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Friends of the Hammock Park winning war on air potatoes
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Photo courtesy of SUE HUMPHREYS
The Friends of the Hammock and the city have been working to eradicate air potatoes in Dunedin’s Hammock Park. A training program for volunteers is scheduled on Saturday, Feb. 6, 9 a.m.
DUNEDIN – Sue Humphreys has horror stories to tell about the Friends of the Hammock’s arch enemy – the air potato.

She, like other members of the volunteer organization, have been fighting the spread of the invasive plant for years.

Humprheys lives on the edge of Hammock Park, which is at 1945 San Mateo Drive in Dunedin. She recalled making an effort to rid her yard of air potatoes, a creeping vine, behind her house and to keep them off trees.

“I literally had to crawl on my hands and knees to get through the massive overgrowth of invasive plants,” she said.

However, the defenders of the park have the upper hand in their efforts to eradicate air potatoes. So much so that they are discontinuing their annual air-potato roundups. Instead, they are seeking volunteers to adopt a portion of the park to remove any young spuds that will crop up and remove other additional invasive plants, such as the Boston fern.

For two decades hundreds of people have participated in one of the Air Potato Roundup at Hammock Park, sponsored by the city of Dunedin and the Friends of the Hammock. The air-potato threat to the park was so great that the program was expanded from a January roundup to include a November-December Roundup. Tons of air potatoes were removed from each event.

The Friends and the city found another ally in tiny red and black beetles obtained from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. They released 600 Air Potato Leaf Beetles into the park in September 2013.

“We put them out there and those little beetles are now in other people’s backyards. They have been happily eating there way through their potato vines and now moving beyond the park to move into other areas where people aren’t keeping watch on it,” Humphreys said.

The bugs don’t eat vegetation that the Friends are trying to preserve. The University of Florida’s Food and Agricultural Sciences tested the beetle for several years.

“They tested it on all kinds of things but it was eating nothing but the air potato vine,” Humphreys said.

However, even with the success of controlling the air potato vine, the Friends realized the Hammock faced many pressing problems. Other exotic plants, pests, erosion control, and wildlife habitat destruction needed to be addressed.

In 2012, with the recommendation of the Hammock Park Advisory Committee and the Friends of the Hammock, the city decided to establish a new 10-year management plan for Hammock Park. Bids were sent out and King Engineering Associates Inc. was chosen to do the study in 2013. The Friends of the Hammock contributed $2,875 to defray some of the city’s cost for the plan, the Friends said in a news release.

The plan revealed what was suspected by all those involved in invasive removal. As hard as volunteers and the city worked to conquer exotic plants in the Hammock, a piecemeal approach would never control the foreign plants and trees that threatened native growth, the release said.

A concentrated all-or-nothing approach was needed to protect the Hammock. In the spring of 2015 Bio-Tech Consulting Inc. was hired to remove all damaging invasive growth with a combination of chemical and mechanical removal, the news release said.

To date, 10 of 13 zones, established in the management plan have been cleared of all non-native trees such as Senegal Date Palms, citrus trees, Brazilian pepper, invasive shrubbery, as well as the few remaining air potato vines, the release said.

In a new adoption program, volunteers will be assigned a zone of the park, trained to recognize, report and remove invasive species, as well as be introduced to new volunteer opportunities including creating a specific photo archive as new native plants are able to reclaim their place in the Hammock, recording gopher tortoise population and activity within a zone, and even measuring water table levels within the park to record the status of rehydration efforts.

“We want people to come in and adopt a zone. Ten of the 16 are ready for adoption,” she said.

Clearing is expected to be underway in the spring on the remaining zones

“Those other six will become available for adoption. We would like to get two or three people or a group into each zone,” Humphreys said.

The first training program for volunteers is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 6, 9 a.m., at the picnic area of the main entrance to the park off San Mateo Drive.

“The beauty of this adoption program is that volunteers work on their own schedule as their time allows,” Humphreys said.

Lanie Sheets, city parks superintendent, believes the city is making great progress in efforts to control the air potatoes.

“We know it will be an ongoing situation. It was a battle that the air potatoes were winning for many, many years. Through some combined efforts of contractual help that we were able to do some of the heavy lifting. Along with great volunteers and with the release of the air potato beetle last year – a three pronged approach – we were finally to a point where it used to be everywhere and now you have to go looking for it,” Sheets said. “We are in a great place now.”

The park is heavily used, she said.

“Not only do the residents of Dunedin absolutely love that park, but we have people that come here from neighboring cities come to walk the Hammock,” Sheets said.

Additional training sessions will be conducted monthly as volunteers become available.

Registration is at www.h­ammoc­kpark­.org or call Humphreys at 736-3662.
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