the green peppers are pooped, the lettuces are lethargic and the tomatoes look tired — actually, terrible. What made for a fine Florida vegetable garden the past eight months is now taking a turn for the worse, despite your best efforts and Mother Nature's recent rainstorms.
Up North, veggie gardens are in their glory, producing the juicy tomatoes, crisp salad greens and sweet berries associated with summer. But here in Florida, the only bumper crops you'll produce during the dog days of summer are plants such as okra, collard greens and a few hardy herbs.
Of course you don't have to attempt herbs and vegetables in summer; in fact, a lot of gardeners take the summer off. That doesn't mean, however, that you let the garden plot lie fallow. Do that and you'll soon have weeds and pests to contend with.
Now is the time for a summer garden strategy. You basically have three choices: Grow summer herbs and veggies, grow a cover crop to choke out weeds and enrich the soil, or solarize the soil to eliminate soil-borne pathogens, including nematodes. Here's how:
To grow summer produce, select heat-loving plants, including varieties developed for Florida gardens, recommends retired University of Florida extension agent Pam Brown, whose local workshops on vegetable gardening have drawn record crowds.
Okra, sweet potato, collard greens, Swiss chard, hot peppers, basil, chives, thyme, rosemary and parsley typically do well in a summer garden. Sweet 100 tomatoes are one of the few tomato plants that will set fruit even when night temperatures are high, Brown notes.
Whatever you grow will require extra TLC in the summer, so monitor plants frequently for early signs of pests and mold caused by heat and humidity. Inspect tops and bottoms of leaves from the bud to the soil and remove diseased leaves and large insects by hand.
If plants are in containers, move them to an area that gets full sun during morning hours only. If you have a full-sun raised bed or garden, provide protection from the afternoon sun with a shade or similar product.
Feeding the soil
For a summer cover crop that enriches the soil, try growing black-eyed peas from seed, suggests Brown. This legume thrives in hot weather and should quickly blanket the soil to prevent weeds. Keep the soil moist until seeds germinate and establish first roots, but then the plants need minimal care. After plants bloom but before peas are produced, till the plants into the soil for a nitrogen-rich feeding.
"We say the garden has fed us for the past eight months, and now it's our time to feed our soil," says Pamela Sindlinger, co-owner of Gateway Organic Farm in Clearwater, where summer cover crops include black-eyed peas, vetch and buckwheat. Like black-eyed peas, vetch (a legume) and buckwheat germinate fast and provide quick cover for barren soil. An added bonus: Buckwheat attracts mosquito-eating dragonflies, she says. (Sindlinger orders organic cover crop seeds from Seeds of Change, toll-free 1-888-762-7333 or seedsofchange.com.)
Marigolds are another good option, says John Kingsbury, a Pinellas County master gardener. A bed of these yellow and orange annuals not only looks pretty, but helps eliminate microscopic nematodes in the soil, too. Don't pull them at the end of the season; instead, work them into the soil where they'll continue to nourish the soil, says Kingsbury, who volunteers at the vegetable gardens at the Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.
Baking the soil
You can solarize your garden to kill soil-borne pathogens, weed seeds and fungi by using a heavy duty clear plastic tarp or covering. First, break up the soil to activate nematodes and remove any wood chips or debris. Deeply water the area, then create a slight mound at the center, which will prevent rainwater from pooling on top of the plastic. Next, cover the soil with plastic and weigh down the edges with mounded soil, sandbags, bricks or rocks.
The solar baking process takes at least eight weeks, and the best months are the hottest ones (June and July), Kingsbury says. Moisture trapped under the plastic is essential, so a water drip line or soaker hose is useful. Most plastic will deteriorate under the sun's rays, so you may need to replace it after about a month, he notes. Before laying the new plastic, turn the soil again and deeply water it.
By mid to late August, your garden beds should be free of last season's " bad stuff" and ready for prepping the fall vegetable garden. "Improving the soil is the name of the game," says Kingsbury.
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a Pinellas County master gardener. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.