A Secret about Florida’s Climate…
Thriving orchids, fruit-bearing banana plants, and citrus trees loaded with oranges are now part of your new home. Excellent! Hummingbirds and exotic butterflies are swirling around. The beguiling fragrance of a nearby jasmine bush is lingering in the air.
Wonderful! That sounds already like paradise, doesn’t it? You put in hundreds of hours of sweat equity to make this tropical dream happen. Okay, at least that part does not resemble the idea of a “paradise”. However, you are now so proud of your new garden project…. and why shouldn’t you?
Everybody knows that the weather is always nice in Florida, not too cold and not too hot. The sun is endlessly sending its warm rays from a perfect blue sky – 368 days per year. Okay, now we may overdo it a little.
No snow tires in Florida, but…
Be prepared that we are going to tell you a secret. A well-kept secret nobody wants you to know…...yes, there is winter in Florida, too. What a surprise, right? When an ice-cold wind is blowing with 30 miles from a northerly direction and the morning temperature drops below 30° F (in some places well below 30° F) …it is winter in the Sunshine State.
“Oh, don’t cry me a river,” you may think, dear reader. You’re right, your winters are “real” compared to ours. Nevertheless, we just want to point out that the “tropical paradise” has cold winter days too.
The fact is: nobody will ever be prepared for this. Neither the people nor the beautiful tropical plants those people are pampering in their gardens are ever expecting cold “winter-temperatures ” in Florida. For whatever reason, that learning curve tends to stay flat.
You only need to be prepared
So, if you want to put your magic green thumb into action you need to accumulate at least a little knowledge about the climate. You need to know a few things, otherwise, your tropical garden project can quickly turn into an – let’s call it – “experience”? By the way, all those beautiful tropical plants you are about to plant can cost quite a bit of money. We are not even counting the endless hours you might clock in to nourish your “little tropical babies” until they become fully grown adults.
So, what do you need to know when you want to be a master gardener in Florida? Can it get really cold so far south?
Well, first of all, it all depends on how you define “cold”. For you “northerners a temperature around 30° F appears to be just a “little chilly”. The oak trees or the conifers in your northern gardens don’t mind the cold. One drops its leafs the other closes its stomas. Problem solved.
The banana tree in your garden has another opinion about cold temperatures. That 30° F temperature, especially if combined with a strong wind (wind chill), will kill the plant within hours …or less. At least it will severely stress and damage the plant. Those tropical plants cannot protect themselves, they need all the help they can get from the guy who put them in the ground when being attacked by a freeze.
Florida is in a unique location
Everybody knows that Florida is the most southern state of the USA. Okay, you are right, dear reader, Hawaii is further south. But, here we are talking about the Continental United States. So, the Sunshine State is south but not south enough for our tropical guests. The 450 miles long Sunshine State is actually 1800 miles away from the equator, which is quite a distance. The earth’s tilt and the missing mountain barrier further north are not helping either when our Canadian friends are sending us their ice-cold greetings.
The tilt is not a big thing, you may think, but it causes the sun’s rays to come in at a flatter angle. You can feel it on your skin; the sun in January is by far not as aggressive as it is in June.
In addition, Florida’s heating system, the water in the lakes, rivers and the Gulf of Mexico is getting cooler because it cannot absorb enough energy from the sun, causing the average temperature to drop. When the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico drops below 65° F the manatees are already in trouble. If they do not find a warmer spot in a river when the temperature drops further many of them are doomed.
Once in a while, it gets cold
Once in awhile, something really bad happens: the polar vortex is wobbling and the jet stream is pushing this outburst of arctic air towards Florida. If that cold air rides in on the back of a cold front it can “really” get cold. Those cold blasts have shocked fruit trees and destroyed their production in Florida in years past. In addition, the freeze will definitely kill a lot of tropical plants if not protected properly.
Those cold spills occur only when the right weather pattern is in place, but we have experienced quite a few of them within the 20-year time frame we have been living in the Sunshine State. Trust the weatherman, when he says that it is getting cold – it will get cold. Take out the blankets and whatever you have and protect your poor tropical plants out there. They deserve it.
In general, moderate freezes appear in South Florida almost every year. They usually affect more the central part of Florida and stretch as far south as the Everglades. The metro areas are effected less often and the beaches rarely. There is nothing unusual about that and they are short (several days or hours) and relatively mild, but you will never know until it is over.
What are the temperatures like?
Of course, the temperatures vary from north to south. Temperatures in the low 10° F are always possible in the panhandle; in the Sarasota area, a few days with temperatures in the high twenties are also not a rare event. Even Fort Myers can still get hit with temperatures in the low thirties.
It may be cold for a few hours, especially during the morning hours, but it warms up rapidly once the sun is crawling up the horizon.
Two-thirds of Florida’s landmass, starting in the panhandle and stretching all the way down to the Fort Myers area, is classified as “subtropical”. It is hot and humid during the long summer months, but usually drier and cooler in the wintertime. There are quite a few days where the temperature can be way below that threshold of 64° F, which is the parameter that determines if it is called subtropical or tropical.
Wind Chill is the key
It can get ugly when the cold temperature is combined with a strong wind blowing from the north. This “wind chill factor” makes the difference. The native Florida plants are hardy; they will come out of such a 48-hour event unharmed. No stress, just business as usual. The tourists will definitely look grumpy – wandering around in sweaters and ball caps. The Floridians, like always, overdo it. They put thick windbreakers with hoods on. Most likely they will combine this dress code with gloves and boots. Don’t want to comment any further on that. Floridians are wimps, right?
Now, talking about looking horrible. If not protected with the right material, all the tropical plants you planted in your garden will not be as happy as they used to be. A lot of them will just die.
Some may grow back when the root system is still intact, and others will only lose all their leaves and look sad. It will take months or even a year of TLC until the survivors are thriving again. By the way, that is exactly the time when the new cold fronts are knocking at the door again. Let’s hope the gardener has learned his lesson last time.
We know that we are still lucky here in Florida. Our “winters” usually last about 2 months or even less. Those cold days and nights may accumulate to approximately two to three weeks within that time frame. In the panhandle, you may have a longer and stronger “winter”, in Miami you have a shorter and milder one.
While the winter is different – the summer is everywhere the same (almost)
The summer temperatures are pretty much the same all over Florida. The experts still want to distinguish between a few climate zones to make it more complicated. That is fine, experts like to do that.
We talked already about the subtropical part of Florida, from the Panhandle all the way
down to Fort Myers. Now we have a tropical part left which is divided into three sections. The triangle including Naples, the Ten Thousand Islands, the Everglades, and the Keys is classified as a “Tropical Savannah”.
Miami is part of the “Tropical Monsoon” area. There is a little spot near Jupiter left, which is called “Tropical Rain-Forest”. The last two climate zones sound like an awful amount of rainy days, right?
It tends to rain more in the southeast corner of Florida. But Florida’s weather is pretty complicated, courtesy of El Niño and La Niña. Those two guys are “big game players” and they determine not only the weather patterns in Florida but basically the weather of the whole world. The temperature of the Pacific Ocean plays a role together with a change of the wind direction and many more climate parameters. To make a long and complicated story short: one brings a lot of rain, the other one brings droughts. One is steering hurricanes to Florida while the other one is protecting us from them. This explanation is probably too simplistic, but we think it is good enough for now. Read more here.
Question: Can you recognize the climate zones when driving through Florida? Yes, you can be observing the vegetation. The northern part of Florida (north of Tampa) does not look “tropical” at all (our opinion). Pine tree forests and Sabal Palms are dominating the
vegetation. When you go further south it looks already more tropical. Other species of palm trees and plants with big leaves are changing the overall picture. Once you are in Fort Myers or Naples it will look “tropical”. Lots of plants that would not survive those cold winter nights in the panhandle are thriving everywhere further south. Beautiful – if you like that!
What about strong winds, also called Hurricanes?
Now we’ve bragged enough about temperatures. What else is happening? Where is the best chance of getting hit by hurricanes? Yes, the Miami/Dade County area is one of those, but that is only statistics. Basically, those things can show up everywhere along Florida’s coastline, the panhandle included. There seem to be certain areas in Florida where you have a greater chance of staying trouble-free. But nothing is certain when dealing with mother nature. It doesn’t matter if it is a 1% chance when it hits you.
Some People do believe that the burial sites of some Indian chiefs are affecting those
hurricanes. The “ghost” (or whatever) will point them in a different direction. Nice legend. But we really don’t know what to say about that one. Maybe, maybe not. We can’t prove it – they can’t prove it. Nobody can prove anything.
Florida, the Lightning Capital
Thunderstorms are also part of Florida’s climate. One nickname for the Sunshine State is “Lightning Capital” of the world. That explains everything, right? The “stuff” that comes out of your outlet is nothing compared to what comes down or goes up to the clouds. One of those flashes could easily solve your energy needs for the rest of your 9 lives…….Oh, you are not a cat?
At least there ain’t tornadoes in Florida, right? Well, unfortunately, there are tornadoes in Florida. The good thing is that they are “babies” compared to those monsters ripping through Oklahoma. But still, never underestimate the force of nature! When you see one …move…and better in the opposite direction! There is absolutely no way of determining the distance of how forceful it will be.
What is a microclimate?
Okay, you intended to buy a home in the Venice/ Sarasota area, but your dream of a tropical garden seems to go up in smoke? Nope, hold your horses. Ever heard about “micro-climate”? You think 5 miles don’t make a difference, right? Well, fortunately, they do! When one of those “real” cold fronts hits Florida your choices are limited. Cover your tropical plants with blankets and whatever you have handy and they are fine. They will later thank you with wonderful blossoms and hummingbirds swirling around them.
You do not think that there are hummingbirds? Yes, they are here, but who has his camera handy when they are coming for a brief visit? Alligators are more cooperative when it comes to picture-taking. They even seem to smile.
So, Microclimate is the keyword. Those “certain areas” just tend to stay warmer. For example, Englewood and the Cape Haze peninsular will stay warmer than Sarasota. A small section of the Intracoastal Waterway will also stay warmer and refuse to get cold. The barrier islands are usually excluded from freezes as well.
Within your garden, you have even more “micro-micro” climates. A tree can shelter plants from the cold air falling from the sky. A pergola or pavilion may help to protect your plants from the cold wind.
There are several “climate zone maps” on the internet where you should check in what climate zone you are in. Experts at plant nurseries can also help you with your garden project. Go to a nearby nursery. Only they know if you are in one of those “micro-climate” zones.
Nobody believes it, but Florida has indeed a harsh climate. It can be cold, hot, super humid, soaking wet, dry and super dry. Everything is possible and that is the reason why the native Florida plants need to be so tough.
In comparison to the plants, you have more choices. An air-controlled room or a nice cold drink can make such a difference when the sun is beating down on you. Don’t forget to ask your Hibiscus outside if he wants a drink, too.
Happy gardening in Florida and enjoy living in your new subtropical/tropical surroundings!
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