Friday, December 15, 2017
Human Interest

Florida gardeners share tips for fall vegetable gardens — what are yours?

I’ve been looking on the sunny side this summer, which hasn't been hard. Plenty of sunny.

Plenty of rainy, too.

Whacking and weeding weekly through the hottest months of the year is great exercise, right? (Don't answer that.)

No hurricanes, no drought — really, I'm not complaining. But, come Sunday . . . hello, autumn!

I look forward to the end of steamy days and the beginning of my favorite time of year for growing vegetables. I plant lettuce (so easy and SUCH a money saver), beans and a few tomatoes. This year, I'm also looking for katuk, a leafy shrub with delicious, protein-rich leaves. I discovered it in Tanja Vidovic's North Tampa garden back in February and it has been on my mind ever since.

I learn so much from gardeners like Tanja that I asked them to share their favorite fall veggie-growing tips. They had lots, so expect another batch next month.

I was touched by all the people who took time to write down and email me their best advice. When I said as much to Joe Parr, director of horticulture at Busch Gardens, he answered, "Gardeners ARE the best! Tell everyone!"

So I am. And you are.

Let's start at the beginning

This early in the season, keep a close eye on seedlings. If they don't come up, you have time to plant more! This is also a great time to root plants from cuttings.

Good plants to start now: broccoli, green beans, strawberries, tomatoes.

Tanja Vidovic, urban farmer, North Tampa (Tanja can introduce you to tasty, Florida-friendly perennial vegetables you've never heard of. She'll host a garden tour and plant exchange at 10 a.m. Oct. 4. For details, email [email protected] or visit the Tampa Gardening Swap group on Facebook.)

Grow easy, grow collards

Plant a few collards among your full-sun flowers. They don't need fertilizer and they grow for months. If they get bugs, sprinkle flour on the leaves and the bugs will take off!

Peggy Sherman, Forest Hills, Tampa

Dig in to good dirt with raised beds

Healthy soil is absolutely essential! Start now. Pick a sunny spot. Cover it with a sheet of black plastic to smother existing weeds and cook weed seeds. Wait a couple of months, then pile on 4 inches of compost or composted manure and work it into the soil.

In the meantime, use raised beds to start a garden now. Use 10-inch-wide planks or bricks to form the frame. Cover the existing dirt with a few layers of newspaper as a barrier against weeds and fill with healthy soil or a soilless mixture.

Joe Parr, director of horticulture for Busch Gardens and Adventure Island, Temple Terrace gardener

Now read this: no weeds with a layer of newspaper

I haven't pulled a weed in 20 years. Here's my secret: A single layer of newspaper.

Lay strips of newspaper between rows of seedlings so no soil can be seen. Pile organic material, such as coastal hay, on top of the paper to weigh it down. Your plants grow; weed seeds die.

Fun tip: Balance a broom straw perpendicular to your watermelon stem. When the straw turns and points to the stem, the watermelon is ripe. (A partial turn means it's not quite ready.)

Robert Bowden, executive director of Harry P. Leu Botanical Gardens, Orlando; author of Guide to Florida Fruit and Vegetable Gardening

Know before you grow

Don't trust the planting guides on the backs of packaged seeds. They're usually not accurate for us. Instead, consult the Extension Service Almanac. (In the Tampa Bay area, do a Google search for "Hillsborough extension almanac" (or other such regional search) and the month you're interested in.)

Plant above-ground crops now and root crops and greens last. You'll be surprised by the veggies that can take cold weather — even a freeze. Those include lettuce, collards, carrots, radishes and onions.

Add dolomite, also known as "agricultural limestone," to your soil. It provides calcium and magnesium, which are essential to a healthy garden.

Always water in the morning, NEVER in the evening. This will help prevent fungus.

Greg Shell, owner of Shell's Feed & Garden Supply Inc., Tampa, Odessa gardener

Sow your own way

Start your own seedlings. Plant large seeds like corn, squash and beans directly in the soil. Start smaller seeds in little pots and transplant when they're 3 inches tall.

Using seeds allows you to choose from countless varieties: spicy carrots, oak leaf-shaped lettuce or squash that looks like a UFO. Find them in printed or online seed catalogs.

Brittany Hickman, urban farmer who blogs at, Forest Hills, Tampa

UF/IFAS proves invaluable

If you're not sure what to plant, or how to grow vegetables in Florida, the University of Florida/IFAS provides lots of free information in a searchable database at

Lynn Barber, UF/IFAS extension agent, Lithia gardener

If you've got fall veggie-growing tips to share, email [email protected] Join the chat at Diggin Florida Dirt on Facebook. Follow @DigginPenny on Twitter and more local gardening stories at

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