By Lesley Arrandale
Since early June, when most of Florida was suffering from drought, we have had ample rain — so much that the drought was lifted for the first time since July 2016 (see droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?FL).
Even with regular rainfall though, it doesn’t take long for water to percolate down through our sandy soils. After just a few dry days, some of us can find ourselves hoping for more rain, unless we happen to be living where the water table is naturally high. I’m reminded of a garden plot I used to tend with a neighbor. We worked hard to grow our vegetables, mounding the soil in rows, amending with compost, mulching to reduce weeds, and watering as needed. But it rained and it rained, heavily. Despite trying to dig a drainage ditch around the plot (sadly ineffectual), the inches of standing water stayed too long for us to save our crops.
There is simply no way plants will survive even in temporary standing water unless they are adapted to do so, so if you have a problem with drainage, consider installing a rain garden. Plants that tolerate being inundated for short periods of time will be happy and that bare, unproductive muddy spot can be transformed. If you can position the garden to catch rainwater that usually runs off onto a driveway or road, it would be an added bonus: the garden will function as a filter and eventually the water will be returned to the aquifer. Runoff that goes into the storm drain system has a very different destination: it runs into the St. Johns River, taking excess fertilizer and other chemicals with it, and contributes to the nasty algal blooms that can both poison wildlife and be harmful to people. So by installing a rain garden you would be doing far more good than you might have imagined. For more information on rain gardens, check out http://tinyurl.com/y7srcqxr.
Not surprisingly, considering the beauty to be seen in and around the humble roadside ditch, there is a variety of native plants suitable for rain gardens (see http://tinyurl.com/y75e8vak).
Many of them attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and general pollinators, and are relatively easy care. When shopping for native plants, bear in mind that not all of the improved cultivars will necessarily have the same benefits for wildlife. I recently visited a beautiful garden, full of gorgeous flowers, and surrounded by countryside, and was really surprised by the lack of insect life. Many of the flowers were new and improved varieties, which made me wonder if breeding to improve traits like color and size of blooms, may have affected the amounts of pollen and nectar so necessary for bees and other insects.
The July/August edition of “A New Leaf” is out now (http://duval.ifas.ufl.edu/documents/nleafJulyAugust.17mail.pdf). If you’re struggling with your summer crops, Mary Puckett, Urban Garden Assistant, has written an informative article about solutions to some of the pests you may be encountering, specifically armyworms and stink bugs, as well as downy mildew, which is a common fungal problem exacerbated by heat and humidity.
As always, there are timely recommendations in “A New Leaf” on what to plant, even in the heat of July and August, and details of upcoming classes, which afford a welcome break from the heat. You could take the Vegetable Seed Starting Class on Saturday, Aug. 19, 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. The cost is $15, and preregistration and prepayment is required at http://tinyurl.com/ya4wosaj. Or register by mail: include your name, address and phone number and send a check (payable to: University of Florida, for: Vegetable Seed Starting Class) to Duval County Extension Service, 1010 North McDuff Ave., Jacksonville, FL 32254.
Lesley Arrandale is a Master Gardener with the Duval County Cooperative Extension Service/City of Jacksonville Agriculture Department, which is a partnership between the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA), the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) and the City of Jacksonville.