Instead of operating on their own time, the USF Botanical Gardens staff runs according to the needs of their 3,000 plants.
This is most apparent during the winter months, when freezing temperatures threaten the plants and their gardeners’ livelihoods.
Over winter break, temperatures at the gardens reached as low as 24 degrees at night and may again before the winter comes to a close. Because they largely rely on plant sales and events to remain operating, Director Laurie Walker and plant shop manager Kevin Slaughter have protected the plants from freezes since temperatures began to cool in November.
The staff is working toward securing more thermostatheaters for the plants to keep them warm with the help of plastic, frost cloth and propane heaters.
During the break, Walker said temperatures dipped below freezing three nights in a row and left her and Slaughter to cover plants in 40 mph winds during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
“The plants never take a holiday, even when USF is closed,” Walker said.
Even though professionals tend to the gardens, not all of the plants make it through the winter months.
Because the staff is limited, they are forced to prioritize which plants to devote their time and effort to saving, Slaughter said, leaving more common plants to die. To ensure that the gardens still attract visitors with ailing foliage, admission is free during the month of January.
“People understand that everything isn’t going to be lush and green during the winter,” Slaughter said. “It’s about learning what to expect. There’s nothing different here than what people can do in their yards.”
Patrons who venture out to the gardens in the cold can take away a few tricks to apply to their own plants, he said.
When a freeze occurs, the first parts of plants affected are those that are exposed above ground. The cold air causes ice crystals to form inside the vacuoles – large compartments filled with water inside plants’ cells – and puncture their membrane walls. This, in turn, causes the water to leak out of the cells and the plants to turn brown and wilt, Slaughter said.
According to wisegeek.com, covering plants with plastic keeps moisture inside the plants and provides insulation. Covering plants when temperatures are warm during the day and drop at night will yield the best results.
For most plants in the gardens, the parts below the ground are protected from freezes, Slaughter said, and allow the plant to grow back by the end of March.
Yet, some plants’ chances at survival are slim to none.
“The orchids cannot take temperatures under 55 degrees,” Walker said. “We’ve been covering them in plastic since November.”
Other plants, such as the Brazilian canary hibiscus and mango plants, usually suffer damage from the cold temperatures and are put under stress during freezes.
Because of the large volume of exotic and warm-weather plants at the gardens, the staff relies on the help of volunteers like Karega Hall, a future USF student who plans on majoring in English next fall.
“I’ll be covering the warm-weather wilting plants with blankets,” Hall said.