Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hard freeze = hard time in Florida gardens. Managing Cold weather in the Central Florida Garden

Yes, Central Florida gardens do freeze.
Unfortunately, hard freezing weather is a rare but predictable visitor to central Florida gardens. This last week we have had more consecutive days near freezing than at any time since the 1940's. The effects have been dreadful. Until last week, most of the Lakeland landscape has been green with just a few hints of fall and winter seen in the maples and a few scattered species. The grass was stunted and barely growing, but it was clinging stubbornly to shades of green. My garden had pentas, roses, impatients, geraniums, and many other flowers in bright bloom. The St Vincent's Lilac was blooming its wisteria-like blossoms and the Today-tomorrow-forever (brunfelsia) was in full bloom with clusters of blue, violet and white blossoms hanging over my fence into the neighbors garden and mixing with the rich crimson of the Camelia.

By this morning, all of that is a brown and grey landscape of shrunken and wilted leaves peeking out from the sheets and blankets and yes, even my best flannel shirt - all of which were pressed into action in a futile attempt to stave off disaster. The sight of all those bedsheets fluttering in disarray is almost enough to make you laugh. That is, it would make one laugh, if you did not know that underneath that clownish display lay years of work brought to ruin in a few days and even more years of blooms that could have been.

When you have nurtured and fought and tricked and lavished care over some silly Chinese skull cap in a simple desire to keep blue in your garden - the humor seems remote. When you have protected them from our filthy humidity, our scorching summers and the normal perils of life, when you have against all odds managed to keep Heliotrope and garden Rue in your garden when all logic cries against it - the comedy seems hollow. No, no to a real gardener, the sudden and senseless loss is not the loss of time and money - it is the loss of dreams. I will still sip tea in the garden, but it looks ever so little like the English charade I had so carefully crafted here in the subtropics.

Now, as I said this cold snap has been record breaking in its consistency and length. This is not the cold weather we are used to. Normally, we get a brief cold blast that really only lasts a matter of hours before being relieved by some mid 60s are returned thanks to the eternal efforts of Florida's subtropical sun. Florida gardeners are not normally prepared to deal with such a long and consistent visit from the frozen north. A brief dip to freezing followed by a return to warmth is not a big challenge to most plants and can be readily defeated with a few well placed frost blankets.

However, this cold front has presented us with near or below freezing weather for nearly a week now. Even fully mature Orange trees are damaged with temperatures at, or below 24Celsius for 4 hours or more. My Mexican Ruella and Pentas never had a chance. In some ways the great duration of this freeze is a comfort. Nothing is as depressing as losing vast swaths of your garden due to a few hours of freezing air and then assessing the damage in short sleeves the next afternoon as temperature quickly climb to our normal above average temperatures. How can we be above average by 5 or 10 degrees most days of every single month? The only way that can be legitimate is if they "average" is so weighted by a century of non global warmed data that the recent decade can still stand out as an aberration. Well, that is straying from the point.

Well what is the point? Nature has its rules and one of them is that if you live in a transition zone like ours which teeters between temperate and sub-tropical you will have a hard time gardening and suffer inevitable catastrophes from time to time. Each summer the temperate plants suffer from wilting heat and fungus riddled humidity. Each winter the tropical plants are at risk for a blast of Canadian air. Honestly, it is a lose lose situation and its only redeeming feature is the long long growing season and usually heavy rains which help to restore damage to the gardens in record time.

Every so often, a freeze of this dimension comes around and everyone swears off the orchid grass and Ixoras and puts in dull boxwood and hardy viburnums. But inevitably, the years pass and we begin to creep in the colorful tropicals and set ourselves up for another Apocalypse. This is the tragi-comic cycle of Florida gardening. When you add that standard risk to my own addiction to recreating the lush overflowing English gardens of Jane Austen in the fungus heaven of Florida humidity and it becomes apparent that my task is truly on a scale with Sisyphus. I roll a huge heavy boulder up to the top of the hill, only to have it roll back to the bottom again. Over and over, one would think I would learn my lesson. One would, however, it is near 60 out there again and I am thinking perhaps a nice flowing snow on the mountain could fill in some of the more severe damage while I replant my Pentas and Rue and well, you get the point.

Life - you never get out alive ; )

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