This is my first time growing vegetables in Florida ever. I wanted to as a child, but my grandmother was insisted on growing brightly colored annuals (and basically nothing else). I wanted to a few years ago, but held back knowing we were going to sell our house and move. So this spring is the first season when I’ve planted food and eaten from my garden.
It continues to delight me, and to surprise me. I have known of course that vegetables grow on plants, and that if you plant seeds and water them and tend them, in time they yield edible food. But it continues to feel miraculous. I continue to marvel at the fact that it works, that plants push through the soil where only a dry little bean went in, that they grow into full sized plants, that flowers bloom and bees come and then with a little more time there is food. It’s exciting. I babble about it incessantly to anyone who will listen. I show it off to anyone who comes to my house. I’d show my garden to the mailman if I could get him to leave his truck.
In the past week, a few people have commented that I seem to be having more success than most. One woman said it was the best looking vegetable garden she’d seen in Florida. My neighbor across the street, whose front yard is a stunning Garden of Eden full of trees and blooming perennials said she has never had success growing veggies. I wonder if I’m having beginner’s luck? And then I think perhaps it’s just that I spent three years plotting and reading and figuring out how I wanted to approach the garden before I ever began. I learned a number of problems to watch for, and learned solutions to those problems even before I encountered them in my own yard. I think I’ve avoided some of the early failures folks experience when they try to grow a Northern garden in Florida, just by getting that education ahead of time.
So – for any other Floridians out there who may be reading my blog as they plan their own vegetable gardens, here’s what I’ve learned so far, and how I’ve had a successful first season.
Florida is a great place to garden, but it is very different from up North. Most of the gardening advice you will read in books and online will assume that you have seasons (and that they include things like “Winter” instead of just “dry” and “wet”), that your sunlight is milder than it is, that your soil is better than it is, and that your humidity is less than 90%. Read the Northern gardening guides if you like, but by and large ignore them. This is Florida. Follow recommendations for gardens in Florida (or Hawaii, or maybe Texas, or maybe the tropics) to have the best results. Here’s a few specific ways that we are different from those Northern climes:
1. Florida is made of sand. You can just about guarantee that any native soil anywhere in Florida counts as “well draining” and, in most yards, that it is very low in organic matter and nutrients. This means two things. Firstly, you need to water more frequently (the old recommendation to water deeply but less often assumes soil that holds water; ours doesn’t, so unless you are growing something that is specifically a drought tolerant plant, plan to water daily). Secondly, you need to add organic matter. Sheet mulching is an awesome way to do this, and is what I’ve done in my own garden. Most of my veggies aren’t growing in the sand – they’re growing in horse manure and oak leaves and compost and mulch. They seem to like it. 🙂
2. We don’t have four seasons a year. What Northerners grow in the summer, we grow in the spring. Where they have six months from May to October, we have three from March to June. Then it’s too hot. Really – it’s too hot. And it’s humid. Plants wilt in the sun or succumb to fungal diseases. You need to plant your veggie garden early, and then move on to tropical types of plants for the summer. This means some plants can’t grow here – anything that needs a long cool season (I can’t tell you how sad I am that we’re too far south for garlic and leeks, but I comfort myself by marveling that I can grow passion fruit and avocados). And, on the bright side, you’ll be able to grow a Northern “spring” garden right through the winter, from October through February. You can grow food 12 months a year here, as long as you time things right, and choose the right varieties.
3. The sun is really, really bright here. “Full sun” in New England is not the same as “full sun” in Florida. Some plants do better with a bit of shade (even if they claim not to); keep an open mind and a watchful eye to learn how things fare in your garden. Also – mulch the heck out of your garden so your plants’ roots don’t dry out. Between the sandy soil and the hot, bright sun it doesn’t take long at all for things to dry up.
4. It’s very humid here. That means ideal conditions for fungus and bacteria to thrive. Pick disease resistant varieties when possible. For that matter, pick heat and drought tolerant varieties when you can, too.
5. Root knot nematodes. They’re nasty little microscopic baddies that will suck the life out of your plants through the roots. You can kill them with “soil solarization” (heavy black plastic over your soil in the hottest part of the summer to cook them out) or you can just work to improve your soil quality – sheet mulching and such. The healthier your soil the less root knot nematodes will be an issue. You can also grow marigolds – a chemical in their roots deters the nematodes. The effect is cumulative, so if you incorporate them into your garden each year, you’ll be in better and better shape as time goes on.
Those are the big things. The soil quality, the sunlight, the difference in our seasons, the fungus and bacteria, the root knot nematodes. Plan your timing, choose appropriate plant varieties, sheet mulch with good organic material, rethink the meaning of “full sun”, water daily, plant marigolds, and enjoy your garden all year long.