By Master Gardener Lesley Arrandale

Did your resolutions this year include an intention to spruce up your yard? Do you need to replenish your mulch? Improve the soil in your vegetable garden? Any number of tasks await the homeowner who enjoys their yard and gardens, and in the still-cooler months it makes sense to get to work.

It’s time for careful planning. For me, this probably means I should cut back on the more complicated aspects of gardening and concentrate on simplifying what I do. And surely this applies to anyone who wants to enjoy their gardening without continuing to expend a lot of time and effort, so here are a few thoughts.

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Instead of small rings of mulch around individual trees or shrubs in an area of lawn, widen the mulched areas to encompass several woody plants to make larger, simpler mulch islands. The mulch can even extend as far as the dripline and will look better than grass that is likely struggling to survive in the shade. Your trees will benefit by not having to compete with grass for nutrients and water, you will need less fertilizer and herbicide for the grass, and mowing smaller less complicated areas will be easier. Fallen leaves can easily be incorporated into the mulch.

In the vegetable garden, install drip irrigation, preferably on a timer. This type of system is not expensive and your efforts should be rewarded by a more consistent harvest — and your water bill should be reduced since the system will be more efficient than overhead watering. For much more information see Kits and components can be found at the big box stores.

If you like your flower beds to be colorful throughout the year, choose perennials with long bloom times instead of annuals. Plants with variegated foliage, such as some gingers, add color. Different leaf forms and varied shades of green certainly add interest to a garden. And there are exotic looking plants, like cannas, with red to purple or even stripy foliage. Avoid truly tender plants, otherwise you’ll either have to protect them from freezes, or let them succumb and plant replacements the following spring.

Dwarf shrubs, which need minimal pruning, can be backbone plants for a perennial bed. My quick internet search pulled up smaller cultivars of some well-known shrubs: Walter’s viburnum Mrs. Schiller’s Delight and Whorled Class, bottlebrush Light Show(R), leucothoe Burning Love(R), and loropetalum Purple Daydream(R). These are from Southern Living and Monrovia, and should be well suited to north Florida, but always check an individual plant’s requirements for water, soil type, light needs, and climate zone. (Please note, these are not companies that the Extension Service endorses over others; there are more growers for the south that market plants here in Jacksonville.)

If you want to encourage wildlife, native plants benefit a wide variety of beneficial insects, which are vital for raising baby birds. Shrubs provide shelter; water is a must. Butterflies need nectar and host plants on which to lay their eggs ( A yard can be a world in miniature.

Above all, don’t tackle your whole yard renovation in one go: break it down into small projects. Prioritize. Maintain established areas to avoid them going wild — weed, water, deadhead, prune, whatever is needed to keep them in order. Renovate one manageable area at a time, doing whatever is manageable for you.

Finally, don’t forget to plan space for favorite outdoor activities; mine will be a shady, secluded place to just sit and watch the birds, butterflies, and insects, and enjoy the fruits of my labor. And for timely tips to help you on your way, check out the latest edition of A New Leaf: Enjoy!

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