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Grow, baby, grow (Florida edition)

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

I never had my own garden as a child, but I had family and friends that did. They taught me how to appreciate growing plants. When I finally made the leap to start a garden as a mother, I was basically winging it. Google certainly wasn't very helpful because 98% of the gardening advice out there IS NOT FROM FLORIDA GARDENERS. I would read an article, follow their suggestions, and then fail. Let me clarify... Florida gardening is unique. We do not get snow, our summer climate is extremely hot and rainy, not to mention a random hurricane or two is always a possibility in summer or fall. We are also unique because believe it or not, it is possible for us to grow our own food all year long.

There really is no one exact way to garden and I admit I'm no expert, but I have had many failures and learning experiences along this journey in the last 6 years. Our mission is share what we've learned so ALL people are able to grow their own food despite of their space available, financial status, ethnicity, political party, gender, religion, etc. It always amazes me how growing plants (of all kinds) can bring people of all walks together.

UF/IFAS is (and probably always will be) the most accurate resource for all things that have been scientifically proven and thoroughly researched in relation to Florida gardening. The things I share come from a variety of personal experiences, UF/IFAS resources, and/or other Florida gardeners.

So without further ado, I'd like to share my list of things that I found most important to our success in growing food all year in Florida. We will continue to update this blog as we learn new things!

1. Time of year: this one is HUGE. I never really paid attention to the time of year. I'd just pick a nice day and build and dig. Afterwards I would go to Lowe's or Home Depot, grab some plants and put them in the soil. You know, the typical garden plants like cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, etc. Everything would look great for a while, but then things would change. It was like one problem after the next: yellowing leaves, plants growing wonky, and just dying no matter how hard I tried. Then it hit me... I started to notice different plants had different growing patterns that correlated with the weather. Lettuce grew amazing in the cold but started doing funny things on hot days, cucumber plants died from random freezes but loved the warmer early spring weather, and peppers did exceptionally great in the summer. So, I set out to find a planting calendar that would actually be useful for our climate; because again, most planting calendars you find online ARE NOT FROM FLORIDA GARDENERS. I started talking to local farmers, found online gardening groups specifically for Florida and dug into UF/IFAS resources then took all that information to create a custom calendar that I felt comfortable with.

Before sending out our monthly seed subscriptions we compare our planting calendar to the current and predicted weather patterns, because we want to set you up for success. Once I started planting the right things at the right time, my appreciation and love for gardening grew tremendously and I'm sure yours will too!

Each planting hardiness zone is determined by the average coldest temperature. Knowing yours is a great start. We are zone 9b, but differ in climate from other 9b zones..

2. Soil: Plants need the right amount of various nutrients and micronutrients from the soil to fully thrive (we can get into that at a later date). Our soil in Florida is sandy and usually isn't very dense in nutrients. Fortunately, there are many ways to work with existing soil. Adding compost into existing dirt is a great way to increase nutrients and help retain moisture. I just recently started using 18" raised beds because I can completely control the soil quality, nutrients, and pH. While completely controlling the soil is not important to successfully growing, it is important that you give your plants a good foundation so they can live their best lives. Amending your soil throughout the seasons will improve your soil year after year.

If you’re wondering where your garden pH level is at, our services always include a free soil pH test.

3. Sun: a plant label stating "full sun" does not necessarily mean a full day of the Florida sun. Most vegetables are perfectly okay with 4-6 hours of sunlight, but if given a choice - morning sun triumphs afternoon sun. The summer afternoon sun can be seriously brutal for many plants. Always consider the sun when finding the right place to grow - or we can do it for you. My favorite spots for gardens are usually near a tree or two, but also far enough away to not be completely shaded.

4. Irrigation: ...or time available to spend in the garden. Everyone knows that plants need water to grow, which is why it's very important to know how your plants will get water. Setting up a drip line on a automatic timer makes this task extremely easy. If you are only hand watering, just know this is a crucial task and consistency is key. Mulch helps. ALSO, most importantly, give water to the bottom of the plant not to the leaves. Roots need the water... water sitting on leaves can lead to so many avoidable issues. I've definetly learned this the hard way. Water from the bottom!

5. Bugs: First, not all bugs are created equal. There are good bugs and bad bugs. Back in the day I would spray my plants at any sight of bugs...little did I know that I was also killing out the beneficial bugs. A quick daily walk in the garden will help to catch any problems early on, and catching problems early on are always easier to recover from than an infestation that went unnoticed. Once I started observing more often and selectively using pest control measures, the good bugs flourished and the overall health of my garden improved big time.

There is so much information out there about the many, many insects of the world, but if you're up for the read, here is a great resource from the UF/IFAS about the bugs we can find in our Florida gardens:

A bad garden critter. Will eat and destroy plants, including but not limited to tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.
Hornworm = bad.

6. Plant lives matter: the plant world is pretty diverse, they all have their own needs. For example, carrots need loose soil, some seeds do better planted directly in the ground while others do better if established in a pot first, cucumbers need pollinators for their fruits to develop, some plants thrive in the cold and others die from a frost, blueberries need acidic soil... you get the idea. Getting to know a thing or two about what you're growing is quite helpful. Luckily, our seeds come with easy to read grow guides that break it down to the important stuff.

7. Spacing: spacing of seeds isn’t that big of a deal, but once the seeds start to grow you should thin out the plants to the recommended spacing. Plants that are too close have been known to compete for soil nutrients, root space, and sunlight. It also reduces airflow between plants, which turns out is kind of an important factor to a plant's overall health. I usually leave the strongest plants and toss the others into compost or replant them elsewhere... I know this can be heartbreaking however its for the better good. Spacing isn't a crucial factor to gardening but crowding plants has always led me to fungal problems, pest invasions, and stunted growth. So all in all, plan for the space your plant(s) will need once the plant matures.

& last but not least...

8. Patience: If you’re low in this category, no worries because the garden will force you to learn it. Waiting for a seed to pop through the soil can seem like a lifetime. Then it finally does and you get to watch the plant grow and transform its blooms into tiny little tomatoes and they grow bigger and bigger. You wait for them to ripen as the days appear to go by sooo slowlyyyy. Then BOOM they start to ripen just when you finally start to accept the process. Tasting the pure flavor of a tomato that you grew from seed truly is priceless, but you gotta have patience to get there - and you will 🙂

Some other ways to learn patience on the homestead is waiting for an egg to hatch out that cute fuzzy chick inside, or the months it takes for your hens to start laying beautiful eggs.

Freshly hatched baby chick, one of our buff brahmas
Buff brahmas all grown up, before egg laying age

Well that’s all folks. Have anything else to add? Comment below!

Whether you've been gardening your whole life or just beginning, there is always something to learn! Let's grow and learn together!

- Amber Smith

First published: May 2, 2022

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