How to Grow Warm-Weather Plants in a North Florida Yard
Q: I’d like to give my yard a tropical look and feel, but I don’t know which plants will survive our North Florida winters. What do you suggest?
A: Florida is a very diverse state in its climate and plant life, as your question illustrates. Even within North Florida, the difference between USDA Zones 8 and 9 can be the difference between a light frost and a hard freeze. Proximity to the coast is another factor, because it gets colder inland than it does along the shore.
If you’re willing to dig up your tropical plants every fall and store them over our usually brief and mild winters in a greenhouse or other protective structure, you can add any tropical plants you desire to your landscape. And some people are willing to do that. For most of us, though, that’s more work than we care to commit to. Instead, we treat tropical plants like annuals, replacing them every spring. Or we plant one or two in large pots and haul the pots inside for the cold season. Decorative pots filled with Chinese hibiscus look great on a patio, and they’re relatively easy to stash in a corner of the garage for winter — or you could bring them indoors. Just make sure you give any plant you’re bringing inside a good rinse with the garden hose first, so you don’t bring any insects along.
Adding palm trees to your landscape is one way to create a tropical atmosphere quickly. The tall, swaying coconut palms of South Florida postcards won’t survive here, but there are plenty of other palms that will. The sabal palm (Sabal palmetto), also called the cabbage palm, is the state tree and does very well throughout North Florida and the Panhandle. It’s a native plant that can take salt, making it a good tree for coastal gardens.
Other palms to consider are Washington palm (Washingtonia robusta), also known as the Mexican fan palm and the petticoat palm; Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei); Pindo palm (Butia capitata); and Lady palm (Rhapis excelsa). Most palms require sunlight, but Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea micrspadix) requires shade. Depending on the microclimates in your yard, you might be able to grow a Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), which requires sun and is hardy in Zone 9A and farther south.
Most palm trees are fairly slow growing, so buy the largest tree you can afford, and be prepared to spend some money. An 8- to 10-foot palm can cost several hundred dollars.
Other trees to consider are loquats, also known as Japanese plum trees, and citrus trees. Loquats do fine in our area, but young citrus need to be protected the first two or three years they’re in the ground, even if they ultimately will be cold-hardy when established.
To give your yard a lush atmosphere, select green perennials such as giant split-leaf philodendron (Philodendron selloum), which needs to be in a protected area, and Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa), with its large rounded leaves punctuated by holes, hence its common name. Both are shade plants that will die back in winter but return in spring if heavily mulched. The same is true for most banana plants. Many people find the dead foliage of banana plants unappealing, but don’t cut it until new growth starts in spring, because it protects the plant. If you really hate the sight of the brown stalks, put it in an out-of-the-way location as a background plant.
Other tropical-looking perennials that do well in most North Florida yards are coontie (Zamia), elephant ears (Alocasia and Colocasia) and various plants commonly called gingers but are members of different botanical families. These include butterfly gingers (Hedychium spp.), peacock gingers (Kaempferia spp.) and shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet), as well as culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale). Make sure you mulch your gingers well. Bouganvillea (Bouganvillea spp), the thorny tropical climbing vine with bountiful flowers, needs winter protection but if planted in the right spot, it will perform as a perennial.
Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae) is a beautiful plant that adds color to a tropical yard, but you’ll have to bring it inside over the winter. Bird of Paradise can take temperatures in the upper 20s, but its flower buds will be killed.
Ti plant (Cordyline) and Croton (Croton linearis) provide lots of color, but neither can take a freeze. Both are fairly inexpensive, so treat them as annuals and replace each spring.
July and August in the Garden
- Taking care of the gardener is as important as taking care of the garden this time of year. Do garden and yard chores early in the morning to avoid the heat. Wear a hat, use sunscreen and drink lots of water to stay hydrated.
- Apply a final dose of fertilizer for the year to citrus trees. Fertilizing after August encourages new growth, which could be susceptible to early frosts and freezes in October.
- Cut back leggy growth on annuals such as impatiens and begonias to encourage bushy new growth; fertilize lightly.
- Pinch back chrysanthemums and other fall-blooming perennials.
- Remove suckers from tomato plants and plant in sterile potting soil. They should have established roots and be ready to transplant into the garden in September.
- Plant broccoli, collards, turnips and other fall crops in late August.
©2013 PostScript Publishing, all rights reserved. Audrey Post is a certified Advanced Master Gardener volunteer with the University of Florida/IFAS Extension in Leon County. Email her at Questions@MsGrowItAll.com or visit her website at msgrowitall.com. Ms. Grow-It-All® is a registered trademark of PostScript Publishing.