By Master Gardener Volunteer Lesley Arrandale 

In October I often find myself a bit behind, mostly because it’s hard working in the late summer heat and humidity — but autumn is a good time to improve your vegetable beds for early spring and to plant spring-flowering bulbs. It’s also a time to enjoy seasonal changes, including the animals and flowers you might see only at this time of year.

This year our raised vegetable beds are free of weeds, but need additional growing medium. Over time, often quite quickly in our heat, organic matter is broken down and the result is a shallower bed. Traditionally, raised bed soil has been peat-based, with compost for fertility and organic matter, perhaps perlite to keep it light, composted pine fines to keep the mixture loose, and slow release fertilizer, much like a good potting soil. For three, 8 x 4 x 1 foot beds, I originally purchased a total of 96 cubic feet of raised bed soil from a reputable local source. To replenish the beds, I decided to use coconut coir, which can replace peat in many applications. It’s a by-product that will keep carbon out of our atmosphere, unlike peat extraction.

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It was easy to calculate how much I needed: adding four inches depth for each of the three beds totals 12 inches, the equivalent of one bed’s worth of soil, or 32 cubic feet. I found a company offering free shipping — a necessity since the shipping weight was 40 lb — I now have three compressed bales of coconut coir with added nutrients to top up my beds. When it stops raining I’ll be out rehydrating that coconut coir, and adding it to the vegetable beds. For more information see

Spring-flowering bulbs can be planted through early December. Daffodils can be finicky, but Terry DelValle (Duval County Horticultural Agent Emeritus) has a list of daffodils that can do well here: “Carlton, February Gold, Itzem, Sweetness, Trevithian, Chinese Sacred Lily, Soleil d’Or, Cragford, Erlicheer, Nony, Golden Dawn, Grand Primo and Silver Chimes. Most paperwhites (N. papyraceus) will perform well in our area.” Her advice is to plant them soon and be patient, as they take time to establish a strong root system and may not perform their best the first spring. They need good drainage and, judging from my neighbor’s successes, do well in light dappled shade. At planting time, use a fertilizer formulated for bulbs to get them off to a good start.

Star flower (Ipheion uniflorum) is a pretty little groundcover bulb. The flowers in shades of blue or white are about one inch across, atop six to eight inch stems; the foliage is almost grass-like and has a slightly garlicky smell when crushed. It is delightful but isn’t often seen locally, despite being suited here to well-drained locations. 

A variety of insects have been enjoying a late summer feast of pollen and nectar from a bed of dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata) and a patch of beggar’s ticks (Bidens alba). Small native bees which nest in sandy soil are busy laying in supplies for their broods. Assassin bugs have been busy too; for the first time I found one stuck (literally!) into its prey — an unfortunate little sweat bee, which is one of the good guys! 

Migrant birds have been passing through, but many of them are hard to identify when they’ve lost their characteristic breeding colors. Others are arriving to spend the winter here. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website can help: I may even have spotted an uncommon Bicknell’s thrush.

Also seen: a huge yellow garden spider, Argiope aurantia, wrapping a gulf fritillary butterfly for its larder, and the skinny tail of a black snake, possibly a black racer, mostly hidden in some shell ginger.

Check out the New Leaf here: Enjoy the cooler weather, and your gardens and wildlife: the small pleasures can really add up!

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