Florida gardeners often find excuses not to plant a garden during the summer months. Some say it's too hot for vegetables. Others suggest it's time to give the soil a rest. The fact is, many gardeners just don't know what to plant after they harvest cool-weather crops such as cauliflower, peas and broccoli.
Instead of giving up for the summer, consider switching to those crops that don't mind the heat, humidity and pests. It's still time for plantings of cherry tomato, okra, Southern pea (cowpea) and sweet potato.
Or you might try the less familiar tropical crops. You've seen them at the grocery store and probably considered the unusual roots and shoots just a curiosity. But they can provide a new experience in planting and eating.
When the sun is beating down and it's raining every afternoon, chayote, dasheen, jicama, roselle (Florida cranberry) and other heat-loving vegetables flourish. Most have few pests and need just a little fertilizer.
As soon as spring crops are out of the ground, it's time to begin planting the summer vegetable garden. Soils don't need a rest, but it's a good idea to replenish the organic matter in the ground.
Much of the peat moss, compost and manures you might have added in the early spring have released their nutrients by now and broken down into basic soil components, so it's time to add more. Liberal quantities of organic matter will improve sandy soil's moisture retention, help feed the crops and encourage the growth of beneficial organisms.
Calabaza, jicama, okra and Southern peas are planted by seed. Cherry tomatoes and sweet potatoes are established from transplants _ small seedlings you buy at the garden center. Other summer vegetables are started by planting the whole tuber or fruit in the ground.
Tubers are thick stems, usually containing several buds. They can be cut into small sections, each with one or more buds, or planted whole. Most are set in the soil flat side down, several inches deep. Dasheen, Jerusalem artichoke and malanga often take several weeks to produce new roots and shoots.
Chayote, also called vegetable pear and mirliton, is started by planting the entire fruit. Most of the fleshy green portion is buried in the soil. Only the area that was attached to the stem, often showing the beginnings of a sprout, is left visible at the soil line. In a few weeks a vining stem appears.
When planting summer vegetables, give them plenty of room to grow. (See spacing chart, for individual plants' needs.) Frequent rains and hot weather promote lush, rapid growth. Jerusalem artichokes and okra, for example, can grow 6 feet tall and branch just as wide.
Others need room to sprawl across the ground or climb a support. One sweet potato plant will cover several hundred square feet and a cluster of calabaza squash will send vines over most of the back yard. Growth from one or two chayote starts or vines from a few malabar spinach seeds can cover a trellis.
Summer vegetables seem to need little encouragement once the plants are up and growing. Nature does most of the watering with almost daily rains. If there is a dry period of three or four days, you might want to provide about a half-inch of water to keep the plants growing.
Adding a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch also can help the plants weather dry periods by keeping the soil moist. Scatter your lawn clippings in the garden or empty the compost pile there, once it has "cooked" into a crumbly mixture. Old hay and stable manure with bedding are good mulches, too.
If your summer garden is planted in sandy soil, it will need a first feeding about two weeks after the young plants start growing. If the soil has been enriched with compost or manures, you can wait another week or two.
You can use one of two methods: Lightly scatter a granular fertilizer directly around the plants or broadcast 1 pound of 6-6-6 over an area of 100 square feet. Many gardeners substitute manures for the granular fertilizer or use liquid feedings. Continue feeding every three to four weeks throughout the summer.
Even though there are plenty of bugs and disease organisms present during hot, rainy weather, few affect summer crops. Caterpillars, which chew holes in the leaves, are among the worst pests, but they usually can be tolerated in small numbers. If there are just a few, hand pick them. If there are more, spray with Dipel or Thuricide (Bacillus thuringiensis), following label instructions.
With most summer vegetables, it's easy to tell when they're ready for harvest. Cherry tomatoes turn red, okra and Southern pea pods swell and chayote forms a big green fruit.
But how do you know when to harvest Jerusalem artichoke, sweet potatoes or the tropical root- and tuber-producing vegetables?
First, wait the average days to harvest time suggested in planting guides. (If you don't have a planting guide, ask for one at your local garden center when you buy seeds or transplants.) Then start watching for the ground around the plant to crack. When it does, sneak a peek by digging into the soil around the base of the plant. If you find a vegetable swollen to the size sold in grocery stores, it's harvest time.
Vegetable Plant Spacing (inches) Planting Days
portions rows plants depth to
Calabaza squash seed 60-72 48-60 1 100-120
Chayote fruit 48-60 48-60 1 120-140
Cherry tomato plants 36-48 18-24 -- 75-90
Dasheen tubers 24-36 18-24 2 120-140
Jerusalem artichoke tubers 36-48 24-36 2 120-130
Jicama seed 48-60 12-24 1 120-130
Malabar spinach seed 36-48 12-14 1 50-60
Malanga tubers 36-48 18-24 3 120-180
Okra seed 24-40 6-12 1 50-75
Roselle seed 36-48 24-36 1/2 90-120
Southern peas seed 30-36 2-3 1 60-90
Sweet potato plants 48-60 12-14 --- 120-140