Growing vegetables in South Florida is a little different than doing so in the rest of the country. Our summer acts as winter—usually zapping most flowering plants and vegetables, which can’t handle our intense heat, humidity, and abundant rainfall. During the winter, cold air and frosts can make their way down south and put a chill in our tender plants. Growing wonderful edible gardens here requires a special understanding of our climate. Here are a few tips that will make your edible gardening easier and more productive:
Your Garden Plan
First, consider the space you have available. For most landscaping areas dwarf or semi-dwarf trees will work better with the other trees and shrubs that may already be present in your landscape. It helps to draw a plan of your space to not only see what will fit, but also to envision what conditions will be like at different times of the year. For example, an area in direct sun during summer may not get much sun at all during winter. Though many fruit trees can be maintained at a small size through proper pruning, it’s always a good idea to go out to the area you want to plant, and look up! Check for anything overhead that might eventually interfere with your plants.
It’s always a good idea to focus on annuals. Winter is the perfect time to plant a number of common herbs, and with the right location you can even keep them all year round. Herbs are perfect for container gardening, and they can also easily be used as a border planting or part of a flower garden. Herbs also may be grouped together so that you can easily replant each year. Get creative! Some herbs, like those in the mint family, can thrive even during our hot summers. Great examples can be seen in our Edible Garden.
The list of vegetable you can grow well in Florida is almost endless. Vegetable season preparation should begin during the fall. If you are starting plants from seeds, September may be the best time to do so. Early-bearing varieties of some vegetables are also suitable for planting after the harshness of summer has waned, providing a late fall crop. Cool-season vegetables in Florida include lettuce, kale, onions, cabbage, collards, mustard and carrots. Summer vegetable gardens can include some unusual plants like katuk, Cuban oregano and cranberry hibiscus. Great examples can be seen in our Edible Garden.
If you start your vegetables and herbs from seeds, soak them in warm water for two hours, then plant. This will encourage seeds to germinate quickly. One consideration for South Florida is soil amendments. Many plants may not like our alkaline soils, in which case you may need to acidify the soil with fertilizers. Some natural alternatives for increasing acidity in your soil include adding coffee grounds or adding small amounts of white vinegar when watering.
Also consider your soil’s texture. If it’s very sandy, it may not maintain many nutrients or hold much moisture. Of course, some plants like sandy soil, like cacti. If soil is too dense or too clayey, young plant roots won’t be able to penetrate and will be deprived of airflow. You may need to loosen dense soils by adding perlite or other such soil conditioners.
Amend established garden beds with slow-release nutrients rather than fast-release fertilizers. Compost is a natural alternative for fertilizing.
After transplants have been planted and plants are two inches high, mulch the entire bed, even between plants. Apply two to four inches of mulch to keep the soil moist and prevent weeds.
Bring Friends Together
Pair herbs and flowers with vegetables to thwart insect damage. Companion planting is a centuries-old strategy. For example, rosemary protects cabbage, beans and carrots by repelling moths and beetles. Look for opportunities. Shade created by larger, established trees might be the ideal location to grow shade-loving herbs and vegetables.
Don’t Forget to Include Fruit Trees and your Favorite Varieties
Many gardeners think of gardening in terms of vegetable or ornamental (flower) gardening. Many fruit trees don’t start producing fruit for a couple years, so you will have time and space to add other alternatives in your garden. Don’t be afraid to experiment with fruit trees in your landscaping—they will probably require less work than herbs and vegetables and they will stay with you far longer.
Few Things Invoke a Sense of Island Paradise Quite Like the Taste of Fresh Tropical Fruit
Tropical fruit trees such as mango, avocado, jackfruit, sapodilla, canistel, and mamey thrive in tropical climates. While only gardeners in the far southern reaches of states like Florida can grow these fruit trees outdoors, many varieties are suitable for growing in large pots as houseplants. Pineapple, while not a tree, is a relatively small bromeliad you can grow in a pot on a sunny balcony or porch.