By Master Gardener Volunteer Lesley Arrandale
It’s early May and I’ve been watching the ground become parched. Our rain gauge measures zero for the past week’s total, which is miserable enough, but it has been even longer without rain. I’ve been hand-watering the Simpson’s stoppers (Myrcianthes fragrans) and Darrow’s blueberries (Vaccinium darrowii), which were planted less than a year ago. A length of soaker hose around the Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii), which has been in the ground a little longer, will give it a long slow drink when needed. Last year’s perennial wildflowers are holding their own with just a little help and I’m delighted to see them growing so well, but plants installed this spring need close attention. It’s a trade-off between using potable water in a landscape that I’ve been hoping will be able to survive drought periods and losing precious plants that would be costly to replace.
Some wildflowers that have volunteered unexpectedly in my garden are the sort that probably get overlooked. They have small flowers and delicate foliage but are pretty nonetheless. Blue toadflax (Linaria canadensis, www.flawildflowers.org/flower-friday-linaria-canadensis) first caught my eye about 25 years ago, flowering in the grounds of my daughter’s primary school. About a foot tall, it covered the field in a haze of lavender blue. About the same time, I found clasping Venus’ looking glass (Triodanis perfoliata, www.flawildflowers.org/flower-friday-triodanis-perfoliata) while browsing in a native plant nursery. It wasn’t for sale, but growing quite happily in a small display garden; the owner seemed to think I was a bit sad, for finding it so lovely! Oakleaf fleabane (Erigeron quercifolius) is a diminutive member of the aster family that I would also like to see in my yard. Its flowers can be white or lavender, with a yellow center, but the lavender is most appealing. These wildflowers are hosts and nectar sources for insects that we barely notice, but which are all part of a balanced ecosystem.
Dought is a potent reminder to add compost and replenish mulch to enhance the ability of soil to hold water. Adding organic matter also supports the “SFW,” or the soil food web. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it refers to myriad organisms that dwell in healthy soils. This article gives a very clear explanation, and I encourage you to check it out: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/ss664.
During Earth Month I discovered a movie called “Kiss the Ground,” about regenerative farming. It was heartening to see how some farmers have employed techniques, including no-till sowing, to turn their businesses around. Back in the ’90s, one farmer in the rural heartland suffered catastrophic crop losses for three or four consecutive years and decided things had to change. Now he runs a profitable mixed farm, takes no government subsidies, and has beautiful fertile living soil which enables him to do so. His land is also home to innumerable birds and other wildlife, as well as native plants. No mean feat. The answer is in the soil.
For the homeowner, composting, mulching, leaving fallen leaves in place and grass cuttings on the lawn go a long way to building up soil. But, as with regenerative farming, an important step is to cut way back on chemical use and avoid physically disturbing the soil unnecessarily. Every assault on the soil, which includes pesticide applications, reduces the numbers and the health of soil-dwelling organisms. Bacteria and fungi, as well as the tiny animals living in soil, together make it healthy and supremely able to support healthy plants. And healthy soils keep carbon in the ground — which is an absolute necessity if we are to rein in rising global temperatures.
Rethinking gardening from the soil up is fundamentally what we all need to do.
As always, timely advice is available in “A New Leaf – Yard and Garden”: https://tinyurl.com/2p899u5c, and the Master Gardener Volunteer newsletter, “The Neighborhood Gardener”: https://tinyurl.com/2p8bmajf . And there is also the UF/IFAS gardening calendar, https://tinyurl.com/3fyzv79w, to keep us moving along.