Vegetable gardeners in Florida are lucky to have lots of sunshine and mild winters amenable to growing a multitude of food crops most months of the year. That said, Florida home growers face several challenges that northern gardeners do not. These recommendations from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) department can help backyard gardeners in Florida overcome many vegetable gardening obstacles.
Preparing a Florida Vegetable Garden
Preparation is key in the success of a Florida vegetable garden. Unlike in many of the northern climates, a willing gardener cannot simply put a seed in the ground and expect it to grow. Taking a few steps before putting in the garden can help ensure a successful outcome.
- Site Selection. Choose a site with at least 6 hours of sun every day. The site should also be convenient for the gardener and located near a source of irrigation. Many plants can be included amongst ornamental plants. Crop families should be rotated from season to season to minimize pest problems.
- Make a Paper Plan. Order seeds in the spring for late summer/fall planting and lay the garden out on paper to ensure everything fits. Plant taller crops on the north side of the garden to avoid shading shorter ones.
- Choose Seeds Wisely. Be sure to choose varieties that are well adapted to Florida’s climate and the typical pests and diseases found there. The seeds and transplants found in retail stores may not be appropriate for Florida as they are often ordered in bulk for the whole country. It is a good idea to research varieties before making a decision, and ordering seeds that have the highest likelihood of yielding a good crop in Florida. Make sure to plant warm season crops and cool season crops at the appropriate times or results will be sure to disappoint.
Soil Preparation in a Florida Garden
Florida soils in many locations are mostly sand and not very fertile. Most garden beds will need to be amended with compost, manure or commercial mixes to improve water and nutrient holding. Organic or synthetic fertilizers will also need to be mixed into the soil to improve fertility.
To determine what kind of soil amendments are needed, have a soil pH test performed. This can be done at the local University of Florida IFAS Extension Office for a small fee. Add amendments as determined by the pH test, and add fertilizers 4-6 weeks before planting. Till these into the top 6-8 inches of soil. Compost home yard and kitchen waste to use in the garden each season, or obtain free compost from the local landfill, if available.
Florida gardeners can also have success raising crops in raised beds, containers, hydroponically, or with aggregate materials. In such cases, soil or other planting medium can be better controlled.
Irrigation in the Florida Vegetable Garden
Irrigation requirements can be reduced by utilizing mulch or organic matter in garden beds, or by placing micro irrigation systems within the garden (for example, drip hoses). Rainwater runoff can also be collected in a rain barrel, but take care not to use roof runoff in a vegetable garden due to potential contaminants (i.e. rodent and bird refuse on the roof can be washed into the rain barrel). Plant early to get crops out of the ground before the torrential rains of summer can drown them (June/July).
Overwatering is a common cause of container garden failure, often leading to fungal diseases that can cripple or kill the plant. To avoid this, use the “second knuckle” test when deciding whether or not to water. When a finger is placed into the soil up to the second knuckle, moist soil means that no additional water is needed while a dry medium means it’s time to water. Water the plant until the excess runs out of the holes at the bottom of the container. All containers used should have drainage holes.
Florida Garden Pest Management
It is not recommended to use regular insect spraying in the Florida home garden. Instead, integrated pest management (IPM) should be practiced. This philosophy involves adopting cultural practices that minimize pest infestations and using chemical pesticides only as needed and in the smallest amounts necessary to address the problem. Using IPM in a Florida home garden can go a long way to reducing pests and diseases in vegetable and fruit plants.
When insect control is necessary, less toxic insecticidal soaps or horticultural oils may be effective and eliminate the need for chemical insecticides. When using commercial pesticides, be sure to follow appropriate pesticide precautions. Solarization is an effective way to eliminate nematode problems, as no chemical controls are available for the home gardener.
With a little planning, information, and perseverance, the Florida home vegetable gardener can produce a variety of nutritious foods practically year round. Detailed information on vegetable gardening in Florida is available through the University of Florida IFAS Extension.
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