Fall vegetable gardening can be one of the most rewarding gardening experiences in Florida.
The days are warm without being hot, the mosquitoes are fewer and the cool nights can provide ideal growing conditions for cool-season vegetable crops.
If you have grown your own vegetables in another state or are new to vegetable gardening, there are several things you will need to know.
Site preparation is the first step. Find an area in your yard that receives at least six hours of sun (eight or more would be much better). Remember, this area may be shady in other seasons.
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, and rot- 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 recently. You don't need to take the chance, with so many other options.
You can choose naturally rot-resistant wood. Concrete blocks also make nice raised beds and, if reinforced and mortared together, can be built to a comfortable standing height.
Rot-resistant decking, although more pricey, is very easy to work with, is attractive, lasts for many years and would be an excellent choice for making raised beds.
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, which 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 make or composted manures you can buy. The organic matter will "break up" heavy clay soils, and will improve the water- and nutrient-holding capacities of sandy soil.
You will want to mix the organic matter with your existing soil to a depth of about 12 inches.
One of the biggest mistakes in Florida vegetable gardening is the improper timing of planting.
The unique climate of Central Florida demands we plant cool-season vegetables at the end of October or very early November. Some cool-season vegetables cannot take the heat; others are tolerant to frost and freeze.
Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and celery need to be started four to six weeks before being transplanted into the garden. You can sow the seed in a pot of moist potting soil. If you cover the pot with a clear plastic bag, you will not have to water until the seeds start to grow.
Transplant the seedlings once the first set of true leaves (Those that resemble the full-grown plant) is visible. 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.
Beets, carrots, collards, endive, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard greens, onion sets, English peas, radish and spinach can be sown directly into the garden. Keep the seedbed moist until the seedlings emerge.
Fertilization is important for good yield from your garden. You will need to fertilize monthly during the growing season. A balanced fertilizer where all three numbers are the same (for example, 8-8-8) is fine. 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 not all insects are bad. In fact, most insects are good. Usually, the biggest bug gets unfairly blamed for the damage. Become familiar with aphids, whiteflies and spider mites, the most common "bad guys" in the vegetable garden.
Try using soapy water for insect control. You can buy insecticidal soap, gentle on the good bugs in your garden and environmentally friendly, at a garden center.
Jim Moll is the urban horticulture agent for the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service. You can reach him by e-mail at jimm@ hernandocounty.us.