Thursday, May 31, 2007

Four Seasons in the South

If I have heard it once, I have heard it a thousand times, “I couldn’t live in the south because I like the “changing of the four seasons.” This is usually uttered by some Yankee who went to Florida once at Christmas time and experienced a few days of highs in the low 70’s and lows in the high 50’s. It felt just like the 4th of July weekend back home and mistook the dead of winter for the an early summer weekend.

The South has four distinct seasons and they are not deer season, duck season, turkey season and quail season (well maybe if you live in Texas.) The South has a distinct winter, spring, summer and fall. The differences are much more subtle then they are in the frozen north, with practice even a Yankee can learn to recognize the southern seasons.

The seasons in the north and in the South differ in a few ways. The weather in the south is less extreme then in the north, but it is still warmer in the summer and colder in the winter. The landscape is vastly different in the north and south, leading to very different seasonal variations. Northern seasons tend to be a subtle as a Manhattan cab driver; southern seasons are as subtle as a southern belle.

The major landscape difference in the south and the north is mixture of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs. In a typical northern wooded area between 80% and 90% of the trees loose their leaves seasonally. In the South the proportions basically reversed. In the South 80-90% of the trees and shrubs are evergreen and 10-20% are deciduous. The mixture will vary depending on how far south you are, the real southern evergreen mixture of trees does not really flourish until you get to about Atlanta and points south, by the time you get to the Keys nearly no trees loose there leaves except during a hurricane and that is another story. A surprising number of trees are found in both regions, pines, hemlocks, cedars, and Magnolias are found in the North and the South. The species may vary, but the general types of trees are widespread. Live oaks are a very southern variety. Live oaks need a moderate to tropical climate and do not loose all of their leaves at once. They are constantly shedding some leaves (year around raking) and sprouting new leaves (kind of like the teeth on a shark, constantly replacing one another.)

The types of grasses in the landscape also vary widely from the north to the South. Southern grasses tend to be crunchy; Yankees look at southern grass as crabgrass. What grows as grass in the north, goes to seed in about May in the South and then turns brown. In Florida I use to plant rye grass in November, it would stay green until spring and then go to seed once the weather turned decent in March, or about the point it would get to in August in New York.

Winter in the south is a time of dormancy for the landscape. Despite the fact that many things are still green, they stop or slow down growing. The intensity of color changes in the landscape. The landscape has much more brown, and yellow in it during the winter, and the greens on the evergreens tend to be very dark, almost black-green. In winter you only mow your lawn every other month instead of every other day in the peak of the growing season (just kidding, you seldom need to mow more then twice a week.) As far south as Miami the grass will turn brown when there has been a frost or extended dry spell. The no-grow season and temperatures below 70 degrees typify the dead of winter.

Spring follows winter in the South just as in the north. Spring can come very early, February in south Florida, March in the rest of Florida and into Southern Georgia and Alabama. Spring will arrive between late March and late April as far north as Kentucky. Everything starts to grow in the spring. The deciduous trees sprout new leaves; the evergreens sprout new leaves and the grass needs mowing. The greens of spring are light and bright and translucent. The trees bloom and in the deep-south the air is scented with citrus and palm bloom (makes me homesick just to think about it.) The temperatures rise, with occasional cool nights. Spring has really arrived when you are free of the risk of frost for the year, February in south Florida, mid to late April in Kentucky, and the 4th of July in Cleveland.

Summer in the South is very distinctive. The weather tends to be warm, but as I use to tell people there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the average summer day in central Florida will have a high temperature in the high 80’s and a nighttime low in the mid 70’s, it seldom gets over 95 degrees in peninsular Florida. The bad news is that it can get like this in May and some years it does not cool off until November. The humidity tends to be comparatively high in the deep-south, 70-80% being average summer time humidity; no one needs a steam room when they live in the real South. If you are near the Ocean or Gulf, you tend to have summertime afternoon thunderstorms in the South. It takes a lot of rain to keep the semitropical landscape green. The landscape becomes dark rich green in the summer. The landscape tends to bloom to the point of rotting with intensity. Nearly anything will grow in the south. Northern plants that do not survive in the south generally fail because they grow themselves to death in the warm rich climate, burning out in the nonstop party of summer, or going to seed far before their time. The sun can be intense. Anything left exposed to the summer sun tends to fade; asphalt streets bleach to grey and white in the summer sun looking more like concrete then asphalt.

Autumn in the south is very subtle. The temperatures moderate, the growth of the landscape slows down. Anything that is going to seed goes to seed. Long growth crops like citrus ripen and are harvested. The color of the flora fades to softer tones, with a hint of yellow and brown. The deciduous trees start to loose their leaves, though this process may not be complete until the cold days of winter kick in.

There they are, four distinct seasons. Now I have to admit it took me a couple of years of living in the semi-tropics of the deep-south to start to recognize the subtleties of the changing seasons. Once I learned to recognize them, I really learned to love them. Unlike the change of seasons in Yankee land that hit me like a hammer between the eyes, I had to use all of my senses to detect the distinctive southern changing of the seasons. God how I miss the subtlety of a real southern winter!

Written by: DG