Are there Moles in Florida?

“Are there moles here?” I once asked as a child visiting my Grandma in Florida. My Grandpa over heard us and immediately saw a teachable moment. He offered to show me a real mole. What kid could resist? Out we went to the backyard with shovels and visions of cute beaver-toothed hamsters in my head. As soon as we got out there a couple of other-people’s Grandpas came over to help with the search and some tentative digging ensued. Confused, I dug in and chunked out a huge shovelful. I examined the spadeful of soil for big game. Another chunk out of the grass. And another. “Not so deep!” the Grandpas exclaimed in unison. I was deeply confused. I was going for a six inch long animal about the size of a slicked down chipmunk-squirrel. Something like this:

A horrible vicious beast, all rubbery whiskers and spade-like paws

The Grandpas were picking around so tentatively, I thought they were nuts. “Ah, here is one” one of the Grandpas declared and held out his hand.

Really?!? Is that all you got? That thing is just a CRICKET!

I was kind of angry that a bunch of Grandpas did not even know that a mole was a furry mammal that was like a subterranean squirrel with interesting rubbery nose things and were trying to trick me with a joke of a big grasshopper. As you can see, I never quite got over it. In hindsite, I can see they were talking about creatures they referred to as “moles” in their neighborhood and really had no idea what a real mole was. I remain appalled that the Average Grandpa had so little knowledge of insects/moles/mammals vs. cold blooded beasts. Was the public school system so bad in their day that they really got these things mixed up? Sigh.

For all you gardeners out there fighting real moles, here is a link to the Extension Service. They never get mammals and insects confused. link to the Florida Extension Service’s info on moles in lawns.



This week was finals week at most US colleges, so I am saluting our burned out students with a post about Energy drinks. These have been very popular for the past few years, offering a burst of sugar, caffeine, and magical herbal substances including Guarana. The main chemical ingredient in Guarana is caffeine. It also contains some antioxidants and theobromine (of chocolate fame) and theophylline which are heart stimulants.

In South America, the Guarana plant has been used for centuries as a stimulant and memory enhancer. No wonder students drink the stuff.

According to tropical lore, the berries from the Guarana plant are processed and dried and then pounded into a dry powder. The powder is added to water and a dough results which is rolled out into small cylinders. It is known as Brazilian coke. It is used by grating into a beverage and sweetened to taste. It is more popular in Brazil than cola drinks. It is so widely known that the word for soda is often “Guarana” regardless of the flavor of the beverage. The most popular brand is the Antarctica soft drink. More caffeine is consumed in South America from guarana than from coffee and colas combined.

There is some evidence to suggest Guarna has some health effects. In the ‘Pharmacological Activity of Guarana (Paullinia cupana) in laboratory Animals’ by Espinola, E.B. Dias RF et al J. Ethnopharmcol 55 (3); 223-9, it increased memory and endurance when compared to a placebo in rats.

In humans, memory, alertness and mood were increased by moderate doses. It is also generally recognised as safe by the US government. Since the main effects seem to be from the caffeine, I cannot say whether it would do much more than a cup or two of coffee, but whatever floats your boat. The main thing that will help you do better on exams is more studying. If a soft drink with mystical powers is your drug of choice, it may allow you to study more. I would think unstimulated study sessions and a good night’s sleep would be the best, but I am just a Mom, not a brain scientist. Good luck, kids.

Ivy Growing up a Maple Tree

I must comment on an article I recently read in a free gardening newsletter found in a diner. I hope this is not where most gardeners find their information. In the newsletter there was a question and answer column with highly suspect advice. The questioner wrote in asking if English Ivy

    Hedera helix

was hurting his maple tree as it was climbing up the trunk. I think the question was, maybe, wondering if the vine was some kind of parasite.

I have observed ivy climbing many houses, trees, fences, etc. and I can fairly well state that unless the tree is really weak and would fall down from the weight of the vine, it is really fine. The vine is just using the tree, or whatever, as support and is in no way a parasite*. It also cannot possibly overwhelm a big tree like a maple or oak.

Let me quote the fine answer this columnist gave:

“The plant is an aggressive climbing vine.”…”As the ivy climbs in search of increased light, it consumes and kills branches by blocking light from the tree’s leaves.”

I have never seen this occur. I have, however, seen ivy with no damage to the branches/trees for over fifty years of growing up the trunks. The columnist does not mention one slight problem with vines growing up a tree trunk and that is gypsy moth.

In the “old days” when gypsy moth was in its glory days and just moving into the midwest, it munched on many species of trees in residential areas. After feeding, the females seek a secret area to lay eggs. Since the pregnant females can hardly walk, they are so full of eggs, they like to walk down the trunks of trees and lay eggs under the cover of vines which are growing up the trunk. I would often find eggmasses hidden amoungst English ivy leaves.

This is

    not now

a real problem since gypsy moth has settled into a more moderate pest status with predators, parasites and diseases keeping it in check.

Back to this fine article:

“On the ground, English Ivy forms dense monocultures that exclude native plants, not just weeds. It also serves as a host for bacterial leaf scorch, a pathogen harmful to elms, oaks, maples, and other native plants.”

It does neither. I suppose this author has never supervised a landscape crew pulling weeds and “native” plants out of a bed of ivy. As for the unnamed bacterial leaf scorch, I know of no pathogen that attacks that wide of an array of plants and certainly not that array and ivy doesn’t get anything. Bizarre.

This goes on:

“Maple roots…With a mat of ivy on top are short-changed of water, and nutrients.”

Well, except for the fact that a maple tree has roots going all over in a very wide pattern and the ivy is usually in a small planting bed around the tree. I guess if the ivy was planted in a really huge bed, it would steal food from the tree about 5% but it doesn’t have the ability to block water that much. As for nutrients, that tree will get food just fine. The ivy is not that heavy a feeder.

I am weary of this odd question and answer. One of the things I have always disliked about gardening is there is a lot of wacky advice out there. I will put this article in my category of “wives’ tales.” Here is my advice to my loyal readers, do not get your gardening information from your local diner.

*Regarding parasitic vines, the reader may want to view a previous post on the true parasitic plant, Dodder.

Now a little about Potassium

After discussing Nitrogen and Phosphorus, we come to the third essential element for plant nutrition, Potassium (K). Potassium exists in most soils and minerals that are naturally occurring. It is rarely deficient in plants at normal pH levels. It is used by all cells in the sodium/ potassium balance across cell walls; just one of its many uses. Like Nitrogen and Phosphorus, it is essential in many processes in all living things.

Chemical fertilizers contain Potassium as a soluble salt usually in the form of potassium chloride (KCL), potassium sulfate (KSO4) or potassium nitrate (KNO3). It is usually mined out of the earth and purified from high potassium containing minerals. I learned this about potassium from Wikipedia and just had to share it.

“Into the 19th century, niter-beds were prepared by mixing manure with either mortar or wood ashes, common earth and organic materials such as straw to give porosity to a compost pile typically 1.5×2×5 meters in size.[3] The heap was usually under a cover from the rain, kept moist with urine, turned often to accelerate the decomposition and leached with water after approximately one year. Dung-heaps were a particularly common source: ammonia from the decomposition of urea and other nitrogenous materials would undergo bacterial oxidation to produce various nitrates, primarily calcium nitrate, which could be converted to potassium nitrate by the addition of potash from wood ashes.

A variation on this process, using only urine, straw and wood ash, is described by LeConte: Stale urine is placed in a container of straw hay and is allowed to sour for many months, after which water is used to wash the resulting chemical salts from the straw. The process is completed by filtering the liquid through wood ashes and air-drying in the sun.[3]”

The old name “Potash” comes from the ashes cooked in a pot with some form of Calcium nitrate could yield potassium nitrate and could be used as fertilizer. Nowadays we do not need to save our horse’s stale urine as potassium is commonly available in any complete fertilizer inexpensively.

A note about the old system of saving ash from a fire is due here. Many gardeners still believe that wood ashes (KCO3) are good to put in the garden straight from the fireplace. The form of potassium right from the fire is potassium carbonate and is a soluble salt which acts very similarly to sodium chloride which is table salt. Imagine table salt put on your plants in the garden. It would not take too much to get a salty solution floating around the roots in the soil moisture. When the concentration of salts is more intense outside the root, than inside the root, the soil draws water out of the root to try to equalize the concentrations. This leads to dehydration of the root as water is drawn out through the cell membrane. Plants will look wilted and droopy even though the soil appears moist. You do not want to use wood ashes much around plants for this reason. When the wood ashes (KCO3) are mixed with a form of Nitrate (ie. CaNO3) , such as the animal urines noted above, the soluble salts switch cations and become potassium nitrate and Calcium carbonate.
If you do not want to take my advice and skip the wood ashes just be aware that it can be very strong and at times harm the plants.

As we touched on already, one of the characteristics of potassium is that it comes in the form of a soluble salt. As such, it dissolves well in water and may leach away. Potassium is needed when the plant is making fruits especially, so be sure to use a complete fertilizer in the vegetable garden.

Now going back to the first post about plant nutrition, this whole topic was suggested by an alert reader who had a friend who was watering her flowers with Propel brand sports drink to give them potassium. I think by now we are ready to do the math on how much potassium she was getting in the drink and whether that was a kooky but not ill-advised thing to do.

Propel water contains potassium citrate which is about 38%K. Each bottle contains 100 mg of potassium citrate which equals 38 mg of potassium. A bottle of Propel water costs $.75. The Potassium in the sports drink costs .00000837 pounds for $.75. Hmmm. I think I’ll go buy some Rapid-Gro.

A Brief Tale of Phosphorus

A brief post about Phosphorus continues our series of Plant Nutrient posts. Yesterday, we spoke about Nitrogen as the primary macronutrient needed by plants. Today we pick up the theme with the second most important nutrient, Phosphorus.

Phosphorus is another element on the periodic table of chemicals. It is second only to Nitrogen as a very important nutrient needed by plants. In fact, all organisms need it as it is the base structure of cell membranes, and the energy carrying molecule in living things. It is usually found in commercial fertilizer in the form of P2O5. naturally occurring rocks such as apatite contain large amounts of phosphorus and are the source, in soil of the element in nature.

The thing to remember about Phosphorus is that it is never water-soluble. As opposed to Nitrogen which is always leaching away with water, once Phosphorus is in the soil, it stays where it is put and binds tightly to soil particles. It is therefore commonly abundant to most soils and additional fertilizers containing it are seldom needed. A soil test of your garden soil will tell you whether the native soil is already well supplied with Phosphorus and if it is, you will not need to worry about the concentration in your fertilizer.

If you add Phosphorus that is not needed, it can bind to silt and run off into natural waterways causing troublesome extraneous levels of fertility in lakes and streams. Foaming along the edges of waterways is usually from Phosphorus runoff. This can cause an overgrowth of algae and seaweed that cause an imbalance in the body of water leading to depletion of Oxygen for fish, etc. Extra phosphorus is not only a source of pollution but is an unnecessary expense. In limestone based soil, which is most of the cultivable United States, you usually do not need to use anymore than 5% Phosphorus in your fertilizer. If your soil tests low in Phosphorus, use of up to 12% may be warranted but seldom more than that. Remember, pouring fertilizer on the top of the soil leaves a heavy layer of insoluble Phosphorus at the very top and not much penetration down into the rest of the root zone. A good way to apply it is when you are turning over the soil with a rototiller or plow and can incorporate Phosphorus deep into the field.

Phosphorus is the second number in the three number sequence on the fertilizer bag. It is an expensive component and makes up the majority of the cost of production of a fertilizer. The most expensive sources of Phosphorus are water-soluble forms specially created to be watered in. An example of this is Rapid Gro or Miracle Gro where the product is applied to individual plants by a watering can. These are only economical when used in very small batches applied to specialty crops such as vegetable gardens of flowers. They have been advertised over the years as extra good for flowers and fruit. Although plants do use a little more to make these structures, not a whole lot more are used versus a plant you are growing for foliage such as grass. The main response you see from applying water-soluble fertilizers to flowers and such is from the Nitrogen, not the Phosphorus.

While we are on growth responses from fertilizers, I’ll throw in another old wives’ tale. There is one stating that if your flowers do not flower and grow only green leaves, your fertilizer is out of balance and you have given too much Nitrogen and not enough Phosphorus. Usually the reason that your flowers do not flower is lack of sunlight. Both Nitrogen and Phosphorus are need for flowering and seldom is Phosphorus deficiency to blame for lack of flowers. At the most, the flowers may be stunted and smallish, but if it is going to have flowers, it will. More tomorrow on the third macronutrient, Potassium.

New Category: Old Wives’ Tales

An alert reader had two observations from the world around him. He was in a new area and noticed that the horticulturists painted the trunks of trees white and they filled the cavities of tree trunks with cement. Both of these, I think, are in the category of old wives’ tales. Both are based on partial truths and a lot of tradition. So with apologies to the old wives, let’s examine these practices.

First, the white painting on tree trunks. It is my belief that this got started way back in Europe with lime sulfur. Lime sulfur is a slurry of stuff that coats insect eggs and kills them pretty well. If you have a tree in the dormant condition, you spray this noxious smelling gunk on them to kill scale and insect eggs. It works partially so it has become wildly popular again for non-chemical pesticide spraying. I would use it myself for scale as it dries the shell of the insect out without hurting the tree. The lime makes the tree kind of white-ish. The lighter color also has the effect of reflecting winter sun. Sometimes in the winter, the sun comes out on a cold day and shines warmly on the trunks of frozen trees. It is possible that the trunk warms up, and thaws. Later that night when the warm sun sets, the trunks very rapidly cool down. Since the outer layers of the trunk freeze faster than the center, the trunk can contract on the outside and crack, leaving a nasty open split. Painting the trunk white with lime reflects the sun, avoids the warming and the subsequent cracking. The weather conditions that cause this are very particular, and in practical situations, very rare. But rare or not, this CAN happen and lime can help with this. The lime spray has been used by orchardists for hundreds of years for weak insect control and frost crack prevention. In my opinion, lime is not very effective for either purpose but I do admit that it can help a little bit. In any case, lime sulfur would not generally be harmful so at worst it is a waste of your time, and at best it may be beneficial. Is it worth my time or trouble? No. Is it steeped in folklore of miraculous insect prevention and frost protection? Yes. You decide on whether to paint your trunks or not.

Now that is the original recipe for the whitewash for tree trunks. Without knowing exactly why, people have it in their heads that trunks need to be painted white. So then they use latex paint. Lime sulfur may be a harmless horticultural practice but latex paint is not. Latex paint can be suffocating to the tree cells underneath it. It can cause the cells to necrose and die. This can cause very bad dead areas in the protective “skin” on the tree and resulting rotten areas. So, tree trunks painted white? Not necessary and usually done by people who have a lot of time on their hands with nothing better to do.

The next old wives’ tale is cement in the cavities. First of all, if your tree trunk is so rotten that it has a big cavity that a squirrel or bear might live in and you want to fill it with cement, you need to get a new tree. Filling trees is an old-time tree technique that is avoided nowadays because proper trimming and tree removal when trees are unsafe are better strategies. Can you imagine the lawsuits that would be filed in this country if you left a street tree standing that had a big hole in it and then a storm knocked it down on someone’s house or car? No, a hollow tree is a weak tree and a tree filled with cement may be sturdier but it is brittle. Wind can knock over those kinds of trees in a big storm. I would not do it. Old wives’ tale #2.

Please send me your other dubious horticultural practices; I like this new category!

P.S. Old wives’ tale #3 was just discussed a couple of days ago. Ants are NOT necessary for peony buds to open. They just like eating the sugar.