Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beating Winter to the Punch

Readers of this blog will recall that it was the record-shattering freeze of January 2010 (remember the 10 straight freezing nights?) that launched us on our Extreme Yard Makeover. Like many folks, we lost darn near every plant in our yard. That's when we decided to "do it over, and do it right." 

And so we did. In addition to following the "right plant, right place" approach, we also embraced "right plant, right region." We wanted cold-hardy plants that would survive a North Tampa winter. Not only does this make sense, it saves cents -- as in not having to continually replace plants each spring. 

Beautyberry is a cold-hardy native that flourishes throughout the Southeast U.S.
It also saves us from having to dash around the yard wrapping and covering everything in our path on a cold night, when we'd rather be drinking hot chocolate in front of our fireplace.

Yet our attitude appears to be unusual, even in our own neighborhood. No doubt about it: residents of Tampa Bay love their tropicals!

We live in USDA Hardiness Zone 9A, though I often select plants from 9B as well. Anything below that is a no-go, unless it can grow in a container that can be moved inside during freezes. In fact, just to show I am not immune to the tropical allure, I recently purchased a stunning heliconia at the USF Fall Plant Sale. But I bought it expressly for a large container, and that is where it will stay. I can imagine, however, that my husband will have a few choice words for it -- and me -- when it comes time for us to tag team this hefty thing of beauty into the shed.

I was heartened to see that many of the vendors at the plant sale -- especially the Native Plant Society -- were actively promoting cold-hardy species. I bought two more rouge plants from them to go with the single lonely specimen I now have.
Ocala (yellow) anise is a cold-weather champion.
When crushed, its leaves smell like -- you guessed it -- anise.
We may not always have winter freezes, but I'm not betting against them. We are in a period of intense climate disruption, and on our way to overall warmer temperatures we are seeing wild extremes in climate. 

A major motivation for our landscape makeover was to save time. In the Spring, we'd rather be fishing or cycling than planting. And we sure don't want to have to keep shelling out our hard-earned money for new plants over and over again. 

Yet the lure of tropicals is so strong for many of us - why is that? All of Florida is certainly not Miami, yet to look at the most common landscaping plants here you'd think it was. Sago and royal palms, ti plants, crotons, and bougainvilleas abound. And none can tolerate freezing temperatures for long. Some can't even take temperatures in the mid-40s -- and you can be sure we will see those every winter.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Cold-sensitive plants grown along a fence, with a southern exposure, may do fine. Ditto for plants grown under the insulating warmth of an oak's canopy. This is where "right plant, right place" comes back into play. We were amazed at the way our large live oak served as a natural blanket for everything in our front yard. This is why our dracaena marginata tricolor, a definite tropical, flourishes there.  Only the threesome on the very perimeter of the oak canopy showed any cold damage at all last winter, and then it was very little. Yet another reason to salute live oaks!

Our tri-color dracaenas are now 4 feet tall and
 quite happy under the shelter of our  large live oak
Some of our choices are marginal for our hardiness zone, but experience has shown they will come back strong even after dying back completely over the winter. Wild coffee is one of those, as is firebush. We can live with them getting whacked every winter because we know they'll "Spring" right back. 

But the vast majority of the landscape is cold-hardy, for a reason. We learned our lesson in 2010. 

The distinctive Weeping Yaupon Holly makes a lovely small specimen tree 
Specimen trees like East Palatka and Weeping Yaupon hollies; foundational shrubs like Ocala anise, beautyberry, coontie and blue-stem saw palmetto; and groundcovers like bulbine, evergreen liriope and asiatic jasmine, take everything Old Man Winter can throw their way. Even flax lily and chenille plant, used extensively as groundcovers in our garden, weather the cold with little damage, indicating that there is some wiggle room with those hardiness zones depending on the specific conditions in which they are grown.

All it takes is a little thought, and planning -- and maybe a bit of luck as well -- to beat winter to the punch! 


  1. Well said, Nanette. It was the winters of 2008 through 2010 that convinced me to shore up my native and foundational plant base. Every planting bed now has really good sturdy plants so a harsh winter doesn't wipe out my garden.

    I love what you two have done and it has paid off so nicely with giving you a beautiful setting and lots more free time.

    There is nothing better than a natural blanket of oak trees... they are the ultimate salvation of my garden in winter ... because I am retired from blanket covering and panic at weather reports. :-) Meems

  2. I'm with you, Meems. I may lose one or two plants in a harsh winter but I'm not going to lose the "backbone" of the landscape ever again. Of course, I can't imagine not adding new plants from time to time (it's in our blood!), so changing out containers with the seasons is a great way to satisfy the need for change.

    As far as live oaks, we simply could not believe the service ours provided by protecting our plants last winter. Palms seem to be the preferred landscaping tree in Tampa, especially in newer developments, but I wouldn't trade my live oak for anything.

  3. I've started replacing plants with natives for the same reason. You'll have so much more time to do what you like! Kudos!

  4. Daisy, some of my non-natives, like bulbine and the lovely Shoal Creek chaste tree, sail through winter without missing a beat too, but I agree that natives that grow endemically in our zone are a great choice. Natives that grow in the northern fringes of Zone 9, such as the hollies and the Ocala anise, seems to be especially well adapted to cold winters.What natives are you planting?

  5. Yes, I remember the freeze well. I am in North FL, zone 8.

  6. I bet you thought were in Minnesota that January instead of North Florida, Darla!

  7. I was really surprised by how many of my plants sprang (is that a word?) back after those terrible freezes. About the only ones I've given up on are hibiscus - and they were kind of a pain anyway, what with all the aphids.
    I've also found that plants that might be a little cold tender tend to tolerate a freeze quite well if they are well established -- in my no-irrigation garden, that means planted in the summer, when all the rain makes for happy roots.

  8. That's a great point, Penny. Plant the more sensitive goodies when they have ample time to get a foothold and put down good roots. Now is certainly not the right time to stick the tropical dainties in the ground -- it would be cruel and unusual punishment!

    It also amazes me how even a few miles can make a difference in plant survival. In Tampa, for example, when you travel SOK (south of Kennedy) it gets noticeably warmer. Isn't that interesting?

  9. Those winter memories have not faded from my mind and as I get older I find myself seeking out plants that require very little maintenance and ones that are cold-hardy. Less work and the garden looks great year round.

  10. Amen to that, Susan. I like that my landscape has at least some color all year, and I even like the notion of nature (and me!)taking a bit of rest in the winter.

  11. Great looking Beautyberry plant. These grow well here in Texas too -- even in our high temps (57 days over 100 this year) and drought conditions.

  12. I only recently learned how widespread beautyberry is. It's one tough plant, and certainly does light up our Fall landscapes.

  13. I always love seeing pictures of your garden. The anise sounds very interesting as a foundation planting. Having a nice scent is a bonus too. The beautyberry is striking with those magenta berries. Alas, my one specimen died after being subjected to standing water this past September. I plan to put a couple new ones on higher ground beneath the oak in the future. They are just everywhere in natural Florida and I think they should be in my garden as well.

  14. Nanak, so sorry about your beautyberry. I think drowning is the only way you CAN kill them. We liked the one lone specimen we had so much that I planted two more right beside it this spring. That may have been a mistake, considering how big they get and how small my yard is... Some pruning or relocating may be in my future.