power in the Sunshine State (part 1)

By: James Stevenson, Extension Specialist, Pinellas County Extension

Solar Thermal

Using the sun’s energy to power our lives is really nothing new; it has been around since the 70s, right? Actually humans have been using solar power as long as we have been human. Using the sun to warm our homes, dry our clothes, heat water and even defeat foes are only a few ways humans have harnessed solar power throughout the centuries. Every hour, enough sunlight reaches the earth to meet the world’s energy needs for a year.

With almost too-late attention being paid to renewable energy sources, the sun is again front-and-center in Florida’s energy future.

We enjoy an average of 200 sunny days here in the Sunshine State. In addition, Florida has 85% of the maximum solar resource available in the US, only being outdone by the southwestern states.

Yet with all this free solar energy, we still depend on non-renewable resources that are not even produced in Florida. 37% of our energy comes from burning coal. Although coal is very abundant in the US, it still needs to be transported to Florida’s power plants. In 2008, the US IMPORTED 34,000 tons of coal from countries as far away as Australia, Indonesia and China.

Next on the list is petroleum. It is no surprise that we depend on foreign oil to power our lives. But did you realize the scale? In April 2009, the US imported 360 million barrels of oil. Just in April.

21% of our power plants are fueled with natural gas. Our very own Progress Energy just this year switched from its oil-fired units to a combined natural gas/steam turbine system. The pipeline that supplies our natural gas stretches from Mobile Bay in Alabama, across the Gulf of Mexico and into Manatee.

Florida has several nuclear power plants as well, and combined they provide 18% of our energy needs. This leaves us with 3%; the amount of renewable energy that is consumed in Florida. This is a combination of solar, wind and geothermal.

Solar energy comes in the form of light and heat. Energy produced from light is called photo-voltaic and the sun’s heat is referred to as solar thermal.

It is possible to take advantage of solar thermal power and depend less on your local service provider. 20% of your energy bill goes for the heating of water. A solar water heater can bring that percentage down to 0.

There are three basic types of solar water heaters available in Florida; the pumped, or direct circulation system, the integral collector storage (ICS) system and the thermo-siphon system.

All these systems involve some sort of solar heat collecting device usually placed on the roof. Within this structure (flat rectangular metal boxes) are pipes containing the potable water supply from the household.

A pumped, or direct circulation system, uses an electric pump to bring the water into the rooftop heating unit, and then, once heated, into a holding tank back on the ground. A controller regulates the movement of water through the system, using a series of thermostats and valves.

The integral collector storage (ICS) system uses the home’s water pressure to circulate water through the system. With this set-up the rooftop unit actually serves as a storage unit, not just a heating chamber. On demand, water is pulled from this rooftop tank into a small auxiliary tank.

The thermo-siphon system uses thermophysics (!) to work. Cool water is introduced into the collector on the roof, at the bottom of the collector. As the water is heated it expands and rises to the top of the chamber and out into a holding tank, also on the roof. Then, just as the ICS system, the home’s water pressure drives the system and brings heated water back down to ground level.

ICS and thermo-siphon systems do not require the electric pump or controller to keep things moving. Those two components may also be powered by sunlight as well, with the light being transformed directly into electricity, or by photo-voltaics. This fascinating and very modern technology will be our next Timely Topic.