Recently Moved to Jacksonville, Tonya Ashworth offers new local residents advice as part of her ongoing outreach efforts as the UF/IFAS Extension Agent for Duval County.
If you are one of the many people who have recently started calling Jacksonville home, let me extend a welcome. I too am a recent transplant, having moved here not quite two years ago from Memphis.
Moving to Florida is a major adjustment for most gardeners, myself included. After I finished mourning the peony collection I left in Tennessee, I started to dig in and learn the ways of a sub-tropical landscape. Allow me to share some advice that I hope will be helpful to you as you begin your garden again.
Know Your Zone
The USDA Hardiness zone map shows that Duval County is in hardiness zone 9a. Florida is a big state, and portions of it are in Zones 8,9, 10 and 11. So, you need to be careful what you plant because we do get freezes here. Some things that live in Orlando, just a couple hours away, will die in our winters. Before you spend a lot of money on a statement plant-or palm, check the zone the plant can live in. There are microclimates and people often try to cheat a bit if they live near a body of water, but know you are taking a chance if you push your zone.
Soils are the next change for most new Florida gardeners. I was shocked to find my new backyard was almost 100% sand, even though I am not at the beach. Sandy soils mean good drainage. Sandy soils also have low cation exchange capacity (CEC). CEC measures the soil’s ability to hold positively charged ions such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Most of the commonly found plants at the garden center need the soil to hold moisture and nutrients. So, unless you plan on growing all Florida native plants, you should incorporate compost into your beds. Compost increases the soil’s ability to hold moisture and has a high CEC for holding onto nutrients. The pH of your soil also influences how well your plants take up the nutrients you supply through compost and fertilizers. In Duval County, the pH can vary a lot, depending on how close you are to the beach, among other things. Plants have preferences for different pH levels. For example, azaleas, gardenias, and blueberries like more acidic soil. You can easily find out what your soil pH is by bringing a sample to the Duval Extension office for a free pH test.
When you think about fertilizers, you need to know that our soil has a naturally high level of phosphorus, which is the middle number on the bag of fertilizer. So, unless a soil test tells you differently, you should look for a fertilizer that has a 0 in the middle, for example, 15-0-15. Speaking of fertilizers, Florida residents need to be very cautious about how and when and how much nitrogen they apply to their landscape. We are surrounded by water and have a responsibility to protect our rivers and ocean.
Too much nitrogen running off your landscape contributes to harmful algal blooms.
If you are in doubt about how to appropriately fertilize, please look online at the UF/IFAS publications or call the Extension Office for help.
Something most gardeners never have to think about is a plant’s tolerance to salt in the air. But if you just moved to Jacksonville to live near the beach, this is something to consider. Before purchasing plants, read about their ability to withstand salt spray. UF/IFAS publications online almost always list this in the plant’s description. Put the name of the plant and IFAS in the search box to look it up.
If vegetable gardening is your thing, know that the planting dates you are used to will most likely be a jumbled mess down here. Again, there is a publication online with planting dates. Search for IFAS Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide. Look for the North Florida planting dates. As a rule of thumb, warm season stuff goes in the ground in mid-March.
Explore Local Nurseries
New and exciting plants are everywhere! It can feel overwhelming to learn them all at first. I suggest visiting nurseries and reading plant tags. Look at how the nurseries group plants together- sun lovers in one spot, shade lovers in another. (Notice that you have more choices for shade than begonias, and that hostas are not happy in Florida, not really, no matter what they tell you!) This will help you remember what plants like which conditions.
This is the way. We have our next Master Gardener Volunteer training every August. If you are interested in that program, reach out to me at email@example.com. If you can’t commit to the volunteer time requirement, come to Extension classes at our office or at local libraries. There are other great gardening groups in Jacksonville as well. The Jacksonville Garden Club comes to mind. This is their 100th anniversary year and you can get as involved as you like by simply coming to one of their programs in Riverside, or by joining a local gardening circle where you get the info as well as the friendships of other gardeners in your part of the city. Mandarin Garden Club has a 2 acre garden with classes 3-4 times a month, in season; they also host volunteer days and plant sales. There are a few gardens in the beaches area, too.
There’s the Men’s Garden Club, now open to women, which is very good and of which I am an honorary member. The Native Plant Society is another active group in the county. There are more organizations I could name, so do some poking around. Find your people. Put down your roots.
All photography was taken by Juliet Johnson, MGV