By Master Gardener Volunteer Lesley Arrandale
mail@floridanewsline.com

Information from the University of Florida, which master gardener volunteers rely on to inform the public, is research-based and reliable. Up-to-the-minute gardening advice and timely tips from UF can always be found in “The Neighborhood Gardener” (https://tinyurl.com/39p7t8md) and in our own Duval County newsletter “A New Leaf – Yard and Garden” (https://tinyurl.com/2p899u5c).

To go directly to the source, check out https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/, where you can find links to Lawn and Garden information and Natural Resources. The Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide is invaluable (https://tinyurl.com/ysmpahnk).

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If you prefer, you can call the Extension Office at (904) 255-7450, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. or 12:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. and ask to speak to a master gardener volunteer. They are available to give you friendly, informed advice whenever you need it.

There are other reliable online resources these days about gardening and related issues, which I’ve found can deliver fascinating, detailed information on how our yards and gardens can be both delightful for us and a welcoming habitat for our feathered — and other — friends.

Birds are the most obvious visitors to our gardens. Sadly, numbers of backyard birds have plummeted in recent years. The same might have been true of game birds, but with concerted efforts to improve their situation through wetland protection and restoration efforts, their numbers have rebounded. 

So how can we make a difference nearer to home? First, we need to understand that the birds we see in our yards are primarily dependent on insects to feed their young — and that means mainly caterpillars. We are familiar with the milkweeds on which monarch butterflies lay their eggs, but many other butterflies and moths also lay eggs on one or a few species of plants and if we don’t include those plants in our yards, then the birds won’t have the caterpillars they need for their young to thrive. 

Doug Tallamy is a noted expert on developing habitat in small spaces, like our yards, and recently he gave a talk to the Garden Club of Jacksonville: https://tinyurl.com/2n5xe4k3. It’s a comprehensive and fascinating explanation of why we should and how we can use native plants to effectively support our birdlife. 

For a table summarizing which native plants are most useful – our “keystone species” — go to the National Wildlife Federation (https://tinyurl.com/y22cyfmk). You’ll find that our oaks support hundreds of insects, and asters like goldenrods (Solidago sp.) are superstars in the border.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is another great resource. They offer online courses for a fee, but there is also a series of free videos on YouTube, and this is one that I’ve found useful: https://tinyurl.com/wwnmfxu5.

Check out the Xerces Society (https://tinyurl.com/2p8fcpbm), The Audubon Society (https://tinyurl.com/mrxvuspe), and from the USDA, a useful series of links to backyard conservation information (https://tinyurl.com/2p9h8c2c).

Here in Jacksonville, the Ixia chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society holds meetings and arranges field trips. Check them out here: https://ixia.fnpschapters.org/.

It was a warm and often too-dry start to our year. Clearing out some areas of my backyard in March, when it felt like high summer, I wondered just what the actual summer will bring. Cool season leafy vegetables have gone to seed more quickly than expected and aphids appeared at the end of February. I’m expecting the beneficial insects to show up, but their food source, the pests, arrive before the predators and I’ve only spotted two species of assassin bugs.

Our average last frost date now falls between March 1 and March 10. Ironically, on March 12, local temperatures fell to the low 30s. So, averages are just that — averages. I had recently trimmed back dead stems of various perennials, which made them more vulnerable to frost. Where practical, I covered some of them to protect the tender new growth they’ve already put on, but I was mainly concerned about potted plants, smaller plants and seedlings I’ve been propagating, potted citrus, and house plants. Luckily temperatures weren’t as low as I had feared. Here’s hoping that’s the last cold snap of the season!

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