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Date of Issue: August 04, 2005

Sandscript

Some wet-weather thoughts to help you save a few bucks

Although it's hard to think about times of drought during Florida's wet-weather season, it's really not too early to think about how to keep plants and grass green during the drought times.

Jane Morse, the environmental horticulture agent with the Manatee County Extension Service passed along an interesting article written by Julie Waters with the University of Florida that deals with solving lawn watering issues: Soil sensors.

"The devices can cut sprinkler system water usage by more than half," she wrote.

It seems that the sensors "continuously check soil moisture levels and prevent sprinklers from operating when watering is not needed," said Michael Dukes, an assistant professor of agricultural engineering with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Smart homeowners have been using automatic sprinklers for years that turn on the system for a set period of time at a certain time of day. Really smart homeowners have tied their automatic lawn sprinkling systems into a device that measures the amount of rainfall that has hit the area. The idea has been that if we get a couple of inches of rain, the automatic sprinklers automatically don't water for a spell if the little rain gauge is showing water.

The problem is that there's no measure of the moisture in the soil taken, so if it's been dry for a while and we get a few inches of rain, the chances are good that the ground will be dry again in a short time.

Not with these soil sensors, though.

"We conducted a survey of Florida homeowners from 2002 to 2004 that showed mostly grass landscapes are typically given two-and-a-half times the water they need. The monitors we studied, priced from $75 to $350, could pay for themselves within one year in areas where the cost of water is high."

The article stated that, "On average, U.S. homeowners use almost 50 percent more water outdoors than indoors, and because lawn care accounts for most outdoor water use, homeowners who reduce unnecessary irrigation can save big on water bills."

And overwatering can be just as bad as underwatering, since too much water allows grass to develop a shallow root system that can make the turf more susceptible to drought conditions and disease.

During the UF tests, it was found that the soil sensors caused a 56-percent reduction in water usage over even those once-high tech sprinkler monitors, and had a 70-percent water-use reduction over a standard automatic system.

Another nice thing about the soil sensors is that you set 'em and forget 'em. With the rainfall readers, you've always got to fiddle with them.

Apparently the moisture monitors have sensors that can figure out how wet the ground is and then talks to the sprinkling system to shut it down if the water level is sufficient.

The soil moisture readers have been around for a while, but glitches in earlier models have been worked out and the products out there today work pretty well.

And with drinkable water being the only limit to development in Florida, conserving water is a very, very good thing - especially if you can conserve and save enough in one year to pay for the little readers.

Bugging you?

Speaking of Manatee County Extension Agent Morse, she's bugged about bugs this wet season.

"The bloodthirsty bites of the female mosquito cause many of us to have red, swollen, itchy bites that drive us to scratch our skin. Mosquito bites can also spread deadly diseases. West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalomyelitis are two diseases that mosquitoes can spread to humans."

Sure, you've probably read the tips to keep skeeters at bay dozens of times, but every year when The Islander runs a bug story, I find myself going around the house and dumping gallons and gallons of standing water out of buckets or pots or something or other.

Standing water is the breeding ground for mosquitoes and anything that can hold water for a few days will turn into a skeeter nursery.

Morse added a few places to look that I hadn't thought of this year, too. "Clean debris from rain gutters, get rid of water on and around structures like flat roofs and air-conditioning units, change the water in birdbaths and wading pools weekly, change the water in pet bowls daily, stock ornamental ponds with Gambusia fish and encourage other insects like dragonflies and aquatic beetles that feed on mosquitoes.

Although almost everybody is living in the air conditioning this time of year, there is still a need to check your screens and repair any rips or tears, especially on screened porches if you're going out for a while in the evenings or for a cup of coffee in the cooler mornings - both prime mosquito-bite times.

"Keeping mosquitoes off our skin is best done by using mosquito repellant, avoiding infested areas, and wearing light-colored, loose-fitting protective clothing," Morse said. "The Center for Disease Control recommends only three repellents: DEET (diethyl toluamide), Picaridin, and Oil of Lemon-Eucalyptus. There is no scientific evidence that sound emitting devices, or that eating garlic, vitamins, onions, or any other food will repel mosquitoes."

She said to be sure to check the label of the bug goo to make sure it will keep off the bugs you want to keep off, and check the concentration percentages to determine effectiveness length. "When using DEET, a concentration of 10-35 percent is plenty," she said. "OFF! Deep Woods with 23.8-percent DEET provides an average protection time of five hours, while Skin-So-Soft bath oil provides only 10 minutes protection time."

Morse added that you can check bug stuff effectiveness on a UF Web site, edis.ifas.ufl.edu,by going to search, then "mosquito repellents."

Bet you can't predict where the next storm will hit

... actually, though, you can.

University of Miami professors, in conjunction with the Iowa Electronic Markets, are soon to operate an electronic futures market that lets "traders" - read gamblers - to put their money where their prediction is for a hurricane landfall.

According to an article in the Orlando Sentinel, "Investors can open accounts by sending anywhere from $5 to $500. All IEM transactions are made electronically and posted in real time."

According to one of the organizers of the Miami Hurricane Event Market, and you've got to love the acronym MAHEM, the traders who buy or sell at the right time can cash in.

The University of Miami organizers hope to pull in the local knowledge of hurricane waters in the system to increase the information available on storm landfalls. A fifth-generation commercial fisher, say, may have a better grasp of a prevailing offshore current during September than one of the National Hurricane Center computer models, UM folks offer.

MAHEN's Web site is mahem.miami.edu. It is scheduled to be up and running in time for the next named storm. Good luck.

Red tide to the north, too

With another wave of red tide causing fish kills off Anna Maria Island, between sneezes and coughs you may be interested in an update of the red tide bloom off New England.

Earlier this year, red tide hit the waters off Cape Cod, closing most of the shellfish beds, killing fish and generally making life miserable for commercial fishing interests. It's a different strain of the algae than we've got in Southwest Florida - there's very little nose-throat irritation from the northern component - but the financial impact is just as great.

Good news for them, though. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ran some limited tests a couple weeks ago and found that "based on surveys over the last couple of weeks, there appears to be only low concentrations of cells remaining in both the Mass Bay and Southern New England sampling domains."

Sandscript factoid

According to Morse, you can promote plant health by "watering in the early morning when dew is still present. Water grass only when it wilts and soil is dry. Apply 3/4 inch of water to turf each time you water."

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