Floridata Article

Gardener's Journal February 2002

Cypress Pond with ice
On the last day of February I awoke to find the shallow waters of the Cypress Pond encrusted with ice. On the first day of March it began to rain and storm.
Cypress Pond with lots more water
By the second day of March the Cypress Pond water level had risen more than 6' thanks to the 8" of rain we received when the cold front came through. As nasty as it was this freeze had a silver lining in that it helped us make up a portion of our years-long rainfall deficit!

Here in North Florida February began all balmy and beautiful but concluded all cold and crappy when a wave of arctic weather blasted through. The freeze destroyed blossoms and damaged tender foliage. I always get bummed out when there's a freeze but I really get annoyed when late freezes occur especially after a long period of mild weather because of the damage they inflict. This year we lucked out though and most of my stuff endured the onslaught with less damage than I would have guessed. Nevertheless I cuss and swear and otherwise become irrational but then tend to become fatalistic and exert little effort to protect my plants. OK it might be more laziness than fatalism, but I figure that if something dies, it's dead and if it doesn't die I'll nurse it back to health when warm weather returns (and I'm in a better mood). Steve, on the other had, is proactive in battling the cold. He has a primo irrigation system, smudge pots and lots of mulch on hand to battle the occasional cold snap. I received this email report from Steve just after the first February freeze:

Hardy Citrus Here in North Florida it takes some effort and just the right variety to succeed at growing citrus. Steve thinks 'Ambersweet', a hybrid between grapefruit and satsuma, will be a good variety for those of us in Zone 8B. It seems to be hardy to about 25º or 26º F. Below that it loses most of its leaves and won't bloom that year.

The vegetable garden looks as though there was no freeze at all. I covered the susceptible veggies with a loose layer of hay, then ran the overhead sprinkler on them throughout the freezing temperatures. I noticed that where the peas did not get covered, they were wilted even though they still got the ice treatment. It appears that the peas, lettuce, beets, endive, radicchio, etc. kept right on growing as the temperature dropped to 21º F! I know from past experience that these veggies would have suffered greatly without intervention. I would have had to replant the peas and it would have taken the lettuce, endive, etc. weeks to recover. It's too soon to be sure, but it looks like the 'Ambersweet', with its tender new growth and almost opening flower buds, is relatively undamaged. Also, the tender tropicals (which got the same treatment as the veggies) appear to be unscathed.

He later amended the report after a second freeze struck several days later by noting that most of the tropical species were killed back to the roots. I was impressed that he was able to keep them going until the end of February - mine were zapped two months ago by the freeze we had the first of the year! You know, this is probably the first time I broke this particular commandment but I think I covet his irrigation system...

In Bloom at Floridune

Azaleas, camellias, oriental magnolias - everything was blooming like crazy here by mid-February and the place was on the verge of spectacular. Then came the stupid freezes at the end of the month that transformed my spring spectacular into shades of brown. Blah...

Most of the camellias and many of the azalea varieties were in full bloom when the freeze struck. Flower blossoms were demolished but unopened buds were spared so we're due another burst of color in a week or two. Likewise the tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans), Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) and Caroline cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana) all resumed blooming immediately upon return of warm temperatures and look none the worse for wear.

sand pear blossoms
Steve and I both grow the sand pear (Pyrus X Lecontei). Although the tree itself is gangly and stupid looking it does produce both beautiful late winter flowers and hard but flavorful fruit that is perfect for pear pie.

I have a sand pear tree that I inherited when I moved to Floridune. I didn't much like it at first, because it was scraggly and I couldn't figure out how to prune it into an acceptable shape due to the long vertical branches it produces. A couple years ago, instead of heading them back, I let the branches grow as tall as they wanted until they flopped over away from the trunk in the shape of an open umbrella. I cut the drooping ends of the branches at the same height from the ground - essentially giving it bangs. In summer it looks like it has a Beatle moptop haircut. In the winter the bare limbs reach like the tentacles of an octopus. My sand pear is now acceptably weird enough looking for me to enjoy so I've decided not to cut it down as originally planned - besides I've really come to look forward to that annual pear pie. Now that I've bonded with my sand pear I'll get Steve to do a profile of it for Floridata - after all it is tasty, drought resistant, virtually pest free and about the only (edible) pear we can easily grow here in the Deep South.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is one of the earliest harbingers of spring.
Carolina cherry laurel flowers
Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana) doesn't mind an occasional freeze.
saucer magnolia
These saucer magnolia's (Magnolia x soulangeana) flowers were totally destroyed at their peak by the cold snap - bummer.

Just before the freeze I noticed that both my white and red loropetalum shrubs (Loropetalum chinense) were beginning to bloom. After a short delay due to cold, they have resumed blooming and looking cool - especially the red. If you are searching for an easy to grow shrub that is perfect for foundation plantings, groundcover and providing contrast in mixed hedge plantings you should check out this guy. You'll see lots of loropetalum of several varieties used to good effect in plantings all over the Disney World properties. Actually you'll see lots of loropetalum used in commercial landscapes in Zones 7 - 9 as it has become a very popular landscape item in recent years. It is a close relative of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) which has similar shaped flowers and also blooms in winter.

My favorite winter blooming vine, pink jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum), got totally clobbered because where I have it planted is too exposed to the elements. Smarter gardeners in North Florida and elsewhere grow this rather tender plant in entryways and other protected areas. Unlike me they are currently enjoying gobs of tiny pink flowers and clouds of delicate fragrance. My pink jasmine has gotten frosted every winter for the past ten years despite being relocated three times. I guess I should wise up to the fact that it is probably just too cold here for this jasmine but I'll keep trying to find a cozy place somewhere on the property where my little frost-frazzled favorite can survive!

This is leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei). The light blue fruit is this year's crop and the dark purple is from last year - I've observed birds snacking on both.
wild olive
The devilwood or wild olive (Osmanthus americanus) tree in my back yard is loaded with fruit this year - but so far the birds don't seem very interested in dining upon it.
castiron plant flower and seed capsules
The not-so-spectacular flowers (center) and seed pods of the cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) nestle at the soil line and are rarely noticed.

In Fruit (and Seed) at Floridune

In February we have ripe fruit and seed suitable only for birds and wildlife. There's nothing at all for me to snack on. It would be a different story if I had planted some last fall. I would then be on the verge of savoring succulent red berries right about now. Poor me, strawberries are my favorite fruit and I don't even know anyone who grows them from whom I could mooch. I intend to motivate myself and plant at least a couple of dozen plants this spring - fer sure...

While strawberries are my favorite, these species seem to be on the "A list" of bird treats! Very early in the winter the fruits of the wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) and Grancy Greybeard (Chionanthus virginicus) were quickly gobbled up by our resident birds. Soon after I noticed that the Carolina cherry laurel, yaupon and dahoon holly were stripped bare of berries too by flocks of visitors.

I suppose much less tasty are some of the hybrid hollies (like Savannah) and the wild olive (Osmanthus americanus) as these remain loaded with fruit. I squeezed open a wild olive and found it contained a green jelly - like a grape. It looks like something a bird would savor. I saw a mockingbird sitting in the tree last week but I couldn't tell if he was eating the wild olives or just tracking my activities from that vantage point. This mocker is a little badass, he chases other birds away from his wild olive tree which might explain the abundance of fruit this late in the season. I think he has a nest nearby because he is very aggressive and often dive bombs me when I come near. He's even tried to poop on me on a couple of occasions! Bad bird!

Last month I was startled at the sight of several white spheres at the base of the plant I was digging and freaked that they might be snake eggs. But my concern was unfounded, the jawbreaker-size spheres were actually the seed pods of the cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior). Upon closer inspection I discovered a flower as well. Aspidistra flowers are rather uninspired looking things that I've never noticed before since they grow just at the soil line among the dense cluster of leaf stems. The cast-iron plant more than makes up for its homely flowers with lush, shade loving evergreen foliage that is one of the Deep South's favorite ground covers.

needle palms
I divided five new needle palms from a single old clump that was growing by the shed. I planted them beneath some wax myrtles beside the Catfish Pond where I think they look very handsome and totally native!


Bad weather and fun travel took up two of my weekends in February so I didn't get much done in the garden. I did manage to put in fifty feet of monkey grass (Liriope muscari) border and got another half dozen crape myrtles pruned (gotta hurry and do the rest before they leaf out). My big project for the month was the division of a clump of needle palms (Rhapidophyllum hystrix). I separated five nice size plants that I relocated to the edge of the Catfish Pond. Shortly thereafter we had the big rainstorm and my transplants are already sending out new leaves. This was major work but it was well worth the effort! To celebrate this major accomplishment I performed no additional useful work for the remainder of the month...

... except for one other pleasurable task which was the planting of a memorial tree for Dixie, my old Great Dane who died in early February. I buried her in Floridune's Dog Cemetery beneath the high canopy of a live oak. I decided to commemorate Dixie with a star magnolia as these were in bloom when she died. I made a trip to the nursery and found a pretty little tree that still had a few buds left. It is a variety call 'Waterlily' that has larger flowers than the species and that has a pink blush at the center - a beautiful tree for a beautiful old dog.

Good Old Dog Gone

Dixie the Great Dane
Good old Dixie girl

Dixie has been gone for a month now and we all still miss her - especially her kennel mate. Mathilde is the largest of the females and rules the household. When Dixie's health began to fail Mathilde became very protective of the smaller dog and began allowing her to eat and drink first. Mathilde was obviously worried about her old girlfriend. It was heart wrenching to see Dixie napping in the sunshine with Mathilde standing astride her shielding her from the wind and warming her friend with the heat of her body. Now a month later Mathilde still searches for Dixie, but somehow I can tell that she doesn't expect to find her. When Mathilde walks to her kennel, she glances at Dixie's old bed, then at me, sighs and slowly shuffles into her crate and thumps into bed. Regardless of species, we all miss having Dixie around and life is a little less fun.

The Lawn Chair

duck boys napping by the Catfish Pond
The Duck Boys relax with Jack down by the Catfish Pond. The bald cypress in the background will begin leafing out any day now and spring will be here (and they will be bald no longer)!

On a happier note, it appears that a family of wild hogs has move into the neighborhood. The Great Danes are ecstatic as the breed originated in Germany a couple of centuries ago specifically to track and fell wild boar. Even though generations have passed since any ancestor actually hunted a boar they still seem to have a genetically imprinted instinct that awakens at the scent of wild hog. These piney hogs as they are also called are nasty looking creatures and one of the few species where even the babies are ugly! Several years ago the Danes cornered one named Melvin under the shed. When I tried to rescue him Melvin squirted the rudest smelling pee on me so I gave him to some neighbors down the road. They ate him.

A couple of days ago I saw a teenage pig run past my window at midday which I thought was pretty brazen considering what happened to Melvin. I hope the hog family moves on soon before they do major damage. Until then at least the Danes are getting back to their roots scanning the alluring pig pee scents that adorn Floridune at the moment. Party on guys!

That's about all that happened around here in February - I sure am looking forward to March and springtime! Thanks to everyone who supported Floridata last month with voluntary subscriptions and by purchasing our t-shirts. Your generosity is hugely appreciated. Please visit often and tell your friends about us. No matter where you live I hope spring finds it way to your garden - soon! Be good and grow!

John S. "Jack" Scheper 2/28/02

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