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F... Fr... Frigid Florida: What's a Gardener to do?
by Ginny Stibolt

For one thing, we gardeners will find out how sustainable our landscapes really are. If you have plants that suffer in the cold in your landscape, it's a lot of work to rush out on every freeze warning to provide cover and/or heat. A sustainable landscape survives all the slings and arrows of our Florida climate: too wet, too dry, too hot, and occasionally like this week, too cold. Generally, the native plants are the most sustainable, because they are well adapted to our climate.

Before the cold hit, I pulled up all the peppers (Capsicum spp), which have been wonderfully prolific this year, and the couple of fall tomato plants, which didn't quite get around to ripening. This is the third year I've tried a fall tomato crop and I've yet to make it work. So now I have an abundance of peppers and a bunch of small green tomatoes. Does anyone have a really good recipe for green tomatoes?

I also pulled up the last of the basil (Ocimum basilicum) and plucked the flowers and green leaves from the mostly woody stems. I've made my last batch of pesto for the season. (Pesto recipe.) I also transplanted the few volunteer seedlings into a pot so I can move it inside on these really cold days. When the weather warms up, I'll put it out on the back step where it'll receive late morning and afternoon sun. If it gets cold again, I'll bring it back inside.

The only other preventive measure we took was to move a few containers into the garage. The rest of the landscape will fend for itself. Our tropical hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) will probably die back to the ground, but I won't chop off the canes yet.  I'll wait for warmer weather to see if buds form on the stems, and then I'll trim off the dead stems where no buds form.  Some of them will grow back in the spring-only the strongest survive. Our native scarlet hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus) plants prepared for the cold by shedding their leaves in the late fall.

Many Floridians grow citrus (Citrus spp)and other semi-tender dooryard fruit trees. It's most sustainable, of course, to plant the varieties that work for your climate, but with an unusual cold snap like this, saving your trees and fruit is definitely worth the effort. Many citrus fruits can survive light frosts because of their thick skin, but the safer alternative is to pick the fruits before a hard freeze.

When covering tender plants, either use something that is translucent and breathable or remove the covering each day as the temperature rises. I've seen a number of folks wrap their tender plants in black plastic and leave them covered for days on end-the poor plant inside will probably die, but most likely from lack of light and airflow, not the cold alone.

For a great summary of what to do with cold-damaged landscapes, see Duval County (Jacksonville) Extension Agent Terry Brite Delvalle's timely article: Putting the cold in perspective in Northeast Florida: How the winter blast is affecting vegetables, fruit and more.

Successes and Failures 2009

Because it's too cold and windy to work comfortably outside, I'll behave like a northern gardener and plan ahead for the next season. I've ordered some new tomato and pepper seeds: by the time they are delivered this coming week, it'll be time to plant them. To plan ahead, you need to look back to see what worked during the previous year, so I thought you might like to see some of our successes and failures:

Burpee's Sugar snap peas: a great success!  Photo by StiboltSuccess: Sugar snap peas(Pisum sativum). I first planted twelve peas in late Feb as a test-they all germinated and produced like crazy until hot weather. I planted a few this fall along with our cool weather crops to see how they'd go into the winter and they've done well, but they've suffered some in this cold. It'll be interesting to see if they make it all the way through winter. I hope they do.  In this photo, note the green anole lizard on the right side of the photo watching for bugs. It's much better to have lizards in your edible garden than to use poisons.

Failure: Very few of our fall lettuces (Lactuca sativa) have germinated or survived. I'm not sure whether it was the warm fall weather or neglect, because I have to admit that I was busy and didn't think much about additional watering of my new seedlings. It hurts that I'm buying lettuce at this time of year.

Success: Sweet bell peppers. I grew several types: big daddy, California wonder, yellow banana and chocolate peppers. The wet summer made a big difference in production and they produced heavily all season. What a treat.

Failure: Fall tomato crop (Lycopersicon lycopersicum): We had a reasonable season in the spring, but I have yet to find the magic formula to end up with a good crop in the fall. Tomatoes don't set fruit if the nighttime temperatures don't fall below 70 degrees. I had some seedlings, cuttings from the spring crop, and some store-bought plants. They were all in the ground by the first week in September, but as I stated above all I got was about 20 hard green tomatoes from the one early girl plant that made it through the fall.

Ginny's hurricane lilies made a big splash in her fall landscape.  Photo by StiboltSuccess: Hurricane lily, red spider lily (Lycoris radiata): I acquired 40 bulbs from a friend and planted them last fall. Over the year I had a vague idea where most of them were, but I was still surprised by the quick growth of their naked flower stalks. They flowered over several weeks and then their leaves emerged. I guess the leaves will remain through the winter before they die back. Then next year I'll be surprised again. I'm looking forward to that.

Success: While this is slightly off topic, my book " Sustainable Gardening for Florida" has been well received with great reviews and it's on its way to a second printing. I'm appearing all over Florida this spring, so make a point to say hi when you find me at an event near you.

May you all have a bountiful 2010 and I hope to meet up with you soon at one of my upcoming events.

Oh yes, those little green tomatoes... It seemed like too much work to bread them and fry them in the traditional fried green tomatoes because they were so small and we don't use relish-green tomato or not. So my husband used half of them in a stir-fry with onions, sugar snap peas, and peppers. The rest became part of a spaghetti sauce. The green tomatoes were tasty additions to both of these meals.

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 written a book, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," published by University Press of Florida.

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