The growing season for vegetables in our area of Florida is from September through May, so there's no time to waste if you want to grow your own food this fall. Follow these steps to jump-start your vegetable garden:
What do you want to grow?
Make a list of the vegetables your family likes. If it's only potatoes, you're out of luck. Those shouldn't be planted until January. According to the University of Florida, the best crops to plant during the next month or so are beans, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, summer squash, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, celery, radishes, spinach, lettuces, onions and strawberries.
Start your seeds as soon as possible in peat pots, trays or other small containers following the directions on seed packets. Transplant when your garden beds or containers are in place. If you're starting with potted plants, you'll find a good selection now at the garden center. Seeds are more economical at about $1 to $2 per multiseed packet; individual starter plants cost about $2.50 and up, depending on the container size.
Where can you plant your garden?
Full sun (6 to 8 hours of direct sun) is best, especially for plants that produce fruits such as tomatoes, squash and eggplant. Part sun is fine for leafy produce, such as lettuce, broccoli and spinach. If possible, locate your garden near the kitchen for convenience and always have a water source nearby.
Vegetable gardens aren't limited to the back yard. Your side yard or front yard may be better locations. If you live in a restricted community, make sure a garden in the front yard isn't prohibited.
How large do you want your garden?
Experts recommend starting small, then adding on later. Resist the urge to plant 50 zucchini plants or two dozen tomatoes.
Measure the growing area and sketch raised bed configurations (any shape can work) on paper. Most raised beds are 2 to 4 feet wide to maximize space and provide a comfortable working space. A bed should be at least 8 to 10 inches deep to accommodate roots. Use your measurements to purchase building supplies if you're handy; otherwise, you can order premade raised garden beds from garden catalogs and online sources, including Gardener's Supply (www.gardeners.com; toll-free 1-888-833-1412), GreenCulture; (www.composters.com; toll-free 1-877-204-7336) and Natural Yards (www.naturalyards.com; (541) 488-0838).
Always avoid lumber that has been pressure-treated with arsenic, which can leach into the soil. Better options are cedar, commercial-grade plastic, PVC, brick and concrete block.
What container type should you use?
The easiest way to start is with containers, which come in all sizes and shapes. Any container is fine: plastic, clay, ceramic, wood or resin. Smaller pots will require more frequent watering, and clay pots tend to dry out more quickly. Drainage holes are a must to prevent root rot.
You'll find the basic styles at discount stores, garden centers and other retailers. Self-watering pots and troughs, multi-tiered containers and other high-tech vessels are available online and in catalogs. Gardener's Supply has a wide selection, including its "Gardener's Revolution" hanging steel cage planter ($19.95) for growing produce upside down. The self-watering Earthbox growing system container (about $50) simplifies care and is said to increase crop yield (www.earthbox.com; toll-free 1-800-821-8838).
Do you have the necessary tools?
At the very least, you'll need a shovel, hand trowel, rake and watering hose. A wheeled cart or wheelbarrow make transporting soil and compost easier, but you can get by with a bucket and brute strength. Some plants (such as tomatoes and beans) will require supports, which you can purchase at a garden center, or make do with items from home (such as wire, twine, dowel rods and other supports).
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.