The Challenges of Gardening in Central Florida
When I moved to Florida I naively assumed that my primary challenge as a gardener would be dealing with the heat. While Florida's sweltering summers can sap the strength out of most humans and plants, it is not the heat that typically determines whether a plant will thrive in Florida, it's the cold. For example, in July the normal high temperature in Florida is somewhere between 86 and 91 degrees, whether you are in Tallahassee, Orlando or Miami. It will be hot no matter where you go in the state. However, the January low temperatures for these three cities varies greatly:
If you live in Tallahassee, you expect killing winter freezes and know that you will have to take extraordinary precautions to protect your tropical plants. In Miami frosts are rare and tropical plants typically make it through the winter without the need for a great deal of attention. It is the central part of the state in cities like Orlando and Tampa where you find the challenge. While the winters are typically mild in Central Florida, there will usually be two or three frosts and some will last long enough to be a hard or killing frost. And there is the rub, Central Florida is too hot and too cold. It is too hot for many of the plants that depend on mild summers and cold winters (see Chilling Hours in Florida) and too cold for many Tropical plants that collapse with the first sign of freezing temperatures. But the dilemma is even more complex. There are a large number of plants that thrive in Central Florida's heat and still make it through most winter frosts. However, only a few of these Zone 9 plants would be described as exotic or providing a rich variety of color. So many gardeners in Central Florida are tempted to look to the Tropics and its rich source of flowering plants such as Gingers, Plumeria and Orchids. And those who are willing to take the risk are richly rewarded each Spring and Summer as these plants send out spectacular blooms. But then winter comes and the adventurous gardener sits in dread of the fateful, but inevitable, warning from the weatherman of an impending frost. And once every three or four years a hard freeze plows through from the North and some of the tropical bounty in the garden is turned to mush.
We live in a schizophrenic zone of heat and cold. Marlys Bell best describes this in her book "Gardening and Landscaping in Central Florida" where she states that Zone 9 is, "[I]n a climatic transition zone, neither tropical nor temperate, but some of each, and sometimes one or the other... That means that experience that works in the tropics or even southern Florida and what works in cooler climates is largely irrelevant."
So what do you do?
First become familiar with the weather patterns of Central Florida and understand the unique nature of Hardiness Zone 9. I've developed a helpful introduction to Hardiness Zones that you can access by clicking here. You may also want to look at the page on the comparison of the USDA and Florida Climate Center Hardiness Maps, which demonstrates how difficult it is to predict which plants will thrive in this area. If you are new to Florida and confused about Zone 9 weather, you can read my page on "Living on the Edge or How I Learned to Live between Two Zones" so you don't feel alone.
Second, become familiar with the plants that can grow in this region. You can start with one or more of the books listed on the Suggested Reading page. I particularly recommend Gardening and Landscaping in Central Florida by Marlys Bell, A Cutting Garden for Florida by Monica Brandies & Betty Mackey, and Florida Gardening : Newcomer's Survival Manual by Monica Brandies.
Third, in order to prepare for the worst, learn how to protect your plants from cold temperatures.
Fourth, there is an abundance of people and organizations in this region who are eager to help with your gardening questions. You can visit the Web page of your local County Extension Office. The Extension Offices offer a multitude of courses on gardening and are more than willing to answer your questions. There are two active Internet forums on gardening in Florida that I would also recommend - Dave's Garden and GardenWeb.
Fifth, look around you. There are several excellent public gardens in Central Florida where you can see examples of what you could achieve in your own garden.
And finally, be patient. Central Florida is home to many beautiful, if not spectacular plants, plants that will bring you great rewards. Just accept that with these rewards may also come a little loss.