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Warm, wet winter bane of South Florida gardeners

Warm, wet weather delayed the blossoming of mango trees this year.
Warm, wet weather delayed the blossoming of mango trees this year. Bonnie Gross

For two months, customers have been coming into Knaus Berry Farms in Redland and chatting it up with the owners, saying, “Our mango tree isn’t blooming,” said Herb Grafe, a partner at the U-pick and bakery.

“And I’ve been answering: ‘And nor have ours.’ It’s affecting everyone.”

It’s been a weird and difficult winter for gardeners, thanks to the weather pattern dubbed El Niño.

Now, though, some mango trees have started to blossom, Grafe said. And the good news is: Be patient, your mangos may be late, but they’re probably going to be fine.

Your lychee tree may be another matter, and many home gardeners watched their tomatoes drown and fail in December and January. Citrus trees, however, appear unaffected.

That impact of the weather system has been so great this year that Jeff Wasielewski, commercial tropical fruit crops extension agent for Miami-Dade County, University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, has taken to calling it El Hombre instead of El Niño. “It’s bigger,” he said. It’s a man this year, not a boy.

Jeff Wasielewski, commercial tropical fruit crops extension agent, has taken to calling the weather pattern El Hombre instead of El Niño. “It’s bigger,” he said, a man, not a boy.

Mangos usually bloom at the end of December and the beginning of January. The process begins with the start of dry season, usually in November.

With the dry weather, the mango trees “stop putting out new leaves. The dry weather is a cue to slow down,” Wasielewski said. “The next thing they need is just a small cold front — not terribly cold, the sort of weather where everyone in Miami puts on their boots and sweaters, but it’s really not that cold.”

The cold front tells the mangos, “It’s time, and about five weeks later, give or take a few days, you’ll start to see the bloom.”

This year, however, November and December felt more like September and October, and mango trees kept putting out new growth.

“In December, we actually had three days of torrential rains. In some areas, we got 15 inches in a few days,” he said. “So we didn’t get the slowdown in growth and we didn’t get any real cold until January.”

With January’s cool temperatures, the mangos finally realized it was time to bloom and got back on track.

Mangos will ripen later, Wasielewski predicts, “though they may catch up a little.” The peak for many varieties of mangos may be July this year instead of June. “If the weather stays dry and mild, the fruit should be in great shape,” Wasielewski said. If you miss your mango crop this year, it’s probably not because of the weather, he added.

While many think of the mango as a tropical fruit, it is actually a sub-tropical fruit, requiring a slight chill to have a strong, synchronized bloom.

Mangos come from India, which has a monsoon climate with similar wet and dry seasons to South Florida. While many think of it as a tropical fruit, it is actually a sub-tropical fruit, requiring that slight chill in the air to have a strong, synchronized bloom.

In tropical locations where mangos grow, like Hawaii, there is no dry season combining with cooler temperatures, and so mango trees do not all fruit at the same time, as they do in Florida.

Those who have backyard lychee trees are also facing problems, but Wasielewski is less optimistic about them.

“We don’t really fully understand the requirements for lychee like we do for the mango, but we think they need cooler temperatures earlier and a little longer, and we didn’t get any of that this year,” he said. “In 2015, we had a great lychee crop, and I think that had a lot to do with the cooler temperatures we had in the previous November.

“I would wager lychee will be very down. Even though I’m seeing some blooms, I don’t know if they will hold,” he said.

Gardeners with plots for tomatoes, squash, strawberry and other crops also had a hard time in December and January.

… the worst season for strawberries I think we’ve ever had, and I’ve been here 43 years.

Herb Grafe, Knaus Berry Farms

Grafe said Knaus Berry Farms had “the worst season for strawberries I think we’ve ever had, and I’ve been here 43 years.” Last year, with a cool November, “ was probably the best growing season I’ve ever experienced,” he added.

There was one crop of strawberries at Knaus Berry Farms in late November, and then the heat and humidity confused the plants.

“The berries just wanted to put out runners and make new plants instead of fruit. They thought it was summer,” Grafe said. “They never rebloomed.” As a result, a place famous for berries had none for weeks in January, and only now is harvesting berries and allowing people to pick their own.

Wasielewski said the December torrents were so bad that “I hit reset button — control alt delete — for my home vegetable garden. I tilled it under, and replanted. Now I’m getting broccoli and lettuce and it’s doing fine.”

The Miami-South Florida National Weather Service Forecast Office warns that the El Niño effect is likely to continue bringing unseasonable stormy weather and rainfall through April.

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