By Master Gardener Volunteer Lesley Arrandale
As I write in early December, thankfully both temperatures and humidity have mellowed, although we may still be in for warmer days since this is Florida. My vegetables are coming along nicely, with few insects to trouble them. Fruits of some of our berry-bearing trees and shrubs are still maturing, and will be ready for the birds through the winter, while acorns and hickory nuts are keeping the squirrels busy.
A surprise appearance in my yard is a flower spike from my Agave americana (century plant). It is currently about 15 feet tall with potential to grow taller — although the cooler weather will likely limit growth — and it is proving to be a honey bee magnet. One high-up flower cluster is infested with black aphids, which a tiny warbler has been enjoying. As the weather cools and days shorten, any nectar-bearing flowers are a gift for pollinators. Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), violas like Johnny jump-up (Viola tricolor) and pansies (Viola x Wittrockiana) are welcome additions, brightening up containers or borders. The weather is mild enough for my clump of firespike (Odontonema cuspidatum) to continue flowering.
January and February are usually the colder months of the year, when live oaks shed their leaves for weeks and we rake and gather them for mulch or to compost. If you have more leaves than you need for mulch, share them with a gardening neighbor, add them to a mixed compost pile, or simply heap them in a back corner of your yard to slowly break down into leaf mold over the coming year. It is an ideal soil conditioner for both sandy and heavy soils. If this doesn’t work for you, be glad that the city will compost them for us.
While it may be your inclination to keep a tidy yard, trimming back seed heads can deprive birds of winter food. As perennials and grasses fade, I see them with a different eye: the low winter sun backlights plants quite dramatically and chopped off stems are less than elegant. More practically, the shelter provided by fading foliage can insulate plants and overwintering insects from the cold, and often those insects are beneficial; ideally we should wait for spring before we cut them back. Leaving plants untrimmed till spring when they show signs of growth also ensures that we don’t trim more than necessary.
Perennials can be wonderful plants that keep on giving. Along with a framework of deciduous and evergreen shrubs, and perhaps a few disease resistant roses, they can provide color throughout the year in a classic mixed border (“Bourbon,” “China,” “Bermuda,” “Tea” — not hybrid tea — and shrub roses usually require the least care). For a description of reliable perennials for our area, check out https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg035. Why settle for a boring hedge to screen that chain link fence when a mixed border could be so much more attractive? By choosing appropriate plants, in any situation, you could avoid regular pruning and just tidy the border as needed.
Last year I sowed runner (climbing) beans too late in the spring to get a good crop, which was foolish. It really helps to check the Florida Vegetable Gardeners Guide (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/vh021). The North Florida Gardening Calendar (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep451) is very useful for general gardening tips and includes links to sources for more specific information as well, all from the trusted University of Florida website. You can always find the latest edition of A New Leaf here: http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/duval/lawns-gardens-and-trees/new-leaf-newsletter/. To be added to the mailing list, contact Sarah Freeman at (904) 255-7450 or SFreeman@coj.net.
Happy New Year!