Freezing temperatures in Florida landscape

One of the biggest challenges is protecting the Florida garden from freezing temperatures. Florida temperatures typically drop below 32℉ only once or twice a year (if lucky). After struggling with new garden designs last Spring, then facing down two hurricanes, the next challenge is bitter-cold temperatures.

Sheets and blankets offer basic frost protection.

Residential gardeners own sheets and blankets to drape over tropical plants on cold nights. Master gardeners warn against using plastic sheets or materials that trap water against the plant leaves.

Central Florida hasn’t seen freezing temperatures since 2018; we’ve been fortunate. The issue isn’t just a 32℉ thermometer reading but how long it stays at or below that temperature. The Christmas weekend freeze forecast was four nights in the mid to low 30s. Christmas Eve’s forecast shows temperatures at 30℉ between 2 am to 9 am, and should the temperature freeze last that long; some plants will die.

Potential Impact on Florida Farmers

Florida still produces 70% of the US juicing oranges and grapefruits. Florida’s vegetable and fruit crops are a $1.39 billion industry. This state grows 50% of fresh tomatoes, 45% of peppers, 24% of sweet corn, and 11% of the nation’s strawberries. Florida produces 75% of the leatherleaf ferns used by florists in Central Florida.

Florida strawberries may fall to the 2022 Christmas freeze.

Florida’s strawberries are grown throughout the state. Farmers are just starting to harvest the Florida strawberry crop in December. The growing season typically runs through early March.

Commercial farmers and growers can blanket crops in ice to hold their temperatures at freezing or use heaters and commercial coverings.

The hobby gardener traditionally uses sheets and blankets to protect plants from frost. Some botanicals may survive and grow from the root after a freeze with the insulation layer or mulch.

Protecting Residential Plants in a Freeze

My garden includes primarily tropical plants. Thankfully the palms, bird of paradise, and camellias are cold-hardy to temperatures in the low 20s. They won’t be happy, but they will survive.

All orchids hate the cold. Winter temperatures can quickly damage or kill these beauties.
All orchids hate cold weather and will begin to decline when temperatures drop into the 30s.

My orchid collection totals more than 45 varieties and 80 pots and baskets. Most of the time, growing orchids in Florida requires little effort except watering and treating fungus outbreaks.

Orchids do, however, hate cold weather. Orchids will stop blooming and growing when temperatures drop below 50℉. Even one night near 30℉ can weaken the plant’s system and make it susceptible to disease.

I dutifully move all 80 baskets and pots into the garage anytime our weather indicates low temperatures to protect these plants. My laundry is also housed in the garage, and I’ll often do it to provide them with moist, warm air overnight. But orchids require air circulation regularly. So they only tolerate these lock-ups for brief periods. Luckily these cold temperatures are usually a one or two-night event.

How to spot freeze damage.

I won’t trim or cut back my plants until the winter months are officially past. My fishtail palm (officially a Caryota palm with frons that resembles a fish’s tail) and the hibiscus bushes show cold damage with brown leaves. The 30-foot-tall white bird of paradise in the corner has brown leaves from cold temperatures. A simple pruning later will fix any cosmetic issues.

The Plumeria trees look fine, but they are dormant right now. Their limbs will turn soft and mushy as Spring arrives if they were damaged over the winter. These flowering trees are established in the garden and will return from the roots. I don’t worry too much about the plumeria unless we have 7 or 8 hours below 32℉.

Brown leaves show a garden burnt by freeze.

My fishtail palm has several branches that turned brown a few weeks after the freezing weather.

It can take weeks for freeze damage to appear in tropical plants because most are dormant during winter. Like my hibiscus plants and bird of paradise, this fishtail palm will develop new growth to replace these limbs.

Freeze damage never recovers or gets better. I’ll cut away dead and damaged branches as Spring approaches, and new growth emerges from the bottom of the plant.

The Positive Side of a Freezing Night.

Yes, there are good things that come after a Florida garden freeze. Low temperatures kill off garden pests and fungi that spread in Florida’s damp, wet weather. A garden freeze leaves behind plant damage and may kill some weakened plants. However, the occasional low temperature may save some species from parasitic disease next Spring.

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