Tips from the Toolshed: A Gardener’s M.O.

Mild Winter Means Year ‘Round Gardening


I usually start fall semesters in a bit of a bind because I didn’t get enough student volunteers over the summer to help me weed. This semester everybody came back, and I do mean everybody. We had so many volunteers that the garden has returned to a most beautiful, well-manicured state. My grateful thanks go to all who have helped me make our garden beautiful again.

Fall and winter is the time to cut down whatever is looking the opposite of beautiful. Your perennials will, of course, come back, so cut them to the ground and remove the dead or dying stuff. Your garden will look instantly better. Put the dead plant matter at the road if you must, but that organic matter will degrade and enhance your soil. Just pitch cuttings behind your shrubs or throw them on a compost heap for later.

This curcuma has seen better days. Time to cut it back.

If the summer is all about mowing, fall and winter is about keeping your green spaces clean. We must keep up with nature’s messes by blowing off the dead leaves and picking up fallen moss and limbs from the occasional storm. Lower light levels and cooler temperatures slow down grass growth, but mowing over your leaves every now and then is good for your lawn. It puts organic matter back in your soil. Organic matter resupplies nutrients but also helps our gray Florida sandy soil retain moisture. Worms like it, and worms are good for soil.

You may have to water more often in the fall and winter because we enter dry periods here and there. Keep an eye on your grass. Before long, you might see water stress patches that your irrigation system doesn’t hit, and then you have to decide whether to amend your system or water by hand until it starts raining regularly again.

Don’t fertilize your grass from now to spring. Your grass is going dormant, and fertilizer can hurt it more than help it at this point. Really, you’re wasting time and money if you fertilize it now. The grass won’t use it, and you’re endangering the environment. Once the winter is over and your grass starts growing again, get some fertilizer on it—and not until! In the meantime, you can use a lawn-safe weed killer to keep your grass from getting crowded with clover or dollar weed.

Kanjiro camellias in full bloom

As for winter annuals, petunias are our favorite (specifically Supertunias from Proven Winners) because they grow wide and trailing and they can take a good freeze. That’s right, in Florida, petunias are a winter annual. I also personally prefer dianthus. It’s a good, tough perennial that usually makes it through the summer, even though it doesn’t bloom until cooler weather.

In winter, camellias save the day for blooming and color. You should come see Wilmot’s abundant displays of reds, pinks and whites—especially in January through March—but have you considered planting your own camellias? When the weather cools down, it’s the perfect time to plant them. Cold weather enables them to adjust to transplanting better than hot weather.

Keep the hole shallow enough to let your camellia sit about two or three inches above ground level. This seems high, but over a year, your camellia will settle and actually sink in as its roots spread out. If you plant it too low or level with the ground, it will sink, retain too much water, and most likely die. If your camellia has been in a pot too long, spread out those roots before planting. If it’s root-bound in the pot, cut the girdling roots so that when it grows to maturity it won’t strangle itself. Keep it moist for a good year as it establishes itself. Don’t drown it, but make sure it doesn’t dry out because that can be the death of it. Fertilize it once when it’s done blooming, and that really should be all you have to do. A tree should be babied for a year, and then it should do well on its own. (But don’t let it dry out even after that. That causes stress that even some established plants can’t recover from.) Pick up the spent, whole camellia flowers. It looks better, but it can also prevent petal blight from growing mold and shooting spores back into your camellias.

We’re blessed in Florida by being able to garden year round, so enjoy the Florida winter. Consider our fellow gardeners in northern climes who are watching snow pile over the ground they wish they could tend!

Steve Pritchett
Garden Supervisor, Wilmot Botanical Gardens, College of Medicine