By Lesley Arrandale

Thankfully it’s still too mild as I write in December to wear the clothing mentioned in the headline – but more importantly, we still have blooming flowers in our yards.

My neighbor has tall cigar plant (Cuphea micropetala) blooming in stands about four feet high and wide, and bees are taking advantage to stock their hives for the winter. It’s also been a boon for migrating hummingbirds.

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In another yard, cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) is blooming against a south-facing wall. Covered with elongated racemes of orange-red trumpets, this potentially large, shrubby vine is loved by bees. Interestingly, the larger species, like carpenter bees, can’t insinuate themselves into those trumpets; instead they pierce the flowers at the base to drink the nectar. Both these plants are tender and only flower well until the first frost

Other familiar winter bloomers include camellias, violas (no dead-heading needed), pansies and snapdragons.

With the current long-range weather forecast predicting a colder than average winter, be prepared to protect tender plants if you want them to survive. Organize frost blankets, or even old bed sheets, and plan to cover tender in-ground plants as well as pots

Grouping potted plants together before a cold snap will make life easier. Simply throw the covers over, tuck them down to the ground and breathe easy for the night. Well-hydrated plants withstand cold temperatures better than thirsty ones, so water at least 24 hours before a freeze if conditions are dry.

Another of my neighbors enjoys native plants. In mid-December, bloomers in her front yard included the pretty, pink-flowering groundcover, sensitive plant (Mimosa strigillosa), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and Georgia calamint (Calamintha georgiana), a delightful sub-shrub (about two feet tall and wide), which is reminiscent of rosemary but has lavender/pink flowers and glossy mid-green foliage. It always looks very healthy; it’s in high shifting shade in the cooler months and receives late afternoon sun in the summer. It grows in well-draining sandy soil with some additional humus, and gets little supplemental watering. It can be propagated by cuttings; I’m certainly grateful for these “passalong” plants.

Vegetable gardens benefit from having nectar-rich plants nearby. As well as attracting bees for pollination, they attract beneficial insects which help to control pests. In the November/December issue of A New Leaf, Mary Puckett describes the nectary she planted, with the help of master gardeners:

Look for the January/February issue of A New Leaf in the New Year. As well as timely advice, you’ll find information about upcoming programs. Don’t miss the ever-popular Day of Gardening on February 27 and plan to register early as this event fills quickly.

The Florida Vegetable Gardeners Guide has recently been updated; for veggie growers it’s recommended reading: I shall pay particular attention to the table of chemicals, since these recommendations can change.

While a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids (“neonics”) hasn’t been limited here, some countries have restricted the use of Imidacloprid, for one. The debate is still on, but some research has found that bees are affected by these systemic chemicals, which linger in the pollen and nectar of treated plants. Other organisms are also affected: We have every right to use approved chemicals, but please use them judiciously for the sake of our wildlife and ultimately ourselves.

Some good reads for the darker days of winter: seed catalogs, naturally, and from the Jacksonville Library: “The Living Landscape: Designing for beauty and diversity in the home garden,” by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy; “Native Florida Plants for Shady Landscapes” and “Native Plant Landscaping for Florida Wildlife,” both by Craig N. Huegel. More generally, “Native Plants of the Southeast,” by Larry Mellichamp and “Garden Perennials for the Coastal South” by Barbara Sullivan are informative. All are beautifully illustrated.

As the saying goes, a picture can paint a thousand words.

Photo courtesy Katherine Arrandale.

Covered with elongated racemes of orange-red trumpets, cape honeysuckle is loved by bees.

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