Chill Hours:  What Are They and Why Do They Matter?

Chill Hours: What Are They and Why Do They Matter?

For being in a place known as the Sunshine State, the Panhandle has been mighty cold and dreary to start 2022!  With all the recent bitterly cold weather that’s rolled through our neck of the woods over the last month or so, you may be asking yourself “Is this just a typical Panhandle winter or has it been colder than normal and what is the impact of freezing weather on my fruit trees?”  The answer might surprise you!

The easiest way to measure cold and its impact on plants is through a unit of measurement known as a “chill hour”.  In its simplest iteration, a chill hour is an hour of time during which the thermometer dips below 45 degrees F.  These “chilling hours” are vital to agriculture and our native ecosystems because many plants, especially those that produce fruit like pears, blueberries, peaches, and even citrus, require a certain amount of chill to enter dormancy and develop flower buds for the following spring.  All fruit trees have a minimum chilling requirement to initiate flowering depending on variety and too few chilling hours equals poor to no fruit the following year.  Too little cold can be just as harmful as too much!

Blueberry beginning to flower after receiving adequate chill hours. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Now that we know about chilling hours, the question remains, is this a normal winter or has it been colder than normal?  The answer is neither.  Based on historical average data from the UF/IFAS weather station in Marianna (a central location in the Panhandle and a good proxy for your local temperatures), as cold as we’ve been in January and early February, we’re still lagging the historical average with respect to chilling hours, and therefore to total cold temperatures.  As of February 6th, 512 chill hours had been recorded this winter.  This seems like a lot until you check and see that we had 554 chill hours on the same day last year and the historic average is more than 750!  Though January and February have indeed been cold this year, the chill hour graph indicates that over the last few years it’s taken longer into the calendar to achieve our first chill hour and that cold weather isn’t pushing as far into spring as it historically has.

There are many potential explanations for the warming trend in the Panhandle but regardless of your preferred theory, backyard fruit growers need to adapt to deal with the change in chill.  The primary way to combat fewer chill hours is to evaluate your current fruiting plants and think about replacing high-chill varieties that no longer produce well with lower-chill varieties.  If you know the variety you have, look up the number of chill hours that variety requires.  If it’s an older variety that requires near the historical chill average or more, you may consider replacing it with a newer variety that requires fewer chilling hours.  For example, the popular old blueberry variety ‘TifBlue’ requires 600-700 chilling hours.  For most of the previous decade, we have either just barely or not reached that many chill hours, leading to a low fruit set.  Replacing ‘TifBlue’ with a newer, lower chill variety like ‘Powderblue’ will probably increase your blueberry production.  If you don’t know what variety of fruit tree or shrub you have, just observe the flowering period over the next spring or two.  If it doesn’t flower at all or flowers sporadically and you don’t make a good fruit yield, a high chill requirement very likely could be to blame and replacing it could enhance production!

Though we’ve had an intensely cold start to 2022, if current trends continue, this wintry weather will most likely play out before we reach historic averages.  That doesn’t mean you can’t grow plenty of backyard fruit, it just requires adapting to the times with lower chill varieties!  To keep up with chill hour accumulation, visit http://agroclimate.org/tools/chill-hours-calculator and if you have any questions about fruiting plant variety selection, chilling hours and their effect on plants, or any other horticultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office!  Stay warm and happy gardening!

 

February Gardening Dos and Don’ts

February Gardening Dos and Don’ts

February can be a confusing month for North Florida gardeners. Winter isn’t over. So, don’t let spring fever cause you to make some gardening mistakes. Let’s take a look at some dos and don’ts of February gardening.

 

Despite colder temperatures that we can experience this month, it’s still okay to plant trees and shrubs from containers. The roots are better protected in the ground and will quickly grow outward to establish as compared to being exposed to cold temperatures above ground, confined in a container. But be cautious about planting cold sensitive tropical plants too soon while freezing weather is likely. Bare-root trees and shrubs should be in the ground promptly. This includes bare-root nut and fruit trees, pine and hardwood tree seedlings and bare-root roses. Dormant season planting allows time for establishment before hot weather arrives.

 

February is a good time to transplant or move trees and shrubs that are in the wrong place. Consider moving plants that require pruning to force them to “fit” into small or confined spaces. Move them to an appropriate location where they can grow to full size. Then you can plant something new and appropriately sized for replacement. Of course, they need to be reasonable in size to move.

 

Bush rose plant correctly pruned

Bush rose plant correctly pruned. Photo credit: Matt Orwat

Late February is a good time to prune overgrown shrubs such as ligustrum and holly. These plants usually respond well to severe pruning, if necessary. But remember, they will eventually regrow to their larger size. Prune to shape and thin broadleaf evergreens and deciduous flowering trees such as oleander, crape myrtle and vitex. Avoid severely pruning narrow leaf evergreens such as junipers because they have few buds on old wood from which to form new growth. Mid-February is a good time to prune bush roses, removing dead or weak canes. Leave several healthy canes and cut these back to about eighteen inches. Delay doing much pruning on early spring flowering shrubs such as azalea until shortly after they flower. Pruning these plants now will remove present flower buds before they can open. Prune deciduous fruit trees such as peach, plum and apple. Now is also the time to prune ornamental grasses such as muhly grass.

 

If your lawn has a history of problems with summer annual weeds such as crabgrass, apply a preemergence herbicide. This should be done February 15 to March 1 when day temperatures reach 65° to 70°F for 4 or 5 consecutive days. A second application may be needed eight weeks later. Many people fertilize their lawns too early. Wait until mid-April to fertilize to prevent lawn injury and for the most efficient use of the fertilizer.

Protect Your Winter Garden and Landscape Plants with Frost Cloth

Protect Your Winter Garden and Landscape Plants with Frost Cloth

Use frost cloth to completely cover cold sensitive plants. Be sure to make complete contact with the ground and use heavy objects to keep the fabric secure. Photo by Jonathan Burns.

Use frost cloth to completely cover cold sensitive plants. Be sure to make complete contact with the ground and use heavy objects to keep the fabric secure. Photo by Jonathan Burns.

 

One major aspect that separates North Florida from South Florida is the discrepancies in air temperature. Although the differences are relatively small when comparing Florida with northern states, they can mean a world of difference in the plant world.

Even hardy cauliflower leaves can be damaged by cold winter nights in the Florida Panhandle. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Even hardy cauliflower leaves can be damaged by cold winter nights in the Florida Panhandle. Photo by Molly Jameson.

In most of North Florida, our USDA plant hardiness zone is 8b, which means average minimum winter temperatures are between 15 and 20° Fahrenheit (F). We therefore can experience hard freezes, which happens when temperatures are below 28°F for over five hours. These types of conditions are capable of “burning” the leaves of even the toughest winter vegetables.

Fortunately for our winter gardens, average minimum winter temperatures are in the lower 40s, high enough not to damage winter garden crops. When we do have lows close to or below freezing (32°F), there is one very cost-effective method that can help keep crops and landscape plants protected. This is the use of a material called frost cloth.

Frost cloth can moderate air temperatures six to eight degrees. Photo by Turkey Hill Farm.

Frost cloth can moderate air temperatures six to eight degrees. Photo by Turkey Hill Farm.

Frost cloth, which can be purchased at most plant nurseries, is a breathable polyester fabric that is light weight and heat retentive. When used correctly, it can moderate air temperatures about six to eight degrees. This is typically all that is needed to get us through our mild North Florida winters. It is also relatively inexpensive, and if cared for, the same cloth can be used for many winter seasons.

Large blankets or bedsheets can be used as frost cloth substitutes, but whether you are using actual frost cloth, or something pulled from the linen closet, it is very important to use it correctly to be effective. The cloth must touch the ground at all points, as it works by trapping heat that radiates from the soil. It also increases the humidity around the plant, aiding in temperature moderation.

"Lollipop" trees will allow the heat from the ground to escape, giving the tree no cold protection. Photo by Jonathan Burns.

“Lollipop” trees will allow the heat from the ground to escape, giving the tree no cold protection. Photo by Jonathan Burns.

For sensitive landscape plants and fruit trees, it can be more difficult to fully cover the plant with the frost cloth to trap the heat, but it is just as important. When driving around town on a cold night, I inevitably encounter a few “lollipop” trees. This is when the foliage of the tree is wrapped in frost cloth, but the cloth does not reach the ground, and is typically tied off at the upper trunk of the tree. All heat moving upward from the soil will go right around the cloth, giving the tree essentially no protection.

Wire or PVC hoops can be used to help secure frost cloth and keep the cloth from damaging sensitive plant stems and leaves. Bricks, sticks, soil, or garden staples should be used along the perimeter of the frost cloth to prevent nighttime gusts from blowing the cloth off your garden beds or landscape plants. In the morning, remove the cloth once air temperatures reach about 50 to 60°F.

To learn more about cold protection, check out the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, Cold Protection of Landscape Plants (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/MG025).

Be Patient with Key Limes

Be Patient with Key Limes

Growing Key Limes in the home landscape is not only a fun and unique addition, but is also delicious – any way you slice them.

The key lime, Citrus aurantifolia, originated in southeast Asia. Genetically speaking, the key lime is likely a tri-hybrid cross between the “odd ball fruits”, known as citron, pummelo and a microcitrus species, Citrus micrantha. There is little commercial key lime production nowadays in Florida, but the fruit remains a very popular landscape option.

The key lime is a small, bushy tree that makes harvest and pruning a breeze. Like most citrus, it’s self-pollinating. The key lime is also an ever-bearing fruit, so there is no real seasonal harvest. The tree could technically bloom any month of the year. There are very few varieties, as trees mostly come from true seed or air layering.

Key Lime fruit at various degrees of ripeness. Photo courtesy of Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension Gulf County.

Climate is an important factor when deciding to plant a key lime. They are sensitive to cold temperatures, especially below freezing. For the Panhandle, it’s wise to keep key lime trees as patio citrus. In other words, keep the trees in pots so that they can be moved indoors for protection during the winter months.  In the ground, trees should be planted in an area where there is a significant wind block.  Once a few years have passed and tree has become more mature and acclimated to the environment, they may be able to survive on their own, though it is recommended to cover the tree under sub-freezing temperatures. However, it is important to remember that sunlight is a catalyst for citrus fruit production, be sure to plant the tree in an area with full sun.

The usual suspects of citrus insect pests apply to the key lime also. Citrus leaf miner and mites are the most common culprits. Horticultural and insecticidal oils will certainly help to combat these threats. For planting, key lime is well adapted to a variety of soil conditions in Florida. Be sure to water newly planted trees every other day for the first week and then one to two times a week for the first couple of months. Water periodically after that, making sure the soil doesn’t stay completely dry for long periods. A 6-6-6 fertilizer works great for the key lime. Please follow the fertilizer schedule found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, “Citrus Culture in the Home Landscape” by Robert E. Rouse and Mongi Zekri: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdf/HS/HS132/HS132-11822781.pdf

A final interesting thing about the key lime is the ripening stages of the fruit. Because key limes are ever-bearers, blooms can develop at sometimes widely varying times. This causes an uneven development of fruit across the tree. Be sure to wait until the fruit turns begins to turn yellow before harvest. That’s when it’s mature to eat!  Fruit can be stored for up to a week in the fridge or can be juiced and stored in the freezer for later use.

Please contact your local county Extension office for more information. Happy Gardening!

Information for this article can be found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, “Key Lime Growing in the Florida Home Landscape” by Jonathan H. Crane: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/CH092

UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.

Video: Care of Flax Lily After Winter Damage

Video: Care of Flax Lily After Winter Damage

Flax lily is a popular perennial that adds interest to garden borders or when planted in mass. Plants can be affected by cold temperatures so a little maintenance as temperatures warm is often necessary. UF IFAS Escambia County Extension shares late winter care of flax lily In the Garden.

Go Bananas in Your Landscape!

Go Bananas in Your Landscape!

Bananas are a great choice for your landscape, whether as an edible fruit producer or simply as an ornamental, giving your space a tropical vibe.

Bananas are native to southeast Asia, however, grow well across Florida. Complementary plants that can be paired with bananas in the landscape are bird of paradise (banana relative), canna lily, cone ginger, philodendron, coontie, and palmetto palm, just to name some.

Bananas are very easy to manage during the warmer months. Bananas are water loving, and that’s putting it lightly. Planting in vicinity of an eave on your home is a good measure for site suitability. Roof rainwater will drastically increase the growth of the banana tree and decrease the need for supplemental irrigation. Banana trees will need full sun and high organic moist soils create the best environment. For nutrition, a seasonal one-pound application of 6-2-12 fertilizer is a good practice to sustain older trees. Young trees should be fertilized every two months for the first year at a rate of a half-pound.

Musa basjoo

Musa basjoo is one of the most cold hardy banana varieties. Photo Credit: University of Florida/IFAS Extension

If there is a con to banana trees, it’s their cold hardiness. Some varieties fair well and others some not so much. ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ (Musa acuminate) is a popular variety that is found in many garden centers in the state. It produces fruit very well, but it is not very cold hardy. ‘Pink Velvet’ (Musa velutina) produces fruit with a bright pink peel, but isn’t very cold hardy either. A couple of cold hardy ornamental varieties are the ‘Japanese Fiber’ (Musa basjoo) and ‘Black Thai’ (Musa balbisiana), which is by far the most cold hardy, with the ability to easily combat below freezing temperatures.

freeze damage on a banana tree

Freeze damage on a banana tree. Photo Credit: Ray Bodrey, University of Florida Extension – Gulf County

Regardless of cold hardiness, in many cases, banana trees will turn brown after freezing temperatures occur or even if the temperatures reach just above the freezing mark, but will bounce back in the spring. Until then, it’s important not to prune away the brown leaves or trunk skin. These leaves act as an insulator and help defend against freezing temperatures. Usually, the last freezing temperatures that may occur in the Panhandle are around the first of April. So, to be safe, pruning can begin by mid to late April. When pruning, be sure to be equipped with a sharp knife, gloves and work clothes. Banana trunk skin and leaves can be quite fibrous and the liquid from the tree can stain clothing and hands.

So, what’s the best variety of fruiting bananas? Most ornamental bananas do not produce tasty fruit. If you are looking for a production banana, ‘Lady Finger’, ‘Apple’, and ‘Ice Cream’ are popular varieties, but are better suited for the central and southern parts of the state.

For more information, contact your local county extension office.

Supporting information for this article can be found on the UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions website.

Also, for more information see the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, “Banana Growing in the Florida Home Landscape”, by Jonathan H. Crane and Carlos F. Balerdi.

UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.