At first glance, Florida appears green. Lawns, bushes, trees — all varying shades of green, all year round.
If you've ever experienced a Northern autumn, with its cascades of yellows, reds and browns, Florida may feel lacking in fall hues to herald the winter season.
While it's true that our state can never compete with the best of our colorful Northern neighbors in the fall, we do have many ways of inviting a bit of autumn excitement into our yards and landscapes.
Without cooler temperatures and the plant variety of states to our north, our options appear limited. To construct a diverse Florida yard, we'll have to use shrubs, trees and even flowers in our efforts to introduce a seasonal color change to our otherwise monochromatic greens.
Before planting any plants in the yard, however, it's important to consider the size of the area, the soil type, existing shade or sunlight and other factors. If the site conditions are not appropriately matched to the plants that you are considering, they won't be healthy, and this can lead to future landscape maintenance issues.
When picturing a typical fall scene, the changing foliage of trees comes to mind. Florida has several trees that will provide fall color even in our warm climate.
One of the most well known is the Florida maple, and like the maples of the North, it brings shades of exciting fall color before dropping its leaves for the winter. Maples are happy in full sunlight environments, but can grow to a mature size of up to 60 feet tall. While most maples only reach 20 to 40 feet, it's important to make sure that there is enough room at your site.
Another tree that produces fall foliage is the dogwood. This deciduous grower enjoys partial sunlight, making it perfect for yards with more shade. Since it is a smaller tree that typically grows less than 30 feet in height, it is a good fit for a smaller area. Between its white spring blossoms and red berries, this tree is a beautiful and practical addition to a partially shaded area.
These deciduous trees follow the same pattern as their Northern relatives, and therefore become more colorful after a frost or two.
Since our Southern climate limits the species of foliage trees that we can grow, much of our autumn colors have to come from other plant groups. Thankfully, the same conditions that limit our tree options also allow a selection of bushes and shrubs that can provide color year round.
One of my favorite shrubs is lorapetalum. This plant thrives in Florida's sandy soils and offers purple foliage without dropping its leaves in the winter. In the spring and fall, it blooms with pink flowers.
For use around home foundations, dwarf cultivars such as Plum Delight are a good choice because of their more compact growth habits. Red muhly grass is another overlooked option for unique color and texture. This type of ornamental grass grows 3 to 5 feet tall and is best planted in masses. It likes full sunlight or partial shade and can thrive on low levels of water. In the fall, this plant blooms with reddish blossoms on its top.
In addition to trees and shrubs with colorful foliage, our climate is also perfect for many cool-season flowers. Flowering plants may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about fall foliage, but without the threat of snow, these beauties are able to bloom for several months and can really liven up a winter yard.
Most cool-season annual flowers enjoy full sunlight and more soil moisture than other types of plants, so be prepared to invest a little maintenance time to keep these looking their best. With regular watering, removal of the spent blossoms and a watchful eye for pest problems, your winter annuals can transform a Florida fall into a unique landscape of color.
Some of the best winter annuals include: cosmos, snapdragons, nasturtium, pansies and marigolds. While all of these may not survive our occasionally heavy frosts, they will provide beauty for at least several months, and can usually be found locally at inexpensive prices.
For questions or more information on colorful plants for Florida's fall, contact me at the Hernando County Extension Office. We are at 19490 Oliver St. in Brooksville and are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. You can also reach us at (352) 754-4433.
Enjoy your fall colors!
John Korycki is the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program coordinator for the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service. He can be contacted at Jkorycki@hernandocounty.us.