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Diggin' Florida Dirt: Heirloom Florida veggies for your fall garden

I've read the headlines about all the jobless millennials living pale lives in their parents' basements. Not seeing it! And not just because we don't have basements here.

I get plenty of emails from under-35s buying their first homes. About 14 percent of them (more than 11 million) bought houses last year — an uptick, according to real estate website Trulia.

Before they even think about furnishings, many of these new homeowners scout a spot for their vegetable gardens. I know this from personal experience and the National Gardening Association: Millennial gardeners shot up from 8 million in 2008 to 13 million last year.

The "Flintstone kids," as the vitamin commercial says, are all grown up and contributing in big ways to sustainable living.

Jay York, a 26-year-old Tampa newbie gardener, and Jonathan Winfrey, his 27-year-old organic heirloom seed supplier, are two excellent cases in point. Both embrace the technology they've always known — and the centuries-old, tried and true ways of living in synch with Mother Earth.

"Tech's great but there are things from the past we shouldn't forget," says Jay, a digital marketing professional planting his first fall garden at his and his wife's home of one year in Seminole Heights.

Jay's a foodie who appreciates new flavors, but not when they've been engineered.

"The heirloom varieties have been around a long time. They're not genetically modified — they've been modified through natural selection," he says. "There are a lot of people, more than you'd imagine, who want to know exactly what's in their food and where it's coming from."

He ordered seeds for his two raised beds from Organic Sanctuary, organicsanctuary.com, an online seed shop launched in 2012 by Jonathan. He found it, of course, through Facebook.

Jonathan has a degree in environmental studies and offers more than 40 homegrown organic seed varieties, bred outdoors and "open pollinated" at his parents' 7-acre farm in Geneva, near Orlando. He's also a distributor for Seeds of Change, an organic seed retailer.

Get Jonathan talking about his heirloom plants, bred for Florida and naturally pest- and disease-resistant, and you'll want to skip straight to the harvest.

"One of my all-time favorites is Seminole pumpkins," he says. "To cook them, I like to add some organic coconut oil around the inside and outside. Then I bake for maybe 1 1/2 hours at 350 degrees and when the skin starts to become nice and crispy brown it's ready.

"I eat the skin and everything. Baking brings out the sugar in the pumpkin, so the inside is really creamy and sweet. You can cook the seeds, too. They're considered one of the world's healthiest foods."

Hungry yet?

Jay ordered a packet of those, along with tiny lemon drop tomatoes, eggplants, bush beans, herbs and a host of other plants.

He built two 4- by 12-foot raised beds last spring and filled them with organic humus, organic soil-builder from David Whitwam Organics and organic fertilizer from Shell's Feed Store, both in Tampa. Since summer's a tough time for growing most veggies in Florida, Jay checked his enthusiasm and kept it simple with a few sauna-proof staples, like Everglades tomatoes.

In fall, we get serious. But Jonathan advises starting small. Here are his suggestions for an easy-to-grow veggie bed you can start from seed now.

Seminole pumpkins: Said to be a staple of the Seminole Indians, these pumpkins average 4 to 5 pounds, Jonathan says.

If you sprout the seeds in starter trays, as Jonathan does, expect pumpkins 70 to 90 days after transplanting outside.

"The rule of thumb for all seeds is plant them no deeper than the length of the seed. Keep them watered," he says.

West Indian gherkin cucumbers: This crawling vine produces dozes of small cucumbers the size and shape of kiwis but with soft spikes on the skin.

"They're drought-tolerant and they tolerate the crazy heat and rain," he says, so they can be grown from spring to winter.

Purple cowpea: These bush beans are hardy and prolific, and the shelled legumes are meaty, Jonathan says.

"They're an excellent companion plant because they're nitrogen fixers — they create a habitat for beneficial microbes that convert nonusable nitrogen into nitrogen that plants can use."

Florida native beach sunflower: Attract pollinators to your garden with what Jonathan calls "a lighthouse plant."

"Beach sunflower produces hundreds of flower heads and you have a very good chance that it will reseed," he says. "It will draw the bees and other pollinators, and now you'll have them on all your veggies.

Contact Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com; visit her blog, www.digginfloridadirt.com; join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt; and follow @Diggin Penny.

Diggin' Florida Dirt: Heirloom Florida veggies for your fall garden 08/14/14 [Last modified: Thursday, August 14, 2014 8:20pm]

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