In Florida, we can pretty much plant and harvest vegetables year ‘round without worry. But we do have seasons for vegetable planting. Michelle Tafoya of Rockledge Gardens tells us, “Generally, September is the time to start seeds for your ‘cool season’ crops. Start your seeds in September, and most of the plants will grow for a month or two before they start producing fruit.” Just about all the vegetables that most of us are used to, like broccoli, cabbages, kale and collards, germinate best around 75 degrees and are considered “cool season” crops. The common “warm season” plants are tomatoes, peppers, beans and okra. They germinate better in temperatures warmer than 75 degrees.
Many gardeners turn to “succession planting” for continuous crops throughout the growing season. This involves sewing seeds in intervals depending on how long the specific plant takes to reach maturity. Tafoya tells us, “Do realize that the growing conditions described on the back of the seed packets are often tailored towards gardens up north. We plant when it’s already too cold up there.” Succession planting generally means that you’re using the same group of crops, but waiting about two weeks between plantings so that they’re continuously rotating out. “Lettuce is planted and managed this way because you go through it like crazy and it only takes a couple of weeks to mature. Succession planting keeps you in fresh lettuce all season long.” Tafoya says.
As for how to set up your garden, Tafoya says, “A raised bed or container garden is best. Florida soil is full of nematodes, so plant into a raised bed.” Container gardens are even easier, because you can grow anything you want, as long as it’s in a large enough container. Certain larger plants, like cabbages and broccoli, will need larger containers, such as seven-gallon pots. Herbs can grow anywhere you want. They’re very versatile and they’ll usually grow throughout the year. “For herbs, it’s a lot easier just to buy starter plants from nurseries,” she suggests. When it comes to the soil for raised beds, use a very loose, coarse mix. “Raised bed soil” is now available at many garden centers. Or you can make your own; it’s easy, and there are instructions online, Tafoya says.
How about fertilizers? “Vegetables generally want consistent fertilizing. You can use organic or conventional fertilizers, but it’s better to use organic with slow release; it feeds the soil and is generally a lot easier to apply. Fertilize and water consistently and you will get fast growing crops. If you don’t, you’ll stunt growth, which can cause plants and fruits to become woody and bitter,” Tafoya explains. Certain crops will need extra nutrients (tomatoes and peppers need extra calcium) to prevent blossom end rot. Try liquid seaweed to provide micronutrients to plants lacking organic fertilizers. And lastly, harvest early. A lot of folks tend to leave their plants in the garden bed long after they’re mature. The key is to sow a lot of seeds, and rotate with something healthy as a backup for past-mature plants or plants that simply just didn’t grow well.
Have you been warned to not eat fruits and vegetables grown with reclaimed water? That’s not entirely true. With a little care, like washing the exterior of the fruit, those fruits and vegetables are completely safe! Tafoya tells us, “The plant itself has the biological ability to exclude bacteria from inside its fruit. So, provided it’s not sprayed and then picked right off the vine or tree and eaten, it’s fine. But for leafy green vegetables, microgreens and edible greens like lettuce, the pores of those leaves can trap a lot of harmful bacteria. I wouldn’t use reclaimed water directly on those; use drip irrigation. But if you wash that tomato, pepper, orange, lime or grapefruit well, you’ll be just fine.”
Check out the University of Florida’s IFAS website (http://ifas.ufl.edu) for a useful gardening calendar for Central Florida.