8 lawn-and-garden mistakes that snowbirds make (© PhotoAlto/Alamy)

© PhotoAlto/Alamy

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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."

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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.

In the desert, the soil is more alkaline, with less organic material and higher salinity than in the North or East, Warren 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."

Mistake  No. 4: Forgetting that things grow year-round
Snowbirds might reasonably come south in a northern frame of mind, thinking that their lawn and garden won't grow much in the winter. They buy plants without much attention to how much things grow — and grow. (Bing: Find drought-tolerant plants)

What you should do: Plan for the growth cycle. Plants can grow larger and faster, but that may mean more work for you.

Not interested in more maintenance? Buy slow-growing or low-maintenance dwarf plants, Landre says. In central Florida, that might include evergreens such as Indian hawthorn, low-spreading junipers, giant evergreen liriope and dwarf nandina, according to Polk County's master-gardener program's tip sheet for snowbirds.

Mistake No. 5: Just watching the grass grow
Many snowbirds envision a lush, close-clipped green carpet of the kind of grass to which they're accustomed. Reality is a bit more complicated.

"The grass is shy and retiring down here," Bruce says. "Beautiful Florida lawns grow on sweat — your sweat."

What you should do: Get ready for some hard work, or plant grass that's easier to maintain. For Floridians, Bruce suggests annual rye.

"It grows fast, it's dark green, it's tough, it gives you something to mow for the winter months and then it's going to die out in the spring," he says.

Good year-round grasses include St. Augustine, a rugged grass that looks like crabgrass, grows well in the sand, handles pests well and can stay green. It must be laid as sod, however. Two other grass options, which can be seeded and need less water, are Argentine and Pensacola Bahia, Bruce says.

Homeowners in the Southwest desert usually choose a hybrid Bermuda grass, says Paul Ellis, a master gardener with the Pima County Master Gardener Program.

"That's a grass here that in the winter is going to be dormant," or brown, he says. Its growing season is the summer. Expect to water it a lot, he says. 

Most experienced snowbirds, however choose xeriscaping — or low-water, natural landscaping — instead of grass. It's less expensive and less of a hassle.

Mistake No. 6: Forgetting about the vegetable garden
For Northerners, winter is a time to leave the vegetable garden alone and let it rest and recuperate before planting again in the spring.

What you should do: Take advantage of winter weather that's warm enough for plants, too cold for insects and just right for working in the garden. In Florida, for instance, fruits, potatoes and collard greens can grow in the winter, Bruce says.

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Mistake No. 7: Thinking the sun sits still
You've planted local plants. You've watered them correctly. You have a timer set so they're irrigated when you leave town. You've thought of everything — or have you?

Have you forgotten to account for the reason you came here in the first place: the sun?

What you should do: Know that the sun moves a lot throughout the year. "The sun moves more to the south in the winter and more to the north in the summer. And people don't think about that when they are planting," Landre says. "They don't plant plants in the right spot, and the [plants] will cook in other times of year."

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Before you plant, ask yourself: Where will the sun and light be later in the summer? What's shady now may not be in a few months.

"The solution to this is to find plants that like … both sun and shade," says Landre, citing croton, arboricola and pygmy date palms, among others.

Mistake  No. 8: Ignoring microclimates
People come to the desert to warm their bones, and they naturally think that heat-loving plants will thrive everywhere. But microclimates, especially in the desert, can create extreme cold spots that must be considered. Without much cloud cover, winter nights can be chilly, with huge temperature fluctuations over 24 hours. (Bing: Find lawn-care services)

What you should do: "Consider the topography of your house and garden before you plant," Warren says. For example, perhaps don't stick that citrus tree down at the base of a hill. Cold travels downhill easily and pools in the low places. So if you've got a low point on your property, such as a dry riverbed, that place can be much colder there than elsewhere.

"Use mostly low-maintenance, slow growing, non-fussy shrubs and trees," Landre says. "For lots of color, plant annuals, have year-round irrigation and become a patron of a good local plant nursery."