By Master Gardener Volunteer Lesley Arrandale
As always, the weather can be confounding. I’m writing in the first week of April, waiting for some promised rain. Heavy rain. Although much of the south has suffered from some truly horrific storms, here the rain gauge has registered just marginally above a half-inch this week — a mixed blessing.
In common with other gardeners, I’ve been eagerly watching plants put on new growth. Surprisingly our young Shumard oak has had some flowers, and I could see some visiting bees. I have also been looking for new plants, hoping to find some early bloomers for our insects. It feels like a primeval urge, triggered by the arrival of spring.
Gardeners don’t often sit back and smell the roses, but potter (or putter!) around, checking on this and that, observing the changes that happen daily. Because a garden is never static; it is never finished. There will always be something to pay attention to, whether it’s a fascinating insect, avian visitors, newly unfurled flowers to marvel at or a pesky weed.
Traditional front yard landscaping, I must confess, is not what I consider gardening. There are often expanses of lawn, maybe with uniform borders along the drive and some neat and tidily clipped foundation plantings. This is a pattern seen all over Jacksonville. To maintain appearances there is the almost incessant sound of yard maintenance machines and the regular appearance of chemical companies. But surely attitudes are shifting? When we hear about the “insect apocalypse” threatening to damage our food supply, the disappearance of millions of songbirds, unhealthy levels of chemicals in some water supplies, and the algal blooms in our precious rivers — I could go on — perhaps we are beginning to understand that we need to treat our land more gently?
The University of Florida has great information, as always, which can help us tread more lightly on the land, especially if you have a lawn. To begin, know that good cultural practices can go a very long way in helping avoid insect, weed, and disease problems in turf. Don’t over water, don’t over fertilize, don’t mow too low, and your grass can grow stronger and more resilient. Here’s how: https://tinyurl.com/4nw3cxf9.
Now that you know how to tackle that lawn, consider how much of it you really need. Reducing its size would be even more Florida-Friendly. Perhaps a bed of flowers in a sunny spot would look pretty. Pollinating bees and butterflies would love a carefully selected grouping of flowers and small shrubs. Locate a bed within reach of a spigot to make it easy to establish new plants, and position it to make the most of the view from your front windows.
If preparing a new garden bed is physically challenging, the no-dig method may appeal: https://tinyurl.com/2p9fed6r. It’s achieved by smothering the turf with layers of wet cardboard or newspaper, followed by consecutive layers of compost, brown carbon- and then green nitrogen-containing material. It’s topped off with a layer of mulch. Ideally wait until the materials in the new bed have decomposed, which takes a few months; however, once the bed has settled, it is possible to begin installing small plants in the top layers, adding some extra compost to help them along, while the decomposition process is ongoing. And for flower beds, you don’t need to make the bed very deep. Nine to 12 inches should be adequate. Once the decomposition process has finished, Florida-Friendly and appropriate (right plant right place) native plants should survive well in what is then amended native soil and will benefit from a light top-dressing of compost a couple of times a year.
If you’re growing tomatoes – and many people do – check out https://tinyurl.com/2p9fznsf. It’s worth understanding how to minimize the use of chemicals in our home gardens.
“The Neighborhood Gardener” is a monthly newsletter which I often recommend. To go deeper, check out the webinar series at: https://tinyurl.com/mph4x6jf. They are available live, or online for viewing at your convenience, and there is some great content. Enjoy!