NORTHWEST FLORIDA WEATHER IS UNIQUE FOR GARDENING, by Larry Williams UF/IFAS Extension Agent

Gardening success often depends on local weather conditions. Our winter weather here in the northern Gulf Coast is unique (somewhere between temperate and subtropical), allowing us to grow a wider range of plant species than just about anywhere else in the country.

Northwest Florida is in Zone 8 according to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Zone 8 is divided into 8a and 8b. The southern portion of our coastal counties is in Zone 8b with the lowest winter temperatures in the 15ºF to 20ºF range. The more northern parts of these same counties are in Zone 8a, showing past winter temperatures as low as 10 to 15 degrees.

Our area normally receives several brief freezes each winter. Landscapes close to the Gulf and bays are warmer and experience fewer freezes. Temperatures along the coast are often 5 to 10 degrees F higher than are found just a few miles inland.

Cold periods are brief, usually lasting only two or three days. Our rapidly fluctuating winter temperatures can cause problems for some plants. Winter temperatures can drop quickly following a warm period and temperate zone plants are often caught in a semi-dormant state. Some cold injury is not unusual, even on normally cold hardy species.

With our unusual Gulf Coast weather in mind, following are a few winter gardening tips:

  • Allow temperate zone woody shrubs to slow down and enter dormancy by withholding high nitrogen containing fertilizers.
  • Irrigate landscape plantings thoroughly one to two days before a freeze is expected. Well watered plants tolerate freezes better than drought stressed plants. And moist soil holds more heat than dry soil for better protection on those cold winter nights.
  • Continue planting cool season vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, radish, carrots, cauliflower, kohlrabi, mustard, onions and turnips.
  • Fall through early winter is an ideal time to plant trees and shrubs. Our mild winters allow for root growth and a jump on establishment before hot weather arrives next year.
  • Rake and use fall leaves as mulch in flower, shrub and vegetable beds.
  • Establish cool season annuals for winter and early spring color. Bedding plants of snapdragons, dianthus, pansies and petunias have begun arriving at local nurseries and garden centers.
  • Finish dividing and transplanting the clumping perennials such as daylilies, mondo, ajuga and liriope.
  • Locate local sources or place orders for fruit trees. Dormant trees are normally shipped during December and January for winter planting. Contact your local Extension office for a list of recommended varieties.
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