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Gardening in the South

Tropical gardening is different from gardening up north, but these tips will help you adapt to the heat and mild winters to grow your best garden yet. If you’re lucky enough to garden in zones 9 through 11, you can garden all year long without even slowing down in winter. While everyone else is shoveling snow, you can be harvesting a salad from your veggie garden or enjoying a breakfast of bananas and fresh squeezed orange juice. But as wonderful as it seems, tropical gardening isn’t without its difficulties.

Gardeners in Florida and along the southeastern gulf coast have to contend with sweltering heat in summer, but out west in Arizona and California, drought is the issue.

There are vegetables to plant for the summer garden, but the traditional summer standbys of corn, tomatoes and watermelon will have to wait until fall. However, if you plant warm season crops like peppers, sweet potatoes and eggplant in spring, you might be able to still enjoy them through summer. Herbs are a bit tougher, and you can plant cilantro, lemongrass, oregano, basil, mint, rosemary and thyme any time of the year.

To keep your garden green through dry summers, choose drought-tolerant plants like succulents, ornamental grasses or natives whenever possible and use mulch to conserve moisture. Install soaker hoses and water early in the morning so that all of the valuable moisture actually ends up with your plants rather than evaporating in the harsh sun.

If summer seems a bit like a cruel punishment, then winters are our reward. Temperatures rarely fall below freezing, which allows us to plant cool season crops like greens, broccoli, carrots, peas, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, onions and garlic while everyone else is shoveling snow off of their driveways. Mild winters are also ideal for growing winter annuals. Violets, snapdragons, pansies, alyssum, petunias and sweet peas.

The downside to mild winters is that they make it difficult to grow many temperate plants like tulips and cherry trees, which actually prefer a cold winter rest. If your heart is still set on an apple or peach tree, choose one that has been selected for your region and has low chill requirements.

Frosts and freezes might be unusual in the subtropics, but unless you live in Miami or Hawaii, they still rear their ugly head from time to time. On nights when temperatures near freezing are expected, cover up plants with blankets or tarps to protect them from frosts.

For all of the heat and discomfort of the tropics, there are so many bold and exciting plants to make it seem like paradise. Since some plants are better suited to Florida than Southern California (or vice-versa), check with your local extension agent to find the best plants for your.

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Gardening Tip of the Day

  • Several options are available to overwinter a favorite geranium. The first is to cut it back and pot it up as a houseplant for the winter to replant outside in the spring. The second is to pull it up, brush off any clinging soil, and hang it upside down in a cool, humid basement until replanting in spring. Or, you can cut 4-inch lengths of new stem and put them in water or damp vermiculite to root. Once rooted, transfer to individual pots and treat as houseplants.