Skip to main content

UF/IFAS help snowbirds navigate Florida gardening, landscaping

A watering tin and gardening gloves at a home garden.

OCALA, Fla. — Robert and Christy Cathcart had just moved to Florida, and wondered how soon they could replicate their bountiful garden back home in Connecticut. They soon realized that they would need help with gardening and landscaping in their new home state. They turned to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Marion County office.

“Back in Connecticut, we had 13 raised beds and we grew everything from corn to tomatoes to herbs, pumpkins and lettuce,” Christy Cathcart said. “Here, the soil is sandy, and there is a finite amount of available water. There’s not as much rain in Florida as in the Northeast, so gardening and landscaping are very different.”

UF/IFAS Extension Marion County offers a course to the state’s snowbirds, and the Cathcarts eagerly signed up. “From Newbie to Native: Transitioning to Central Florida,” is offered in Ocala to residents who hail from other parts of the country, but spend part of the year in Florida, or who have recently made the state their permanent home.

“Often times, the newcomers will want to garden or have nice landscaping, but are not use to the Florida soil or climate,” said Jack LeCroy, the Florida Friendly Landscape UF/IFAS Extension agent Marion County. “Also, they don’t know the state’s rules and regulations on irrigation, so they end up wasting a lot of water.”

Snowbirds, those who spend time in Florida during winter months, and those who move to the state permanently, have a steep learning curve, LeCroy said. “Residents will have been in Florida for three or four years before they get all of the information they need about gardening and landscaping; the techniques they used in their home states might not work here. So, they waste a lot of money, resources and time before they figured everything out.”

That’s where the UF/IFAS Extension Marion County program comes in. Taught by UF/IFAS Extension agent Yilin Zhaung, the three-session workshop offers everything from energy and water conservation to how to create a nature-friendly yard, LeCroy said. The class offers tips on energy and water conservation inside and outside the home, he said.

Participants learn how long to water their yards and gardens, how much fertilizer to use and the nine principals of Florida Friendly Landscaping, LeCroy said. “First, they have to submit a soil test to make sure we know what kind of grass they have or what kind of soil they will be gardening in,” he said. “And then, they can get fertilizer recommendations through IFAS; we do a thorough background check so that we are not just throwing fertilizer out there and just watering beyond what is necessary.”

The classes even take field trips to model homes, LeCroy said. Participants learn about irrigation systems, landscaping and energy efficiency, he said. “They really get the full gamut of what landscaping and gardening in Florida entails,” he said.

For the Cathcarts, the series of classes could not come at a better time. “We learned so much about fertilizer use and how to manage the land,” Robert Cathcart said. “Landscaping in Florida means using different or less fertilizer because the nutrients are already in the soil. For example, you don’t need to put phospherous in because it’s already in the soil.”

The Cathcarts also learned through the class that water flows through Florida’s sandy soil quickly, so nutrients are washed away more rapidly. “We learned that you need to have a healthy root system that can slow the leaching of nutrients,” Christy Cathcart said.

Next week, the couple plan to take an Extension course on how to grow tomatoes in Florida. Meanwhile, they are evangelizing about the Extension courses to all of their neighbors.

“There are a whole lot of people moving here from across the country and it isn’t the same as it was back home,” Robert Cathcart said. “We’ve lived around the world, and we appreciate what’s different in each locale. But many who come here may not appreciate that gardening and landscaping are unique in Florida. This class helps newbies learn how to benefit from the climate.”


By: Beverly James, 352-273-3566,

Source: Jack LeCroy, 352-671-8400;