Fall roundup in the landscape
Gardening is an art, not a science. No matter what others promise, Mother Nature and our own nature may produce great successes and dramatic failures in our landscapes. Fall is the traditional time for gardeners to evaluate the good and evil in their gardens as part of planning for next year. If we pause to learn from the some of the lessons that Mother Nature throws at us, maybe each year we'll enjoy more success than failure. Here's an analysis of some of our projects-I wrote about some of them in previous columns and I thought you might be curious to see what happened.
In the edible garden
Right now in late November, our winter vegetables are doing well. I planted my lettuce, spinach, arugula, and turnips the first week in October. As promised, the lettuce and arugula sprouted in three days. The turnips were next and finally, the spinach made an appearance-the spinach is still not nearly as robust as any of the others, as you can see in the photo above. First, I used a different strategy this time for planting seeds directly in the ground. I added good compost to the soil, made short rows facing west to take full advantage of the slanting winter sunlight, and lined each row with an inch or more of sterile topsoil that I bought. Then I sowed the seeds and covered them with more of the store-bought soil. Finally, I mulched between the rows with pine needles. So far-knock on wood chips-very few weeds have sprouted.
I just planted another winter crop-onions. There are three short rows at the front of the herb garden. One row is planted for regular onions where the onion sets are three inches apart with the tops just showing at the surface. The other two rows, planted for greens, are closer together and two inches below the surface. Because the store-bought soil worked so well for the seeds, I used the same technique for the onions. I'll keep you posted.
I wrote about our tomatoes earlier, and was hopeful that our careful selection of only indeterminate varieties would ensure a continuous yield throughout the season. We had a great crop in May and June; we gave away lots of them to neighbors, especially to our neighbor with horses who allows us to take their composted manure. The plants didn't last any longer than the previous year. The leaves started to die and eventually all the plants just shriveled away. Some kind of wilt, a type of fungus, got to them in the heat. Next year, we'll try some varieties particularly bred for Florida's heat and wilt. More research is needed.
The bell peppers (Capsicum spp) on the other hand, have done very well. We planted them at the same time as the tomatoes, and even now they continue to produce, though the leaves are yellowed. I expect that when we pull out these plants that we'll see that root-knot nematodes have attacked their roots. Next year I'll look for some nematode resistant strains to see if that makes a difference.
Two years ago I built four rain gardens on our lot for better absorption of runoff from downspouts and French drains. The two rain gardens that I built in the woods to stop the erosion at the ends of the French drain pipes continue to function well. The rocks and plants have stayed in place, there has been no erosion, and the runoff is slowed before it joins the overflow creek from our front pond to the lake.
The rain garden I built out front near the pond at the outflow from a French drain does a good job of absorbing the water there. Very little of it overflows directly into the pond. I have removed some plants and added others farther away so the basin is larger now, and there is an uninterrupted wall of rushes, sedges, and rain lilies (Zerphyranthus atamasco) on the pond side. I've recently added a dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) on the pond side of the rush/sedge wall. I assume this is female because it was a sucker from a berry-ladened shrub. What I don't know is if there are any males close enough so that it will have berries some day. I'll wait until it has flowers and see if berries are produced. If not I'll visit my friend with the dahoon population again and acquire a male and maybe more females.
The most visible rain garden next to the downspout at the front corner of the house has done very well-maybe too well. The photograph shows what it looks like this fall. The ferns and the blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) have continued to spread so much that you can't even see the stones at the center. I have cut back the lawn another two feet to enlarge this area. This spring after the rain lilies have gone by, I'll transplant some of the ferns and blue-eyed grass to other areas on our lot. Most of them will go to a new fern area under the sweet gum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) in the triangle meadow out back. (Update: I have since learned that these ferns are the invasive tuberous swordfern (Nephrolepis cordifolia). No wonder it's done so well. I did not put them under the sweet gum trees--only the native chain ferns.)
Odds & ends
The garden next to the west-facing wall at the back of the detached garage has undergone a couple of changes in the two and a half years we've lived here. I've always wanted a cutting garden and this year I planted one packet of zinnias that thrived out there with almost no care-there are still some flowering and although the plants look ratty, I love those wild-haired blooms. The mixed wildflowers I sowed along this wall did not perform as well-only a few plants survived the season. I've already bought more zinnia seeds and a few others that might do better... I'll keep you informed.
Another lavender treasure in the meadows that I didn't mention in my Pulsating Purple article was the elephant's foot (Elephantopus elatus). Its basal leaves, arrayed in a circular pattern, may remind one of an elephant's footprint. The flowers are borne on 12" to 18" stalks with only a few leaves. Each tiny tubular flower is surrounded by three lavender toothed bracts. It was sure popular with the butterflies, wasps, bees, and love bugs.
The saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana) has begun to recover from the harsh treatment of being pruned like a hedge. I extracted it from the pittosporum hedge (Pittosporum tobira) next to the screened porch out back two years ago. With space to grow and with some careful pruning, it's beginning to look more like a tree. This deciduous magnolia is a popular hybrid-its large pink flowers make quite a showing in the spring before the leaves fill in. It's a temperate plant, though, and it can get confused here in northern Florida. Several flower buds broke dormancy and popped out last week.
Earlier this fall, I planted three native hibiscus plants (Hibiscus laevis), and now they are preparing for winter by dropping their leaves. The tropical hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) bushes are not thinking about winter and continue to grow and bloom-beautiful, but foolish. When the frost comes, they'll die back to the ground. I will continue to plan for more natives in our landscape.
Fall is also the time to reflect on the year and be thankful for our blessings. I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving and hope that you find some time during the rush of the upcoming holidays to reflect on successes in your garden and to plan for an even better garden next season.
Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners here in northeast Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in planting zone 8/9. She's in the process of writing a book, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," to be published by University Press of Florida.