When it comes to gardening, nurturing that green thumb is vital part of keeping the garden growing. Tips on what to grow, when, can help maximize your harvest, regardless of what’s blooming.
As we march into the cooler months, this is a great time to begin preparing that plot and plant those warm season crops. When it comes to growing fruits and veggies, there are a few basic guidelines to follow to ensure a bountiful harvest. For a little advice, we’re tapping in the Cooperative Extension System, a nationwide, non-credit educational network, tied to each state’s land-grant university. For the Sunshine State, that university just happens to be the University of Florida, which shares with the public the research-based information, including data on all types of studies done at the university focusing on crops, regional adaptability, fertilizers, seed, technique, equipment, and much more. For Collier County, the IFAS Extension office, located at the Collier County Fair and Exposition grounds, offers an array of workshops, classes, clinics and programs designed to educate and grow better home and commercial gardeners and growers. Open to the public, the extension office is a great resource for anyone looking to hone that green thumb.
- For a look at what’s growing at the Collier County Extension Office, visit collier.ifas.ufl.edu.
All good gardens start with a solid plan, beginning with choosing the right site for your plot. A space that has good drainage and receives a minimum of six hours of sunlight are a must—flooding from a thunderstorm will surely spoil your crops, and without the sun’s rays, little will grow.
Planning makes perfect. Before prepping you plot, draw up a detailed garden plan, including name, location and planning dates of the veggies you plan on growing. The IFAS Extension office’s Planting Guide [PDF], gives growers a great idea of what plants are easily transplantable from seedling, projected harvest time, and information on proper spacing when planting—its an invaluable guide for first timers.
Soil matters. Depending on where your plot happens to lie in South Florida, the soil can either be A-plus, or seriously lacking. No worries though, a little forward thinking will go a long way. A month prior to planting, spade or plow your plot with a little organic matter to help bolster the terrain with much-needed nutrients. This material can be anything from animal manure and rotted leaves/yard waste to compost and commercial soils, which, when properly combined with the soil, and fertilizer when needed, should ensure a healthy and bountiful garden.
During the mild Florida winter, it is a great time to begin planting those warmer weather crops. With growing days ranging from 40 to 110 days, January and February are great times to start laying seed for an array of garden tasties:
- Watermelon: 85-95 days to harvest; require some space, so give the plants a wide berth (about 15 to 30 inches between plants).
- Eggplant: 90-110 days to harvest; grow well into the warmer months—in fact, need the warmth. Eggplants are heavy, and may need staking, so be vigilant, and should be planted about two feet from each other.
- Squash: Winter: 80-110 days; tend to vine, so keep the plants spaced—they will become intertwined—with a good three feet of spacing. Also, staking may be necessary, or even a leaning trellis-type structure for the plants to grow “up,” though this tends to need some training. Summer: 40-55 days); more of a bush-type plant, two feet of spacing is ample, though you may need to stake the plant once the squash begin growing in earnest.
- Collards and Kale: 70-80 days to harvest; relatively tolerant to heat, these leafy greens should be planted in a wide-row of about 10 to 18 inches of spacing per plant.
For some recipes for those spring harvests, click here.
The cooler months, though short in South Florida, afford one of the best growing windows for herbs, especially those more temperate species that tend to wilt in the heat like garlic and parsley.
- Indoor herbs grow best on a windowsill that gets some direct light.
- Ninety percent of plant death is due to improper watering. The signs for over watering and under watering often look the same: Plants are wilted, yellow or brown. To determine whether a plant needs water, feel the soil for moisture.
- Herbs thrive when trimmed regularly. Also, it is important to trim or harvest before the plant begins to flower.
- Don’t bother treating herbs for insects or fungus, because you should never spray pesticides on herbs. Just keep planting new herbs to rotate in and out.
It’s never a great idea to use insecticides on your home garden. Aside from dousing your food with poison, insecticides have far reaching consequences, affecting many species that most normally don’t consider pests (bees and butterflies for example). A vigilant gardener can help keep the pest problem down with a few tips:
- Rotate your crops every growing season. This will help keep those critters on their toes.
- Larger insects can be remove by hand. Though unpleasant, its better than spraying poison everywhere.
- Some bugs are good! Wasps, spiders, praying mantis, bees, lady bugs, these are good, helping control the pest problem on their own.
Bees, a good bug for the garden.
- Harvest your crops as soon as they are ripe. Overly ripe fruits and veggies are just asking for problems.
- Keep those plants healthy. The better shape a plant is in, the better chance it has against pests.
- Control the weeds sprouting in that plot. These can add extra heartache to your garden, not to mention many are unsightly.
- Plant flowers sporadically throughout your garden. This not only gives your garden a more dynamic look, but also attracts more pollinators, as well as beneficial bugs to the garden.
- If a plant is diseased, remove the problem. Start with the leaves, but if it is too far gone, remove the plant to prevent any spreading.
For those with a green thumb, compost is worth its weight in gold. And it is so easy to make, not to mention earth-friendly. Compost can contain any organic plant matter, including but limited to yard waste, kitchen scraps, paper and cardboard (non-died), egg shells, saw dust, coffee grounds and filter, wood chips, among much more.
To make compost, buy or make a compost bin and find a place outside, out of the way, shady location. When making a container, its should be a minimum of three-foot cubed, placed atop well drained soil—remove any grass/plants groing in the plot you choose.
Start with a layer of brown organic matter, like straw, leaves or saw dust, about six-inches deep. Then add a layer of green material—kitchen scraps, grass clippings and yard waster, old crops—about two to three inches thick. Water enough to make moist, and repeat the brown/green layering until the bin is full. Cover the bin with a black tarp as you go, which keeps moisture in while keeping too much water out, as well as “cooks” the compost. Heat is a key ingredient to rich compost, helping with the decomposition process while keeping pests from making it a home. Once the bin is full, mix the contents together with a pitch fork/shovel. Compost takes time, so keep at it. In fact, often, when you think it is done, it probably needs a few more weeks.
- Smaller particles speed up the decomposition process.
- Maintain a good moisture level. If too soggy or too dry, the compost won’t heat up.
- When the pile cools, mix it up again. This will help the entirety of the compost pile breaks down.
- If your pile is too wet, add shredded paper, straw, toilet paper tubes, or saw dust to the mix. This will soak up moisture, as well as add to the compost.
- If you’re having trouble starting, try a compost aid. Called compost bioactivators, these little microorganisms will help speed up the process.
For the Home
By actively composting kitchen and home waste, the amount of stuff finding its way to the trash is reduced drastically (especially if there is a vegetarian/vegan in your life), helping cut down on the shear tonnage of waste making its way to the landfill each year. (And if you are an adherent to those reusable eco-shopping bags, you are well on your way to being an eco-warrior).
But keeping a plastic bin on the counter filled with lettuce, egg shells and half-eaten corn cobs is just plain gross. So if planning on composting at home, invest in a stainless steel or ceramic compost pail ($30) with a charcoal air filter. The small, unobtrusive pail easily fits below the sink, and makes saving those kitchen scraps an easy, and odor free task—if using a plastic container, expect bugs.
As for the compost bin, I am partial to the Forest City Yimby Compost Tumbler ($100). Separated into two chambers, the composter allows for a quick compost turnaround—one chamber is dedicated to scraps while the other to already-composted material. The design—elevated to allow the garardener to spin, mixing up the compost, and regulate moisture—creates the ideal composting machine, cooking that organic material quickly, producing usable material in as little as a few months.