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Planning for Microclimates
by Ginny Stibolt

Prickly pears in a hot dry corner.  Photo by Stibolt.
Prickly pears in a hot dry corner.

Unless your landscape is an open field, there will be various microclimates caused by the proximity of planting sites to buildings, other plants, or bodies of water.  Foot traffic, and exposure to sun and wind also affect the planting conditions.  This is part of that often-heard advice, "Plant the right plants in the right place."  It's best to create a garden or landscape feature that will take good advantage of existing conditions.

Since the prickly pears* (Opuntia humifusa) are blooming now, I thought it might be a good time to discuss what we have done with some of our microclimates.

Prickly Pear Point

The sunny garden area between the driveway and the front walk gets hot as all that cement retains heat from the sun.  The previous owner had planted a shrub out there, but it wasn't doing well.  We moved the shrub when we first remulched the front bed and created our prickly pear point.  We built a hill with sandy soil and capped off the sprinkler head that was located at the tip of the point.  Then we covered the whole area with weed barrier cloth and cut crosses in the cloth allowing access to plant several prickly pears.  We covered the whole area with red volcano gravel and some larger volcano rocks arranged to look somewhat natural.  We rescued the gravel and rocks from other areas on the lot. 

This year we also created a garden area out by the mailbox with yuccas and prickly pears.  You can see it beyond the fence in the top photo.  It was hard to mow around the mailbox and the grass wasn't doing well out there, so we capped off a sprinkler head and installed plants that will do well out there in the heat.  Once the plants adjust, I'll post photos in my log.

Tomato plants love the western wall of the house.  Photo by Stibolt

The Western Wall

There are no trees to shade the western wall at the back of our house.  The garden area between the concrete sidewalk and the slab foundation really heats up in the afternoon.  The white wall of the house also reflects light.

The previous owner had planted this garden with tea roses.  This was another case of bad planning, because it was too hot for those roses, but it's perfect for our tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.  In the winter we've planted lettuce, carrots and other cool weather crops.  The microclimate changes with the seasons, and we try to take advantage of the conditions. 

We enriched the soil with composted horse manure and compost as described in my tomato article.

Other Microclimates

We've removed quite a bit of lawn from under the trees on our lot.  Competition between trees and turf grass for water and nutrients means that neither the trees nor the lawn will thrive.  More details are in this article on our "de-lawning" process.

White topped sedges and ferns grace the edge of the pond.  Photo by Stibolt

Another area where we've removed lawn is at the edge of our front pond.  The previous owner had sodded right down to the waterline.  It was hard to mow and did not take advantage of the consistent moisture there.  

We've planted an assortment of ferns, rushes, native hibiscus, and native irises.  As shown in the photo to the right, white topped sedges (Rhynchospora colorata) love this damp environment.  We left defined pathways for the turtles and for us.  Mulch helps keep down the weeds.  

Rain gardens are built to hold rainwater and let it soak into the ground.  They can be really wet for a few days after a hard rain or they could be really dry during a drought.  A limited number of plants can survive both of these conditions such as rushes, sedges, rain lilies, meadow garlic, beauty berries, groundsel trees, bayberries, and some ferns.  I included a good list and some resources in my article on rain gardens.  I've expanded the rain garden at the front porch under the downspout and I'll include more details later.  

Experiment with Microclimates

Sometimes there are aspects of a microclimate that are not obvious to you, but watch your plants-they will react positively or negatively to a location. When you bring new plants into your landscape, plant them in a few locations, and then let the plants tell you where they belong. If you have enough plants, trade with a neighbor so you'll each have a plant bank.  This way if something happens to your population, you can make a withdrawal from your plant bank and replant it in a more appropriate space.

~ ~ ~

*Prickly pears are a true cactus in the cactus family, Cactaceae.  Plants in this family have showy flowers and instead of branches, they have spines, which are modified branches that grow from dimpled areas on the pads called areolae.  Numerous small barbed prickles called glochids also grow from the areolae.  Handle with thick leather gloves.  Check for glochids embedded in your exposed skin by lightly brushing the surface-you'll feel them.

2 small bees furously work over the pricly pear flower.  Photo by Stibolt.


All parts of the plant are edible, but only after the prickery parts have been scraped away.  The purple fruits are called tunas and the pads are called nopales and both are popular in Mexico and Central and South American countries.

<< As two small bees (about 1/2-inch long) work furiously amongst the numerous stamens of the prickly pear flower, pollen flies everywhere.  Each flower lasts for one day.  Early in the morning before any bees have visited, the stamens are cocked.  They will whack anything that that touches them and coat the visitor with a dusting of pollen.

Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners here in northeast Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in planting zone 8/9. She's in the process of writing a book, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," to be published by University Press of Florida.

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