Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension P. O. Box 68 LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068 Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

December 1999 - A Delightful Time for Outdoor Activity

Mostly warm days, cool nights and clear cloudless skies unite to make December a delightful month.  The beauty and appeal of the season is evident in the renewed interest in gardening and outdoor activity in general, displayed by many people at this time of year.

Although seasonal change is more subtle here in south Florida, the inexorable progression of the seasons does occur and has now carried us into our winter season.   In the wet areas, the feathery foliage of cypress trees has turned a glorious golden brown as a prelude to falling to earth, following on the example of the tangled willows that have already shed their greenery.  Along the roadsides and unkempt areas, Brazilian pepper bushes, called Florida holly by some, are adorned with clusters of crimson red berries that add a festive look to their normal dark green foliage.  In other areas,  groundsel or saltbush is presently putting on a showy display of fluffy white flowers.  In the fields and prairies, a medley of bunch grasses in rich shades of brown and gold adds diversity and interest to the landscape.

In the landscape, ornamental perennial grasses have been largely overlooked.  Only a few,  such as pampas grass,  have enjoyed some popularity.  There are many very attractive grasses that can be easily employed in the garden in much the same way as a shrub or groundcover might be used.  Of the  wide selection of ornamental grasses adapted for use in south Florida, gardeners can choose from a broad range of sizes colors, blooms, textures and forms to add interest to the landscape.  Most ornamental grasses are quite hardy and can be grown successfully on a wide range of soils and pH levels.  Many have the additional attraction of being relatively drought tolerant and pest free.  Although most ornamental grasses require some pruning in late winter to remove old tattered leaves, they provide a fairly low maintenance landscape option that should be more widely used either as specimen plants or in combination with trees, shrubs and other perennials.

December is typically quite dry and marks the beginning of our long dry season.  Since cool dry air and breezy conditions combine to rapidly dry out soils, gardeners should be ready to irrigate as needed.  A good soaking to wet the soil to a depth of several inches once or twice a week is much more desirable than frequent light watering that may actually harm plants.

We have already seen the first few cold fronts pass through the area.  Their passage is likely to become more regular as the month progresses.  Gardeners should prepare a frost protection plan to protect their tender plantings.  Although our winters are relatively mild, it is not unusual to experience a frost or freeze event.  In past years, frost has occurred in Hendry County, at one time or another, from the beginning of December until early March.  The greatest probability of frost is between mid- December and the early part of February.  There are a number of tactics that can help alleviate frost damage to delicate plantings.  These range from  thoroughly wetting the soil in advance of a freeze to the use various covers.

Even though most lawns have stopped growing to any great extent, it is a good idea to continue to mow them periodically to prevent seed production by the many winter annual weeds, including cudweed and others that may grow in lawns at this time of year.   In addition, be sure to rake up and remove leaves that may damage turf if left to accumulate .

Although vegetables and annual flowers should be fertilized regularly to maintain vigor, do not fertilize perennial plantings such as trees and shrubs at this time.  It may stimulate tender new growth that will be easily damaged by cold weather.  For the same reason, you should delay any pruning other than the removal of dead or diseased branches until next year.

The planting calendar is wide open.  Vegetables that can be planted this month include cool season favorites such as  beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, Chinese cabbage, collards, endive, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard, onions, parsley, radishes, spinach, Swiss chard and turnips.  Warm season plants may also be planted for spring harvest.  These include beans, peppers, squash, sweet corn, and tomatoes.  Be prepared to cover these should a passing cold front send temperatures plummeting.

Annual  flowers that can be planted now include alyssum, begonia, calendula, dianthus, dusty miller, geraniums, impatiens, lobelia, pansy, petunia, phlox, rudbeckia, salvia, snapdragons, stocks, sweet peas, and verbenas.  Bulbs to plant consist of African iris, amaryllis, anenome, crinum, day lilies, rain lilies, society garlic, spider lilies, and rain lilies.  For northern transplants, who miss tulips, daffodils and other bulbs in the spring, refrigerated daffodils, Dutch iris, hyacinths and tulips can be planted now.  Be forewarned, however, that these will only flower one time unless re-dug and refrigerated again next fall as local temperatures are not adequate to initiate the flowering process.

Good luck and good gardening and best wishes for the holiday season.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or  863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an Equal Employment Opportunity - Affirmative Action Employer authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap or national origin.

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