Sunday, November 18, 2018
Cooking

Yes, you can grow a garden of vegetables in Florida; here's how

From 12:30-1:30, we'll talk to the author about how he successfully grows a back yard garden full of vegetables in Florida each year. Click here to follow along.


Some gardeners like to grow vegetables during the summer in Florida.

Sure, not a lot of vegetables can stand the heat, but okra grows tall and muscular; eggplant, black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes thrive; some varieties of peppers and herbs can grow.

Those die-hard vegetable growers who sweat and pant in the heat really have that can-do spirit.

I think they're nuts.

I've been vegetable gardening in my St. Petersburg back yard for seven years, and if I've learned anything it's that growing in the summer isn't much fun. Too hot. Too rainy. Too buggy and mildewy. No, thanks.

But fall is approaching, and that means Florida's best growing season is near. Growing vegetables between October and late spring in this state is a lot of fun and can fill your fridge with a ton of food.

When I started my first garden, I had no clue what I was doing. But I have learned a lot between then and now, and can tell you this: Anyone can do it.

Yes, you're going to have some failures. But that's okay. If you have been thinking of growing vegetables, give it a shot. It is possible in Florida. I'll give you a hand.

• • •

Beyond avoiding summer, one of the most important lessons I've learned about home gardening is this: No two gardens are the same. If your friend in Dunedin can grow fat bell peppers, that doesn't necessarily mean you'll have the same luck in Seminole Heights. All kinds of factors — soil, shade, air circulation — can work for or against you.

Over time, you'll learn what you can grow well and what's a struggle. I suggest sticking with what works for you and ditching what doesn't.

Another lesson: Decide how much time and energy you want to put into your garden. If you want to work six hours a day mixing compost and fighting off every mildew and pest, you certainly could. But if you only want to work on it here and there (lest it become an unenjoyable chore), plan a garden that will work around that schedule.

The garden I'm going to grow this year might require a little work on weekdays, but I'm designing it so I can largely take care of it on weekends.

You'll also have to choose a size. My garden takes up most of my back yard. I have about 40 beds and grow up to 20 different vegetables at a time.

You don't have to be nearly that ambitious. A few beds will give you plenty of food for your table.

• • •

Let's talk first about vegetables that you can start growing indoors. By starting certain vegetables from seeds indoors, you can grow them to seedlings that can be planted outside. Early September is an ideal time to do this, so that by the time the weather cools you can start planting in the ground. (Instead of growing the seedlings, you can buy them from the store, but keep in mind they will be more expensive.) The best vegetables to start indoors are tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Everything else can go right into the dirt outside. (For more on why, see the accompanying vegetable list.)

For indoor growing, you'll need seed trays, seed-start potting soil and seeds, which you can buy at just about any home improvement or gardening store. You'll also want some small pots to transfer the seedlings into when they get too big for the trays.

Fill the seed trays with seed-starting soil and push one seed about a quarter-inch into each cell. Set them in a windowsill and keep them well-watered. When they sprout, you'll notice they stretch toward the light. Turn the trays often so they are forced to stretch the opposite way, which will strengthen them. About two weeks after they sprout, use a fork to lift the seedling and its soil out of the tray and put it into a small pot (watering the cells before you do this will make it easier). Fill the small pot with more seed-starting soil and water and place the pot back on the sill.

After a few more weeks, the plants should be ready to plant in the garden.

• • •

When exactly should you start planting outdoors? That's one of the trickier questions you'll face.

You can start putting plants and seeds into the garden as early as September, but I think that's risky. It's still going to be hot, and if your garden isn't shaded, you're likely to lose some things to the heat. And who wants to work outside when it's that steamy?

I find that a lot of vegetables struggle if the afternoon highs are still in the 90s. Try measuring your soil temperature. (I resourcefully use a meat thermometer.) If it's above 85 degrees, it's going to be hard to get a lot of things to grow.

But if you're really jonesing to get something in the ground, go with peppers, tomatoes, beans and cucumbers. They do better in the heat than more traditional "winter" vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and kale.

Here's what I'll do: I generally wait for the first real cool front to move through the area — that's usually mid-October — so that I'm working when high temperatures are more comfortable for me and most of my plants.

Two other tips: Don't fret too much about pests, as they generally aren't much of a problem when the weather cools (at least they haven't been for me). And follow the directions on the seed packet — it will tell you how deep to plant the seed and how far apart they should be planted.

• • •

What's on the menu?
(Click here for recipes to make from your fall garden bounty.)

In my experience, only certain vegetables will thrive here. Here is a list of individual vegetables I've grown and tips for how and when to grow them. Let's dig in.

Start these indoors

TOMATOES

The granddaddy of all the garden vegetables, everyone wants them in their garden even though horror stories abound and entire books have been written about how to grow them.

I haven't found it to be quite that complicated, but you may want to start with grape and cherry tomatoes as training wheels; I've found those to be heartier and easier to work with than the big ones. If you have success, move to bigger ones in the spring.

To plant: Whether you've grown seedlings indoors or bought them, cut the bottom leaves with a pair of scissors and bury the plant deep in the soil. The leaves you cut will become stabilizing roots. Only a few inches of the plant should remain above the soil.

Keep the plants well-watered, but don't flood them. Water in the morning, but only at the root level; avoiding getting water on the leaves. Also avoid touching the plants if they are wet.

Place some sort of support system — a tomato cage or something similar — around the plant pretty soon after planting. If you wait too long, you could damage the spreading roots underneath. Fertilize the plants with natural fertilizer every month or so.

You should start seeing fruit within a couple of months. A couple of warnings: You'll have to cover tomatoes during a freeze (use sheets, not plastic) and keep an eye out for one particular pest: the tomato hornworm, a huge green caterpillar that can chow an entire plant in less than a week. If you notice your plants are losing leaves, check the plant for a worm the size of a roll of pennies — I'm not making that up — and cut it in half with scissors. Well done, tomato warrior.

CABBAGE and KOHLRABI

Cabbage takes some time — if you plant in late fall, you may not have a good head until February or March, just in time for St. Patrick's Day. The cabbage I've grown in Florida has gotten seriously big and heavy — some have felt like a bowling ball when picked. Fertilize them fairly regularly.

Kohlrabi, shown right in the photo, is a spaceship-looking vegetable that grows a bulb aboveground. They're great for pickling or in stir-fries or even eating just like an apple. Like cabbage, you can start kohlrabi inside while it's warm, or plant directly into the garden when the weather cools. Kohlrabi seeds are seriously tiny, so be aware that you'll likely plant too many too close together and will have to thin them.

PEPPERS

Peppers are fun because there are so many varieties. I've had pretty good luck with bell peppers, but have had the best luck with jalapeno and banana varieties. Frankly, they typically do better in the spring than in fall and winter — especially hotter pepper varieties — because the days will be getting longer instead of shorter, and peppers enjoy sun and moderate heat. But they can work for you now.

To plant: Planting peppers directly into the garden isn't recommended by most gardeners, so use seedlings. Some gardeners swear that putting a half-dozen matches in the hole will help peppers grow. Others say you should plant peppers fairly close together, that they like to "hold hands" as they grow big.

Fertilize every month or so and keep them well-watered, though you can cut back on watering a bit when the fruit matures. Cover pepper plants in a freeze. You shouldn't have too much trouble with pests until spring.

BROCCOLI AND CAULIFLOWER

Broccoli is one of my favorites to grow because it is so prolific. Don't plant them too soon. They are a true winter vegetable and will grow best when the air is cooler.

To plant: Put them into the garden as seedlings. Plant about 18 inches apart to give them room to grow; fertilize once a month or so and water moderately but evenly.

You'll be amazed at how big these plants grow. After a month or so in the garden, you'll see the main head forming in the middle of the plant. Let it grow until the head is almost the size of a volleyball. If the buds start to flower or turn yellow, you've waited too long. Pick immediately. Cut the head off at the stalk with scissors or a sharp knife.

Once the main head is gone, the plant will start to grow smaller side heads. Cut them when they are fully formed (they'll be about half the size of the main head). Once you cut those, more will form, and so on. As nice as those larger main heads are, the side heads can produce about 10 times as much food. You'll keep picking them for months.

Grow cauliflower a lot like broccoli. The white heads are great when grown fresh from the garden, but unlike broccoli they don't grow side heads. It's one and done. As the heads grow bigger, make sure not to let them grow too long or they can rot.

Start these outdoors

RADISHES

Though not normally considered a jewel of the garden, I recommend radishes for any beginning gardener for three reasons: They're fast, they're easy and, when fresh from the garden, they taste better than you think. There also are a ton of varieties — traditional red and white, French breakfast and long white icicle among them — that add a lot of spice to any garden and diet.

You can start radishes once the soil temperature is down to about 85 degrees at the hottest time of the day. If your garden is a little shaded, that could be as early as late September, but waiting until mid-October is probably safer. (If you plant too early and it ends up being too hot and nothing sprouts, that's okay. Just wait a couple of weeks and try again.)

To plant: Dig a row in the soil about a half-inch down and plant the seeds about an inch apart. Cover with about a half-inch of soil. Water every other day or so, especially if there's no rain. You should see leaves sprout from the ground within about a week. You'll want to thin those plants once they are a couple of inches high, to about 3 inches apart. That will give them plenty of room to grow fat.

Then watch them — and your confidence — grow as they form spicy, fleshy bulbs just below the surface. Start pulling the bigger ones out after about 30 days and eat them as soon as you can. They can get a little squishy in the fridge (keeping them in ice water helps). Keep pulling them out of the garden and enjoying them, though after 45 days or so any left in the ground may start to crack and their flavor will get more bitter the bigger they get.

GREEN BEANS

Green beans are safer to start a little earlier in the fall because they tolerate heat better than winter vegetables. You can choose pole beans or bush beans, but you'll need a trellis for pole beans.

To plant: Sow the seeds directly into the garden, an inch down. They'll sprout a little quicker if you soak them in water the night before, but you don't have to. Within a week, you'll see impressively muscular sprouts starting to bend up from the soil.

Keep beans well-watered, but try your best not to get water on the leaves. Also avoid touching the leaves, as beans can be susceptible to disease.

There is no need to fertilize beans if your soil is fertile. You will need to cover them in a freeze, but you likely won't have much trouble with pests during the late fall and winter months. If you notice tiny aphids attacking your plants, spray them with a mixture of water, olive oil and dish soap.

When you pick beans, don't yank them from the plant. Cut them gently with scissors and the plants will keep producing.

BEETS

I just started having luck with beets a couple of years ago. It took me a while to realize that the key to growing them is keeping the rows moist and compulsively thinning them. If you don't, all you'll get are beet leaves (which are great in a salad) and runty, unusable beets. And that will mean you can't roast or pickle these earthy gems.

To plant: Each beet seed is actually a cluster of seeds, which is why it's so important to thin the plants. Go easy on the fertilizer, as too much nitrogen can stunt root growth. Beets grow best in cooler weather, so don't plant them until October at the earliest.

You may be tempted to let beet roots grow too big; they are best picked when about 2 ½ inches in diameter.

PEAS

Fresh peas from the garden taste like candy, and they are one of the most rewarding vegetables to grow.

To plant: Peas are a true cold weather crop and shouldn't be planted until it has cooled off. Plant the seeds a good inch into the ground and make sure you have a trellis set up that they can climb on. Warning: They will climb and climb. My trellis is nearly 5 feet tall, and they still climb over the top of it and eventually collapse — but not before they have given me at least a month of great harvest. A bed of peas will produce enough pods that you'll be sharing with grateful friends.

You won't need to fertilize peas, but keep them watered regularly and evenly (though don't over-water). Once the pods start forming, be sure to pick them as soon as you can so others can form behind them.

KALE

Oh, kale. You were embraced by the greenies and the foodies and the juicers for the longest time. Then there was a kale backlash and you became the subject of Jim Gaffigan jokes. Sad.

I'm here to tell you that growing kale is super fun. It grows really well once the weather cools.

To plant: The seeds are small, but they sprout pretty quickly. Make sure to thin the sprouted plants to about 6 inches apart, though they can snug a little closer if you keep them fed well with natural fertilizer.

Try to cut leaves from the bottom with scissors.

And definitely try kale chips: It will take you a few tries to figure out how hot your oven should be and how long to cook them to crinkly perfection, but they are delicious.

LETTUCE, SWISS CHARD, ARUGULA, RADICCHIO and SPINACH

All five of these greens require cool weather, so don't start them too soon. I prefer lettuce varieties where you can pick leaves from the bottom and the plant keeps growing from the top. Black-seeded Simpson and Red Sails are good varieties for new gardeners to try. They'll produce for you through the late fall and winter until it gets too hot in the spring.

Spinach is a little more finicky than lettuce and will struggle if there is a warm spell. Of all these greens, it may be the one to skip if you're running out of room in your beds.

Arugula grows like a weed. I tried radicchio for the first time last fall. It grows into heads that, once picked, are one and done. If you can get them grown by Christmas, their red color is a great addition to holiday salads. If you're going to plant Swiss chard, look for the multicolored varieties. They add a lot of colorful pizzazz to your garden.

Make sure to cut the leaves of all these vegetables from the bottom and with sharp scissors. This will keep them producing longer.

CARROTS

There are few vegetables that taste so profoundly better grown in the garden compared to store-bought. One of those vegetables is carrots. The first carrot you eat from your own garden will probably be the best carrot you've ever had. Pulling carrots and seeing just how big they grew is pure joy for a new gardener — or even an experienced one.

To plant: Carrot seeds are tiny. To plant, just lay your rake handle in the dirt of your bed to create an indentation. Rub the fragile seeds through your fingers into the indentation, then spray the seeds with a garden hose set to a light spray. You don't need to cover the seeds beyond that; the water will bury them enough.

You'll need to thin carrots once their stalks are a few inches tall so that the roots have room to grow. If they're too crowded your carrots will be runty.

Be patient. It might take a few months for the roots to grow big enough to pull out. Your seed packet should tell you how long it will take before harvest. I've found that it usually takes a little bit longer than the packets suggest.

HERBS

Here's what has worked for me:

Basil, which I interplant with my tomatoes (basil keeps bugs away).

Dill, which I interplanted very successfully last fall with my broccoli. Dill is a slow grower, but worth the wait.

Cilantro. My favorite herb to grow. It thrives in the winter. The cilantro you pick from your garden will be the most flavorful you've ever had.

Chris Tisch can be reached at [email protected] Follow @christisch1.

     
             
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