8 lawn-and-garden mistakes that snowbirds make
You've got winter prep down pat. But what happens when you move to a climate with 70-degree February days? Here's what you should know.
So you've finally fled the cold to somewhere where it's warm year-round, and you've packed your garden trowel — lucky you. (Bing: Favorite snowbird destinations)
Chances are you've also packed some northern notions about how to handle your new lawn and garden during your winter stay in the South or Southwest. Beware: Those carpet-bagging misconceptions could prove frustrating — and costly.
"People are generally pretty stupid when it comes to something new — and I was, too," says Chase Landre, author of "Snowbird Gardening: A Guide for South Florida's Winter Residents," of when she started gardening in Florida. "It's a completely different microcosm" in warm-weather areas.
Landre and other horticultural experts in snowbird hot spots have identified some of the top mistakes that new arrivals make so that you don't repeat them.
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Mistake No. 1: Importing your northern garden
When many snowbirds move to Florida, "They want the same stuff they were growing in Pennsylvania or in New York — which is kind of strange, because Florida offers so many other opportunities," says Hank Bruce, a columnist, horticultural therapist and co-author of "Yankee's Guide to Florida Gardening," among many books. "You will try to grow lilacs, bearded iris, forsythia, lily of the valley and all those delightful spring-flowering bulbs, like daffodils and tulips — even when the neighbor tells you [they] ain't gonna grow."
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What you should do: "Make friends with Mama Nature," Bruce says. "You will be far more successful if you cooperate rather than compete with her. She's gonna win regardless of what you do."
In other words, plant what will grow in your warm-weather home, not in your cold-weather one.
Bruce suggests buying plants from independent garden centers. The stock at big-box stores may come from hothouse growers, Landre says, so the plants may not be right for the area or ready for a life in the blazing sun.
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The University of Florida's Florida-Friendly Landscaping program teaches appropriate plants and landscaping practices that help the environment. Also, throughout the South and Southwest, county extension agents and master-gardener programs are great resources for information on what to grow in your area.
For Florida snowbirds, Bruce suggests visiting Walt Disney World in Orlando and taking pictures. "Nobody does it better than the Disney horticulture people," he says. After all, they have to keep the park looking great every day of the year.
Mistake No. 2: Watering poorly
Snowbirds migrate south thinking about swimming pools and assuming that their plants want lots of water, too, says Peter Warren, urban-horticulture extension agent for Pima County in Tucson, Ariz. Driving to work in January, Warren will see puddles on the ground from people watering their gardens.
What you should do: Adjust. "Irrigation is … the No. 1 reason plants don't do well — either under- or overwatering," Warren says.
Plants need more water in the hotter, drier months in the desert — especially in May and June, before Arizona's monsoon rains arrive. "In the winter, it's the opposite," he says. With higher humidity and lower temperatures, plants don't grow much and don't need much water. Overwatering is costly and can kill plants, he says.
In Florida, Landre suggests watering plants and lawns just once a week or once every 10 days in winter. Adjust the irrigation again for summer watering, if you leave in the spring, she says. Leaving the water off then can invite plant stress and insect infestation — and nothing for you to return to the next winter but disaster.
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Mistake No. 3: Assuming dirt is dirt
Many snowbirds think they can simply come down and drop a plant in the earth. But the dirt likely has fewer nutrients in warm climates.
"They're used to soil that looks like dirt," Landre says. "[In Florida], it looks like sand. We live on a sand bar, pretty much."
What you should do: "If your soil has no nutrients, you have to learn about amending the soil," she says. That means giving your plants food. In a sandy place such as Florida, add organic peat moss to the soil before planting to "give the root ball a drink," Landre says. Add composted cow manure, which enriches the soil. Fertilize the soil periodically, she says.
"If you're desperate to have hydrangeas or blueberries or something from back East, plant them in a container, where you can control the environment," he says. "In other words, don't force them into inhospitable soil. Even amending the soil in the desert isn't successful in the long run. "It won't work, and it will eventually kill them."