An Early Winter for My Florida Garden

It might not be the seven feet of snow that got dumped on Buffalo, but last week's cold snap definitely caught us off guard here in Northeast Florida. It was too early for one thing, and it also got colder than we had anticipated. One night was only supposed to reach 30 degrees, yet I woke up to find that it stayed at around 23 degrees all night. Just like that, we were plunged into an early winter. Here's how that played out.

This weather has been crazy to say the least. Two nights were cold enough to break records from back in the 1800's, yet a few days later a city in our area (Gainesville) had a record-breaking warm night and yesterday Jacksonville had record-breaking rainfall amounts. If my plants are a bit confused about the weather, I can't say that I blame them.

After the Freezes

While the blackened bananas, lantana, and angelonia were kind of expected, I was a bit surprised by the plants that did well through the hard freezes. My Australian tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi), Korean rock fern (Polystichum tsus-simense) and maidenhair ferns (Adiantum capillus-veneris) showed no damage at all. My Boston fern (Nephrolepis exalta) was in a protected area and didn't take much damage either.

Aechmea calyculata 'Alaya'
Mahonia 'Soft Caress' (Notice the similarity between the Aechmea's and Mahonia's flowers?

When I planted the shade garden this summer, it was important to me that there were enough evergreen plants to carry on the show through winter. Now that the grass has turned to straw and the maples have dropped their leaves, this planting of ferns, cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior), Mahonia 'Soft Caress', strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stolonifera) and mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus 'Nana') make this corner of the garden look like a little winter oasis.

 This bamboo palm (Chamaedorea microspadix) is evergreen down to about 20 degrees.

The first night, though nearly as cold, wasn't as damaging to the plants because it wasn't accompanied by a frost. Papayas, bananas and gingers in sheltered areas showed no damage... until the next night when they were coated with a heavy frost. Then they were toast.

I had been trying to decide whether I should keep a small Meyer lemon tree in the front yard or not, but the freeze helped me make up my mind. My 'Kimbrough' satsuma and 'Centennial' variegated kumquat were damaged only on a few new leaves, but the meyer lemon lost all of its leaves and possibly some branches. I'll stick with the cold-hardy stuff.

Purple trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis) has proven to be a bit hardier to the cold for me than the typical Lantana camara selections, so it came as no surprise that only the most exposed stems were hit. It also shouldn't surprise me to see it continue blooming!

I did end up covering most of my bromeliads and epiphytes with blankets, and it's a good thing since it got colder than expected. The majority of my bromeliads are cold hardy, but such an early freeze would have definitely set them back a bit; especially the matchstick bromeliads (Aechmea gamosepala) that are starting to bloom. I draped moving blankets over the tall tree stump and reinforced it with bamboo poles and tomato cages, then throwing plant clippings around the edge since the blankets didn't reach the ground.

Along with the bromeliads were some tropical epiphytes (Peperomia and Rhipsalis species) that definitely needed the protection, and the makeshift tent of blankets made a big difference. Outside the tent it reached 24 degrees but inside it only reached 32 degrees.

It might not seem like much of a big deal, but that's almost a ten degree difference - enough to let me grow orchids and other strictly tropical plants in my zone 9a garden! I didn't even try that hard either. There were openings between the blankets and they didn't even reach the ground, but next time I'll get a tighter seal and possibly use some christmas lights to generate a degree or two of extra heat.

The cold snap was too early for my liking, but it all worked out. I'm just so happy to have a bit of green in my garden for winter!

1 comment:

  1. Ouchie for the plants! But I'm glad that most made it through. Such a weird year.


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