South Florida Gardening

Preparing the Soil – Update

by , on
Feb 19, 2019

Last season I wrote a post explaining how we go about preparing the soil for planting which you can find here. Well…. this is a new season, with “more water under the bridge” – and new knowledge gained through experience, the advice of experts and our own research and reflections. Therefore I want to update last year’s post with what new ways we are preparing “soil” – or better said “growing media” – to start and grow our veggies. Don’t get me wrong – most of what I said last year still stands. Where we’ve significantly changed a practice that I touted back then, I will indicate it here and in that post as well. continue reading »

Growing Green Beans – All Season Long!

by , on
Jan 26, 2018
Fresh green beans in hands

Green beans are one of our staple crops throughout the fall-winter-spring growing season here in South Florida. We usually (if we’re lucky) have our first harvest at Thanksgiving time, and our last in late April to mid-May, depending on how soon the heat of summer begins to roll in.

For favorite recipes using fresh green beans from our garden, please see our posts Green Beans with Mustard-Tarragon Dressing – Simple & Delicious and  A Fresh Take on Three Bean Salad

There are many advantages/benefits to growing green beans in South Florida:

  • They are just so well suited to our climate, thriving well in the moderate temperatures our growing season offers. It’s also easy to grow them organically as they suffer from few pests or diseases. Our biggest problem comes from rusting leaves when there’s too much moisture/rain and our remedy is to remove those leaves and adjust moisture when possible.
  • They are a fast growing crop, from planting them to bean-producing – typically ready to start harvesting in five weeks or so.
  • The bean plants will render two crops. After picking the first round, watch for them to reflower and produce more.
  • Beans help the soil by adding nitrogen to it. This will benefit certain nitrogen-loving plants, such as cabbages and tomatoes, which as part of our crop rotation will be planted next in the same soil.
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    Transplanting Seedlings: Our “Winter” Crops

    by , on
    Jan 7, 2018
    Chinese cabbage seedlings

    Our fall and winter crops here in South Florida are basically the same. Most of the things that we start in the earlier part of the growing season (fall), we can start another rotation of in December or January. Much of our work is planning what seeds need to be started when. We will either direct seed some of our crops, such as carrots and beans directly into the beds. Or, with many other crops, we will be getting them going in flats, and then transplanting seedlings as they mature into four inch pots and/or directly into the beds, and then watching them grow! For a list of what we can grow in the fall/winter here, please see our post http://www.soflagardening.com/fall-planting-beds/

    So here are some notes on our current varieties of seedlings:

    Tomatoes:

    When we start our tomatoes depends on the type: the larger varieties we start very early in the fall, the cherry tomatoes we start later, as the latter grow longer into the spring/summer season. The one large tomato we wait until winter to start is the “Momotaro” – a wonderful Asian variety introduced to us by a friend a few years ago, that is very tasty. It is so exclusive that we got exactly (yes, I counted!) 12 seeds in a packet. Right now, we’ve got lots of cherry seedlings growing strong, including the ever-so-popular Everglades tomato, hailed by our gardeners as “tasting like candy.”

    Brassicas (cabbage family):

    It is time for a second cycle of these plantings – this includes our regular and Chinese cabbages, kohlrabi, different varieties of kale, mustard greens, broccoli rabe, etc. For some, such as our regular cabbages, this is near the end of when we will be starting and transplanting seedlings for harvesting this season – as they are slow growing and need the cooler weather to thrive. Others, such as kale and kohlrabi, and even Chinese cabbage, we can plant them again a month or so later with a high probability of success.

    Lettuces:

    This is prime time for the lettuces that we start in flats, i.e. heading lettuces. Right now we have some beautiful Bibb and Romaine seedlings, and it is very likely that we will transplant these directly into our garden beds rather than taking them through the intermediate step of four inch pots. Why? Because that seems to work well for us.

     

    Other varieties:

    This is also prime time for many other types of vegetables we wish to have ready to eat in the Spring. Leeks, celery, peppers, escarole, chard, sorrel, fennel, nasturtiums, and more – these can all be started again now to produce another harvest later on (not to mention other crops that we directly seed in the beds, such as beans, carrots, peas, radishes, etc.).  Many of them are already sprouting or growing in flats or pots; others will be started from seed very soon. Starting and transplanting seedlings becomes a main part of our gardening work at this time of year. We feel very fortunate to have two (or more) rotations of many of our most loved crops during our major (fall-winter-spring) growing season here in South Florida.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Fall Planting: The Beds are Filling Up!

    by , on
    Dec 3, 2017
    Tomatoes growing in bed

    Our fall gardening is going strong here in South Florida as we head into December. Though we had a late start this year due to weather events, we are well on our way to filling up our beds with organic veggies that can be grown now and into the spring. “Winter” is not worth mentioning because we don’t really have one here. We consider the winter solstice (December 21-22) as the transition time for us from fall to early spring when it comes to gardening.

    Continuing on from our first post, Yess!! Fall Planting – Getting Started! here is a breakdown of where we are at this point with planting:

    Grown and being harvested: (of course, more of each will be planted)

    • Arugula, mizuna and cress
    • Two different kinds of bok choy
    • Red and pink radishes
    • Green bush beans
    • Jalapeño and aji dulce peppers

    Planted and growing well:

  • Heirloom and regular tomatoes
  • Green cabbage
  • Broccoli raab
  • More green beans and purple beans, bush type
  • A few strawberry plants
  • Carrots
  • Kohlrabi
  • Mesclun lettuce mix
  • Daikon
  • Parsley, thyme and dill
  • Red mustard greens
  • Onions
  • Escarole
  • Swiss chard
  • Sweet mini peppers
  • Nasturtium, calendula and cosmos
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    Seedling City – Where It All Begins

    by , on
    Nov 26, 2017

    We’ve described how we prepare the soil in our beds for planting – now it’s time to discuss how we get our plants started. Because we are in South Florida, our prime time for cultivating seedlings is in the fall.

    We basically have three methods for starting our plants in the garden:

    • Planting seeds in flats for transplanting seedlings later
    • Planting seeds directly into the garden beds to sprout there
    • Buying small starter plants to put directly into the beds

    We definitely prefer to start our plants from seed, for a number of reasons. First, when you purchase seeds as opposed to starter plants, there’s a much greater variety to choose from. We also like cultivating them from their very beginnings in our own organic soil and supplements. And it’s much less expensive than buying plants. There is also the chance of introducing pests and/or diseases that are brought in on starter plants. Last but not least, who doesn’t love the hands-on experience and good feeling of engaging in a plant’s growth every step of the way?

    The needs of plants vary, and some do better with one of the methods above over the others. For example, tomatoes need to be started in flats; beans need to be direct seeded into beds; and for most of our herbs we buy the starter plants.

    For an idea about what particular plants we start in flats vs. direct seeding into beds, see our post Yesss!! Fall Planting, Part I. About half or more of our seedlings are started in flats, so here is some info and tips for using this method:

    Planting seeds in flats for transplanting later

    Our soil mixture is so vital to the success of the seedling. We have tried many different combinations, following advice of experts over the years, and based upon our experience, this is what we now use. Thoroughly mixed together:

    • 48% homemade compost
    • 48% peat
    • 4% worm castings (very potent & very expensive, so it’s used sparingly)

    See our post How Do We Prepare the Soil for Planting? for more info on the above ingredients.

    Steps for Planting:

  • Once the potting soil is thoroughly mixed, the trays (we call “flats”) are filled up loosely, not packed. They can be watered in advance of planting if desired (we typically don’t).
  • Seeds are planted, usually two per cell, and covered with a thin layer of soil. The depth of planting depends upon the seeds, per packet instructions. A general rule of thumb is that a seed should be planted at the depth of its diameter size. So tiny seeds are planted very near the surface, larger seeds go deeper.
  • We are careful to label the rows of our seedlings, with the name and variety of the crop, date of seed planting, and seed company. That way can track how the seeds did from that particular company, and reorder if we love the crop!
  • The flats are thoroughly watered (with added microbes or organic fertilizer) and kept in a shady area until the seeds sprout, then they’re moved to a sunny area. I find nothing more exciting than seeing those tiny little sprouts pushing up through the soil – it’s like watching their birth!
  • It is very important to keep the seedlings watered. Once or twice a day should suffice, depending on how dry they are (flats tend to dry out rather quickly due to the small size of the cells).
  • We also protect our flats from torrential rains by housing them on a table that is covered above with shade cloth. The cloth is pulled back to allow sun in as needed.
  • After a few weeks, when the sprouts are growing well, they will need to be moved out of the small cells – as their root space and nutrition there will wane, and they may become “spindly.” We will either transplant the seedlings into 4 inch pots or directly into beds. This decision is based upon many factors: space in the beds, size and strength of the seedling, which plants do better (e.g. tomatoes) in pots for a while first, etc.
  • If the seedlings go into 4 inch pots, the same care continues. Every two weeks we will fertilize them again to keep the nutrition of the soil up to par. When the time is right, they will be planted in a bed, and well on their way to becoming a mature, thriving and giving plant!
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    How Do We Prepare the Soil for Planting?

    by , on
    Oct 29, 2017
    soil in bed

    Not exactly an exciting or pretty picture right? But it’s just perfect, because this is how much of our garden looks as we prepare the soil for the coming season. It is a serious endeavor, as we have learned from experience that a successful garden is more dependent than anything upon having really good soil. Not only does it support the growth of our plants, but determines their nutritional value as well. And, good soil is a pest deterrent, because poor soil produces weak plants that are more vulnerable to pests and actually attract them. Also, the beneficial microbes in good soil help to prevent plant disease.

    Fall is our “spring” when it comes to planting here in South Florida. Our growing season starts in the fall and runs through the spring, which is the opposite of most regions in the U.S. For the first few years that we had this garden, we had wonderfully rich organic soil that we were able to obtain at a steep discount. To “prepare the soil” meant opening the bags and dumping them in the beds, and voila! – our plants would thrive! But when we lost our source, we had to learn how to create the best soil environment for our plantings on our own. It has been a process – one that we improve upon each year, and continue to learn from.

    There are many steps we take to prepare the soil for planting our new crops each year.

    I. Before the fall season:

  • A truckload of finely ground tree mulch is ordered at least six months in advance so that it can break down into composted soil in time for fall planting.
  • Seeds are planted for our cover crops in many of the beds (see post: Summer Cover Crops) in late spring/early summer, after completing our harvest. As the plants mature (in a few months), we cut them down and turn them into the soil for decomposition.
  • We get as much of our own homemade kitchen-scrap compost going as possible, in bins at our community garden and at home (see post: Compost It!).
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    Yesss!! Fall Planting – Getting Started!

    by , on
    Oct 19, 2017
    Green beans growing

    So it is finally time to get some fall planting started – well, sort of. We are still experiencing weather conditions here in South Florida that are not conducive to our typical October plantings. Patience has been the keynote so far this season – we thought the late September (into October) rains would be over last week and we could start planting in the beds, as well as more seedlings in flats, but lo and behold it’s still raining! We did go ahead and put a few things in beds and for the most part they are doing fine. The seeds in flats are not faring as well as it’s just too wet for them. We’re hoping this coming week is the last of the rainy season before we’ll have not only mostly sunny days, but a little bit of cooling off as well. It’s been a wild ride with the weather this past two months, and we’re hopeful for some “normalcy” settling in soon.

    Just briefly, here is a timeline of how we typically start our fall planting, under ideal conditions. (Followed by notes on current plantings)

    • Late August to early September –
      • Tomato and pepper seeds in flats (Tomatoes died i.e. drowned except for a couple, peppers doing okay! Will buy a few tomato plants and put more seeds in flats soon)

      Late September to early October –

      • Bush bean seeds directly in beds (Done – doing well)
      • Cabbage family seeds – some in flats & some directly in beds – e.g. kohlrabi, cabbages, kales, escarole, broccoli raab (Done, not doing well except escarole; will redo most)

      First to 2nd week of October – All these get planted directly in beds:

    • Lettuce family seeds – e.g. arugula, cress, mizuna, heat-resistant lettuce (Done, doing well except lettuce)
    • Choy seeds – joy choy (heat-resistant), bok choys (Two choys in beds, doing great!)
    • Radishes and daikon  (Radishes planted, doing well)
    • Store-bought herb plants and some tomatoes (Coming soon)
    • continue reading »

    It’s Time to Order our Fall Seeds!

    by , on
    Sep 3, 2017
    Packets of seeds

    Fall is a very exciting time for us as we begin our new planting season. Buying seeds is of course one of the most important tasks we undertake, and the process has been refined over the years. We have many beds to fill, many tastes to please, and our South Florida weather and conditions to take into account. No, we cannot grow Brussels sprouts and asparagus here (though I have to confess we’ve tried!). But we can grow so many varied crops that it was hard to know where to begin when we first started gardening. Now it’s become kind of routine – we have our favorite seed companies and we pretty much know what we can and would like to plant.

    For a listing of what exactly we plant in the fall, see this chart: SEED INVENTORY – FALL 2017

    So, how do we go about this process?

  • First, a yearly survey is sent out each summer (via Survey Monkey) to all our members so they can voice their preferences regarding crops. The data is compiled so we know what was popular or not the previous year, and also what new crops members suggest that we try out. We also consider the past season’s harvesting habits, i.e. what crops were actually used the most or the least. It’s interesting how this trend can change each season. Sample survey appears below.
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    Compost It!

    by , on
    Aug 27, 2017
    Compost pile

    Compost is one of the main keys to a healthy, thriving organic garden. We used to be able to buy some really incredible ready-made organic soil, but no more. So a few years back, we set out to learn how to create our own, and found how essential it was to produce a steady supply of compost! Our two main resources, where we learned the most, was (my gardening bible!) How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons, and the University of Florida’s Agricultural Extension’s resources, especially this article: Compost Tips for the Home Gardener. We learned that composting isn’t about constantly throwing your scraps into a pile whenever you had some; it is a careful layering technique in a designated area with specific dimensions and scheduled maintenance. We had a lot to learn, but now that we’ve got the hang of it, we enjoy the whole routine (although the saved-up kitchen scraps can be nasty!) and especially using the compost to enrich our vegetable garden – nothing like that rich, dark compost that we know is chock full of nutrients!

    Creating the compost for our garden is a group endeavor. Members save and bring in their kitchen scraps, and in addition we have ongoing support from a facility’s kitchen nearby that saves us their fruit and veggie scraps, which is a big help. Free dried manure is accessible through one of our member’s chicken farm. We also have the benefit of the weeds and plants that are pulled after harvesting is done, stored right on our property to use for compost when we need it. Members also bring in bags of brown leaves they’ve raked up at home. So we’re really lucky to have all the ingredients we need readily available for composting!

    While we carry on our composting routinely year round, we do amp up production during the summer in order to prepare nutrient-rich soil for fall plantings. Creating composted soil correctly is a methodical, multi-step process:

  • Choosing a good spot – shady, with air flow, and a minimum of 3 ft by 3 ft. We make ours on the ground; compost containers and built structures can be used as well (see Jeavons’ book).
  • It starts with saving kitchen scraps until we have enough to start (or add another layer to) a pile. This includes fruit and vegetable scraps (including citrus) and eggshells. We refrain from adding large amounts of seeds to avoid a mini-garden sprouting in our compost pile. No meat, fish or dairy products go in the compost.
  • Gathering your other materials to build the compost layers: small twigs and brown (decaying) leaves, harvested weeds (not seeded) and green harvested plant scraps, dried manure, and soil.
  • Build your layers, and water each one as you go:
    • Brown: twigs and leaves
    • Green: manure, green plant parts & weeds, kitchen scraps
    • Soil
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  • Summer Cover Crops

    by , on
    Aug 6, 2017
    Japanese Millet Cover Crop

    In South Florida our “off-season” is June thru September as the summer months are too hot and humid for most plants to thrive. So for us, this is mainly soil preparation time! After completing the harvesting of our Spring plantings, we allow the soil to rest for a few weeks and then begin planting our cover crops. Of course, we research and plan ahead during the Spring so we have our seeds ready.

    Cover crops are any of a wide variety of plants which are planted in the off-season in order to enrich the soil for the coming new growing season. There are many functions that cover crops perform:

  • Most cover crops will fix nitrogen (necessary for green growth) into the soil through their roots. Legumes (beans) are especially good at fixing nitrogen.
  • Cover crops provide valuable nutrients to the soil when the mature plants are pulled up, worked into the soil, and allowed to decompose there. This creates what is called green manure.
  • Cover crops provide natural weed control as they will typically grow fast and choke out most weeds.
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