Mark Lane: The Darwinian Gardener nearly reacts to a near freeze

·4 min read
Enjoying an oak-shaded yard is not without its dangers. Especially during hurricane season as this skylight damage proves. Still, the Darwinian Gardener is all right with that.
Enjoying an oak-shaded yard is not without its dangers. Especially during hurricane season as this skylight damage proves. Still, the Darwinian Gardener is all right with that.

The Darwinian Gardener circled his house warily looking for the oak branch that hit his roof with a thump that sounded like the deep report of a kettledrum. It turned out to be smaller than it sounded but would require a trip to the housetop to roll it off.

But wait, who is this wintertime yard attendant?

The Darwinian Gardener is Florida's foremost exponent of survival-of-the-fittest lawn-and-garden care. Neither cold of January nor heat of August defeats him. Sure, they defeat a lot of the plants in his yard, but he's fine. It's not his job to be the equalizer who will save plant life from the elements.

More Darwinian Gardener: Tolerating sedges, celebrating purple berries

And more: Playing it cool in October

He might deliver a pep talk to cold-withered bushes, urging them to get a grip and show a little gumption, but he's not going to tuck them in at night. He's not staffing the concierge desk of Nature; he's the foreman of the morning cleanup crew of Nature — carting away the fallen.

And a cold winter night like this is a good time to Ask the Darwinian Gardener instead of knocking yourself out throwing blankets over things that had the misfortune of finding themselves in the wrong plant hardiness zone.

Mark Lane
Mark Lane

Q: You're lucky those sorry-looking trees didn't fall through your ceiling instead of bouncing off your roof, doing who-knows-how-much long-term damage. Isn't it time for lot clearance?

A: The Darwinian Gardner is a friend of the oak. They're what grows here of their own accord without his supervision. You can't see his house on the Google Maps satellite photos because oak trees' cooling canopy obscures its outline. Their shade gives his sparse lawn half a chance during the summer. He disapproves of Florida yards made up of nothing but grass and maybe just a bush or two that originated in some other part of the world. He's grateful that his 1970s homebuilder did not clear-cut the lot but left a few oaks, trees that are still standing.

Q: Aren't Disco Era oaks at the end of their lifespan?

A: Some of his stately oaks will likely outlive the Darwinian Gardener, but some of the laurel oaks are definite golden-agers. Although they are veterans of multiple hurricanes and nor'easters, some are nearing the end of the line. One had come down through his roof a few years back. Others were brought down by professionals who had disappointed visions of clearcutting the lot, a job that would cost slightly less than a lightly used yacht. Their salesmanship was insistent, professional and took on the tones of a veterinarian saying that Fluffy had a good life, but there just comes a time to let go.

The Darwinian Gardener is a hardened customer but can also sense danger around him.

In the meantime, he has nurtured replacement trees that some unhappy homeowner will need to take down a half-century from now when it won't be his problem.

Q: After the recent cold snap, my crotons dropped all their leaves and appear to be dead. They look like sticks in the ground. I guess I should have covered them. When should I plant new ones?

A: Hold it right there. A lot of sad-looking, cold-stunned plants had no more than a bad week. The Darwinian Gardener is always impressed at the resilience of Nature. This is not the natural home of the crotons and even mild winters get them all shook up. But then, they grow back. Nine times out of ten, theirs' is a theatrical cry for help. Don't be taken in.

The Darwinian Gardener does not cover plants or replant plants that falter in our barely felt, Global Warming Era winters. It's their own fault if they're going to act like that. The Darwinian Gardener does not have the leisure time to deal with their drama.

Q: So you didn't do anything to react to the near-freeze?

A: In Florida, a near-freeze is defined as 40 degrees. The kind of temperatures that finds folks digging through closets to find sweaters from three Christmases ago. Sometimes we even wear socks. In return for a small amount of discomfort, these are days when the Darwinian Gardener gets to enjoy the pain it gives to his backyard enemies: the air-potato vines have withered and the crabgrass is too discouraged to grow over the driveway anymore. Something colder is needed to stun the Old World climbing fern and the lantanas that threaten to engulf his air conditioner, but he likes to think they're at least slowed down.

Q: What's the climatological explanation for such extreme cold in Florida?

A: January.

Mark Lane is a News-Journal columnist. His email is

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: The Darwinian Gardener nearly reacts to a near freeze

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