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Gardening in the South - What do you Mean I Can't Grow That?

If you are moving from a northern climate to a warm winter climate, you have to learn a totally new plant palette and a new way of gardening. Let Dr. Rick Schoellhorn, southern gardening transplant, guide you through the basics of learning to garden in southern climates.

Contributors: Rick Schoellhorn

If you are moving from a northern climate to a warm winter climate, you have to learn a totally new plant palette and a new way of gardening. Let Dr. Rick Schoellhorn, southern gardening transplant, guide you through the basics of learning to garden in southern climates.

SO…you’re moving to Florida or the Deep South and want to know how to successfully garden?

I moved to Florida originally to go to graduate school in horticulture, back in 1990. I never knew it would turn into a 20 year odyssey on the southern side of gardening, but what a great experience! I grew up as a gardener in southern California, then near Anchorage, Alaska, then to Fort Collins, Colorado and then in pursuit of my doctorate to Gainesville (North Central), Florida. After 18 years here, including getting my master and PhD, 7 years as a professor and now working for Proven Winners® I have never quite forgotten the joys of gardening in the north and western parts of the U.S.

Moving to a different part of the country and transplanting your gardening expertise is not as easy as some might think. Now that I work with Proven Winners® I get a lot of emails about folks moving to the south and wanting to know what plants they can grow in their new southern landscape. So, here are some ideas on how to succeed and, more importantly, how to explore all the incredible plants that you can now grow! To be honest this will also be a little bit about how to bid fond farewell to a lot of the plants that you loved in your northern garden, because there are a lot of plants you love that you will have to give up - unless you are EXTREMELY dedicated.

When I worked with the master gardeners at the Milton Gardens, in Milton, Florida we used to laugh about ‘brown thumb syndrome’ – it was the culture shock of trying to grow northern plants in a southern environment and finding that all the garden beauties your relied on in the north were failing you in the south. I actually brought half oak barrels of geraniums with me to Florida when I moved here and the Geraniums died within 2 weeks while the oak barrels made it the following spring before becoming compost. Those barrels were 8 years old in Colorado, but one Florida summer reduced them to sawdust, along with any self image I had as a gardener. So what is the secret to avoiding ‘brown thumb syndrome’ (BTS)? Knowing where to look for the information you need and that is no easy task! Florida, and the south in general, has really diversified gardening environments. Some areas are clay soil, some are sand, some have a winter some do not, and in Florida every hour you drive south changes your USDA climate zone and reshapes everything you can grow and enjoy in your garden.

So I am going to use Florida as an example of how to find the tools you need to succeed as a gardener in a new climate.

- – I would seriously suggest you join this group if you can; there is no way to get more focused, successful gardening information specific to your area, than to be a master gardener in your new county of residence. You’ll not only meet a lot of folks who know the area and are passionate about gardening but you’ll also be steeped in information on what works and doesn’t work in your new locale.

-       County Extension service: Most every county in the state of Florida has someone on staff that focuses on horticulture. At their website you’ll find how to locate your county extension office and personnel who can help with questions from “Can I grow apples here?” to “Which month is best to apply broadleaf weed killer on your Saint Augustine Lawn?” or “How to succeed with Tomatoes in Miami”, everything you need is right there!  

-       The Florida Federation of Garden Clubs,, another fantastic opportunity to meet folks and also learn about gardening. They have great educational opportunities and also great social opportunities for newly arrived gardeners. The garden clubs are full of wonderful people and a wealth of information on ‘How to Avoid BTS”.  You can find garden clubs for other areas by googling your state and/or city name along with garden clubs.

Books – in truth there are hundreds of great books on gardening in the south, and hundreds of great experts all over the internet and in every book store, I am going to give you five of my favorites:

1.     Your Florida Guide to Perennials, by Sydney Park Brown

2.     Your Florida Garden, by Watkins and Wolfe

3.     Garden Bulbs for the South, by Scott Ogden

4.     SouthernLiving Garden Book, by SouthernLiving Magazine

5.     Gardening in the Coastal South, by Marie Harrison

It’s easy to find any of these either on the internet or in a local bookstore, although you may need to order them – these books are all about what works and common problems people face when relocating to the south and starting to garden in a totally different climate.  There is not a regular therapy group for transplanted gardeners and dealing with BTS, that I know of, but it would be nice!


Tips on succeeding in Florida:

  1. Between Florida’s extremely long, hot and humid summer season, frequent afternoon rains, and high night temperatures a lot of northern annuals and perennials give up the ghost by June or July never to return. You can avoid some of the problems by providing a covered patio to keep the rain off the plants (those afternoon rains and wet flowers and foliage overnight are a disease paradise), but this only helps up to a point. Still, this option will extend the life of geraniums and succulents - sometimes getting them through the summer.
  2. Change your plant palette: There are so many wonderful plants that love the southern climate; Ginger, Colocasia, Alocasia, Lantana, Caladium, Amaryllis, Crinum Lily, Gardenias, Four O’clock and Coleus are some examples. Once you let your northern favorites go, you’ll find there are more than enough plants to fill all those gaps and make your garden a success!
  3. 5 Proven winners plants for summer in the Southern garden:
    1. Sweet Caroline Ipomoea (Ornamental Sweet potato) - these plants LOVE heat and humidity, as long as watering stays constant and they are in full sun to light shade.   They have vivid colors and great textures!
    2. ColorBlaze® Coleus – More great foliage colors and textures, with reduced flowering, good in full sun to part shade.
    3. Luscious® Lantana – They like full sun, love the heat and humidity, are easy and have reduced seed set, so they focus on flowering.
    4. Señorita Rosalita® Cleome – She flowers from March through September and sometimes until freeze.  She is very easy to care for and she will show off 3-4 feet of constant lavender blooms all summer long.
    5. Snow Princess® Lobularia – Forget everything you know about Alyssum because this plant looks like one, but acts like it loves the heat and humidity!  She will flower all summer long, but loves the fertilizer and water so keep her moist.  Keep her happy and you will be rewarded with cascades of sweely scented flowers that will bring back memories of your northern garden!  Due to her water needs, she can be difficult to keep looking great in hanging baskets so use her in large planters (the larger the better) and in ground plantings.


Senorita Rosalita® Cleome hybrid 'Inncleosr' USPP19,733, Can. 3290; Snow Princess® Lobularia hybrid 'Inlbusnopr' USPPAF, CPBRAF

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