By Master Gardener Volunteer Lesley Arrandale

I’m writing in early December and have been observing the insects — again. I’m amazed that there are still some butterflies around, despite the few flowers in my yard. It illustrates how important it is for their survival to have a food source available while the weather is still warm. Small pollinators and the occasional bumble bee are attracted to the large-flowered wild rosemary (Conradina grandiflora), as well as the yellow daisies of lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata). There are even a few blooms on some of the dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata), which many pollinators adore. Those flowers are on a secondary growth flush, their main bloom period being September through October.

The beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) fruits are just about finished but the remaining berries still attract some birds. Firebush (Hamelia patens) berries are still ripening and the catbirds are enjoying those. Early in December, I was really gratified to see a small flock of finches descend upon the seed-bearing stems of native grasses, goldenrods (Solidago sp.), ironweeds (Vernonia sp.), and gayfeathers (Liatris sp.). While I know that finches eat seeds, I rarely see them doing so in the flower garden.

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Unfortunately, the warm weather caused my romaine lettuce to begin to bolt. They might have been slower to start flowering if I had them in light shade; a temporary cover of shade cloth could have helped. I enjoyed lettuce braised with green peas, but it was not the salad greens I had been hoping for. The bok choy, a type of Chinese cabbage, look like they’ll bolt soon, unless cooler weather slows them down, but the flowers are edible and the flavor stays mild. 

Some of the other brassicas, like the green and red heading cabbages, are looking good, but the rutabagas and cauliflowers have a disease which is possibly soil borne. I’ve been picking off the affected leaves as they start to turn brown, but I might just have to pull out whole plants. I’ll try a soil drench of neem oil, which is considered a nontoxic systemic treatment for diseases. It is also used as a spray for insect pests, which I suspect is a better use for it. So far, the collards and broccoli, as well as the cabbages, look promising. With a small growing area, it is hard to rotate crops. I should clearly expand my plant palette in the vegetable garden as well as in the flower beds.

Once the holiday season is over, don’t throw out those poinsettias if you have a sheltered spot in the flower garden. Planted out and tended till the next festive season, they will flower and look lovely in the garden. See for how to do it. And amaryllis also do well in the garden. Planted in the new year, they should bloom the following spring.

So, what could be your new approach in 2023? What have you learned while you make and tend your gardens? My main issues have always been to control invasive vines and prevent golden rain trees and Carolina cherry laurels (Prunus caroliniana, a wild-life friendly native, but sadly a rampant grower and prolific self-seeder) overtaking my yard. This publication gives details of 297 plants assessed for their potential to be environmentally damaging in Florida: It is well worth checking it out. I’ve just discovered, for instance, that the classic Indian shot canna (Canna indica) is “predicted to be invasive and not recommended.”

Equally important to me is to add habitat — shelter, food, and water — to offer our backyard birds, pollinators, and other beneficial insects a haven. Even a small urban yard can play a part in sharing the planet with our wild neighbors. With every gardener who chooses to do something similar on any scale, even planting a few pots or a window box, we can contribute to the wider world. 

Resources that may be helpful include 

Happy gardening and here’s to saving the planet in 2023.

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