Garden Q&A: Hey, who ate my pentas? – Florida Times-Union
I could not believe my eyes. My perky purple pentas were stripped of foliage in one night. How could that happen?
After questions and pictures, we identified the culprits as Tersa sphinx larva. They look a bit like little snakes. They can be green or brown in color and have one large eyespot with 6 smaller ones trailing down the body and a small horn on the rear end. These caterpillars love to dine on Pentas lanceolata.
If you prefer your Pentas to watching the life cycle of these cats, slip on your garden gloves and manually remove the caterpillars. Drop them into a bucket of soapy water. (When you see them floating you will know they are dead.)
You must be at least one step ahead of these caterpillars, because like many of us, these creatures find Florida to be just right. Check all the plants around the first plant where you first discovered the crawly caterpillars, to make sure you have gotten them all. Now look for the next generation. Just because you got rid of the giants it does not mean you have removed the problem. Or you can do nothing, observe and watch the whole life cycle take place in your garden. They are a great life-cycle lesson for kids, and make great dining for birds.
Where did they come from? They fly as a brood. Think back, do you remember seeing some unusually large moths flying up from the grass or foliage? That is Mom, who was pupating underground. She lays the eggs on the penta leaves and the hatchlings devour the leaves. They become caterpillars as part of their lifecycle, becoming the Tersa sphinx larva.
If you do not want the caterpillars to turn into pupa and then adult moths you must get rid of the caterpillars or the pupa (resting stage). They have some natural predators — vertebrates such as birds, skunks and rodents consume larvae and pupae readily. If none of these predators are hanging around, the best thing to do is reach for the biological solution, Bacillus thuringiensis. Spraying the young caterpillars as they are eating will do the job. Success in defeating these penta lovers also means spraying the foliage when the larvae first appear. For more information on Tersa sphinx larva go to: www.silkmoths.bizland.com/Sphinx/xterster.htm.
I keep hearing a lot about how important composting is in North Florida, but it sounds like a messy, labor intensive process. Is it worth it?
Yes! Yes! Yes! The reason we have such enthusiasm for composting is that North Florida soil is not always healthy enough to produce vigorous, hearty plants. Compost is a soil amendment that provides organic matter to our soil and therefore plants, with the needed nutrients. Creating compost is an environmental way to reduce the amount of solid waste that goes to the landfill and provide beneficial product for your garden.
The composting process need not be labor intensive. In fact, you can start small and build until you are making all the compost you need for your garden. Generally, gardeners start with a 3-cubic-foot compost pile in a 3-by-3-by-3-foot enclosure. Some gardeners don’t even use an enclosure. They just find an appropriate place in their yard and start a pile on the ground. The pile need only be sheltered from drying wind and within easy reach of a water hose.
The most important thing to know about a compost pile is the ratio of carbon (brown materials) and nitrogen (green materials) to put in the pile. This is called the carbon-to-nitrogen, C/N ratio. It is generally 30/1. Simply put, that means 30 parts carbon material to 1 part nitrogen material. The reason the ratio is important is that you want the pile to heat up so that microorganisms can go to work to break down the pile into rich, useful compost for the garden.
What do we mean by brown and green material? Brown (carbon) can be leaves, chipped up twigs or branches, shredded newspaper, or cardboard. Green material (nitrogen) includes grass clippings, kitchen scraps (fruits and vegetables, egg shells, coffee grounds and herbaceous plants.) Avoid seed-laden weeds or diseased plant material.
It is a good idea to start the bottom layer with material that will allow air into the pile; small branches or other material that leave a bit of open space between pieces. Then layer brown and green, about 3-4 inches of each, until your pile reaches about 3 feet high. It is important to water each layer as you put it down. The layers should be quite moist, but not wet. The new pile will heat up rapidly. After 4-7 days it will cool down and that’s when you grab your pitchfork and take 10 or 15 minutes to turn it (mix it up). This also allows material on the outside of the pile to be moved into the middle so it will heat up evenly, therefore speeding up the process.
In 5 or 6 weeks your compost will be ready to use. It should be crumbly and brown. You can use it as a potting soil after mixing with other material such as perlite or vermiculite to improve drainage. It can be used as mulch and some folks make “compost tea” by soaking a couple of handfuls of compost wrapped in cheesecloth in water. They then use it to water plants. You can find much more information at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep323.
Karl Zedell Sr. is a master gardener with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS. If you have gardening questions, you can speak to a master gardener from 9:30 a.m. to noon and 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Duval extension office at (904) 255-7450.
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