Gardening | Weather and the winter garden

By Lesley Arrandale, Master Gardener

As we all know, recovery from natural disasters is a slow process. Jacksonville was hard hit by Hurricane Irma, and we are still recovering. There are even some ongoing consequences from Matthew for some of our neighbors. As I write in early December, hundreds of thousands of people in California have fled from rapidly moving wildfires whipped up by strong Santa Ana winds, which are expected to continue for some days. These events are a powerful reminder for us all, that we are vulnerable to forces outside our control. In Florida, too, we have to beware of fire, and we know now just how devastating it is when our St Johns River floods so badly.

If you live in a subdivision with lawns and deciduous trees in the landscape, you are likely at low risk from fire. If your property abuts, or is surrounded by a natural, wooded area it makes sense to assess your situation, which is where this publication will help: To defend against fire, keep the immediate area around your home free of firewood, twiggy debris, and leaves. This also will help to deter termites and other insect pests. Some plants are naturally fire resistant — think aloes and other fleshy-leaved succulents — but plants that contain oily resins, such as pines and saw palmetto, should ideally be 30 feet or so away from buildings if you are in a medium to high risk situation.

Precautions against flooding are perhaps less easy to accomplish. If you live on a waterway, a living barrier of well-adapted native shrubs and trees may help to mitigate the effects of storm surge by holding the riverbank together, but in the case of relentlessly rising water, it’s a different matter. Ultimately it became clear that flooding from Hurricane Irma impacted much more of Jacksonville’s infrastructure than expected.

And now to gardening! By the year’s end, hopefully, we will be seeing some seasonal weather. Our brassicas — kale, cabbages, collards, broccoli etc. — do well in the colder months, and become sweeter after a frost or two. Refer to the “Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide” for planting dates, recommended varieties, and cultural care: This is now available as a free mobile app called “Florida Fresh.” You can find links to articles about composting, pest control, and other relevant topics.

Not all vegetables should be confined to the vegetable garden. Swiss chard Bright Lights makes a bold statement, with gold, cream, white or red tinged leaves and stems. Plant edible kale, which can be found in various shades of pinks and greens and a variety of leaf forms, rather than ornamental cabbage. If your tastes turn to mustard greens, try the striking Japanese Giant Red mustard. Edible peas have fairly innocuous white flowers, but they can be grown on an attractive support for a green accent among lower growing plants. Do note, though, that vegetables benefit from regular fertilizer, and a good quality one at that. And don’t ever use any chemicals on them or even near them unless they are clearly labeled for use in the vegetable garden.

As autumn slipped into winter, the natural landscape mellowed. Along our roadsides, the brilliant yellow flowers of goldenrods gradually faded, while bushy bluestem grasses (Andropogon glomeratus) glowed rusty brown against the lowering sun. You must have noticed pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), its billowy seed heads gloriously backlit, in many of our local parking lots. Out in the countryside, often along the edge of marshland, the lovely native groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia) has been full of clouds of white flowers which are good nectar sources for various pollinators. The female plants produce fluffy white seed heads, thereby extending the show. In sunny spots, the leaves of the deciduous native Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) turned a deep burgundy red as it shut down for the winter — a beautiful sight. While a bit of a handful to control, this vine produces small black berries in late summer that birds really relish.

Happy New Year and a Healthy 2018 to you all.