If you have grown your own vegetables in another state or are new to vegetable gardening altogether, there are several things you will need to know.
In Florida, we grow most vegetables from the fall into early summer. The most common mistake made in Florida vegetable gardening is the improper timing of planting. The unique climate of Central Florida demands we plant warm-season vegetables in late February. Watch the young plants carefully, because that time of year is prone to a few frosty nights.
Now is a great time to start your own vegetable transplants.
You can start tomatoes, eggplant and peppers in a warm, protected location in your home. You can sow the seed into a clean flower pot filled with moistened potting soil. If you cover the flower pot with a clear plastic bag, you will not have to water until the seeds start to grow.
Once the seeds start sprouting, remove the bag and check the surface of the soil daily. It should remain moist, but never wet.
Transplant the seedlings once the first set of true leaves have sprouted. True leaves are the leaves that resemble the full-grown plant. You can move the seedlings into cell packs, but I prefer 4-inch pots, because they have more room to grow and develop and don't dry out so quickly.
You can use the same potting mix in which you started them for this task. Gradually acclimate your transplants to more sun and a bit less water, and don't forget to bring them into a protected location if we have chilly nights.
Meanwhile, as you wait for your seeds to germinate, you can begin your site preparation. Find an area in your yard that receives at least six hours of sun (eight hours or more would be much better). Choose your location carefully, and take into account the sun's movements and shade patterns in your yard as the season progresses.
You might want to consider making raised beds for your vegetable garden. There are lots of materials that can be used in raised-bed construction. The best materials for the job are long lasting, rot resistant and insect resistant.
One very important thing to remember is not to use pressure-treated lumber. The chemicals used in pressure-treated lumber to preserve the wood have come under scrutiny in the last several years. You don't need to take that chance, with so many other options available.
You can choose naturally rot-resistant wood, such as cypress. Concrete blocks make nice raised beds and, if reinforced and mortared together, can be built to a comfortable standing height. Home improvement centers have rot-resistant decking material. Although pricey, it is very easy to work with, attractive and lasts for many years.
Soil preparation is extremely important. I am sure most of us are dealing with less than ideal soil for vegetable gardening. It doesn't matter if you have sandy soil that holds little water and nutrients, or you have heavy clay soil that will not drain; the secret ingredient is organic matter.
Organic matter can be compost that you made or composted manures purchased at a garden center. The organic matter will "break up" heavy clay soils, yet it will improve the water and nutrient holding capacity of sandy soil.
Blend your organic matter with the existing soil to a depth of about 12 inches.
At the end of February, you can plant your transplants into the prepared soil. Gently remove the transplants from their flower pots and set them into the soil. Water them shortly after you put them in the ground. Keep the transplants moist, but never wet, as they acclimate into the vegetable garden.
Fertilization is important for successful vegetable gardening. You will need to fertilize monthly during the growing season.
A balanced fertilizer where all three numbers are the same is fine (for example, 8-8-8). Spread the fertilizer in a band along the side of the plants at a rate of 1 or 2 ounces per 100 feet of row, which roughly speaking is about a handful.
Inspect your plants weekly for insects. Turn the leaves over and examine.
Many of the common insects that attack vegetables are fairly small, so a magnifying glass may be helpful. Keep in mind that not all insects are bad; most are good.
Usually the biggest bug gets unfairly blamed for the damage. Become familiar with aphids, whiteflies and spidermites, the most common "bad guys" in the vegetable garden. Try using soapy water for insect control. You can purchase insecticidal soap at a garden center. Insecticidal soap is gentle on the good bugs in your garden and is environmentally friendly.
Jim Moll is the urban horticulture agent for the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service. He can be contacted at [email protected]