Shelby Says Sow: Let’s Get Gardening

Vegetable gardens in Florida are often plagued by pests and disease. While you may blame your “black thumb,” our lack of soil and hot, humid climate are the real culprits. I know it’s tempting to reach for pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers but these chemical based sprays kill soil and the beneficial insects needed to keep garden ecosystems in check. Each issue, we’ll learn new organic gardening techniques that improve soil, vegetable production, and our environment, helping you grow your best garden yet. Investing in good soil, selecting healthy plants, planting at the right time, and encouraging beneficial insects with pollinator herbs and flowers will help keep pests at bay. Hand picking bugs your first year instead of spraying pesticides will help build your beneficial insect population.

To start your summer garden, you’ll need a raised bed that is 16” deep or a 5 gallon pot for each plant. If you are growing in a raised bed make sure your soil base is a good compost mixture with lots of organic matter. Organic matter can be anything from decayed leaves to composted mulch, veggie scraps, or manure. For potted gardens, I use Fox Farm potting soil or a homemade mix of 2 parts finished compost, 2 parts pine bark fines, 1 part perlite, and 1 part worm castings. To cool the soil and save on water, mulch your garden beds and pots with wheat straw or leaves. Mulch ensures water does not evaporate as quickly and helps prevent weeds. Be sure not to use pine straw as it is too acidic and always make sure the straw or hay you purchase is free of seeds.

Our spring/summer garden season begins in March and ends in September. While it is possible to grow a year round garden in Florida, pests and diseases become more prevalent with hot weather. Beans, cantaloupe, cucumber, sweet peppers, pumpkin, summer squash, winter squash, tomatoes and tomatillos should be planted by May 1. However, early plantings lead to more bountiful harvests. Hot weather plants such as eggplant, okra, hot peppers, and sweet potatoes can go in the ground as late as July. Locally, Southern Horticulture has the best selection, but you can also order seeds online from Seed Savers Exchange, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, or Baker’s Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Giving plants the right amount of space encourages stronger root growth, prevents disease and ensures each vegetable is receiving enough nutrients. Okra, peppers and basil should be spaced 12-18 inches apart, while tomatoes and tomatillos need at least 18 inches. Squash, melons, pumpkin and bush cucumbers take up the most space and should be planted at least three feet from their neighbors. To save space, consider pole beans and vining cucumbers that you can trellis up or place sprawling plants at the edge of your garden and allow them to grow into the yard.

Once your garden is planted, keep the soil evenly moist and check your plants for pests weekly. Expect your first harvest within 4-6 weeks of planting.

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Shelby is the owner of Dog Day Gardens, an organically managed nursery, market garden and composting business in Saint Augustine. She's been growing food professionally for nearly a decade and loves to teach Floridians how to grow bountiful gardens without any chemicals.