This blog post is inspired by recent visits to some of the gardens we planted with summer crops. Every year in late May/early June the weather in South Florida officially shifts into what we call "the monsoon season". Regular afternoon rain storms, often accompanied by a generous amount of thunder and lightning as well as consistently high temperatures during the day and night define this growing season as the season for only the most hardy, heat loving tropical crops. We tend to have a hard time saying good bye to lettuce, kale and cucumbers. The transitional period which happens mostly in June can be rough. Not only are the plants adapting to the weather, but the gardeners who are also tackling pretty uncomfortable working conditions are too.
Check out this before and after with only 1 month of summer growth in between them! Summer plants grow quickly because of all the rain and heat.
Summer crops are robust and beautifully abundant. They thrive in this intense weather which provides copious amounts of moisture and sunshine. On a recent visit to a garden we planted just one month ago I couldn't believe how lush everything was. The colors were so vibrant, all of the plants were huge and growing into each other, as if they were having a big plant family hug. The seminole pumpkins were half way up the trellis arch with their dinner plate sized leaves so neatly organized like stepping stones to the top of the arch. Winged beans were forming a tangled mess of tentacles greedily fighting for who would get to the top of their trellis first. Native wild flowers like coreopsis and blanket flower were planted throughout the garden and were poking happy little flowers in between branches of other plants.
Summer greens aren't well known but they are very prolific. Pictured top is Cranberry Hibiscus, below are sweet potato leaves.
All of this growth and bounty in a month can only mean one thing. We gotta harvest, cut back and prune these plants hard, not only to keep the garden some what tame, but also to harvest the edible portions of these crops. A summer garden is probably the most abundant garden in South Florida, we just have to get used to the new flavor profiles. It's undeniable that our palettes are stuck on the things we are able to purchase at the grocery store. We eat things like lettuce, kale and cucumbers so often that we find comfort in their familiarity and predictability. We all have a hard time switching to a salad made with Okinawa spinach, cranberry hibiscus leaves and katuk tips. Am I right? Sweet potato leaves are called Morning Glory in some Asian cuisine because they are in the morning glory family. They are commonly used as a cooked green in curries, omelettes and soups. If you've ever grown sweet potato you know that while you wait the 90-110 days for the roots to develop underground, the above ground portion of the plant is a sprawling vine. Pruning the vine is good because it encourages the plant to put more energy into developing the roots; so when you prune back the armfuls of vines you can bring them into the kitchen and save all of the leaves for a week's worth of cooking. Pictured above is a cranberry hibiscus harvest/pruning and a handful of sweet potato aka morning glory leaves ready for cooking.
Okra tends to be an under appreciated vegetable, but the flavor profile of okra is so unique and special! As a plant for the summer growing season in South Florida it really can't be beat. Just like there are so many varieties of tomatoes and peppers, there are so many varieties of okra that each bring their own personality and cooking style to the kitchen. The trickiest thing about okra is that the pods mature super fast and most people miss the window of opportunity for harvesting tender pods. From the moment a flower blooms to when the pod is ready for picking can be as quick as 2-3 days! If you wait much longer (like even one day longer) the pods become woody and impossible to eat. That is one of the many reasons we love two particular varieties of okra. Hill Country and Cowhorn okra both grow into enormous and beautiful plants that produce larger than average pods which take slightly longer to mature, giving the gardener a little more time to harvest edible pods. They are more forgiving. Pictured above is a Hill Country okra plant and pod.
The beauty of summer gardening extends far into the fruit realm in our lush tropical climate. You'll need to be just a bit more patient for fruit crops, although there is a juicy list of crops we can grow that will bear fruit within one year. Our favorites are bananas and plantains which will require a large space, but can also serve a double purpose if you plant them in a circle to create what is known as a "banana circle". Banana circles are commonly used in Permaculture design and food forest designs as a composting system. Bananas and /or plantains are planted in a large circle, an average of 10 feet in diameter is typical, and the space in the center is used for piling up garden debris, grass clippings, kitchen waste, mulch and other biodegradable materials like cardboard. A banana circle is a great way to divert waste from landfills and grow a fruit crop at the same time! Some of the other one-year fruit crops we like to recommend are pineapples, papayas, passionfruit, Barbados cherry, mulberry, guava and starfruit.
Mangos Are the crown jewel of the summer fruit celebrations, with a season running about a month from mid June to mid July. Wether the crop is a good one or not depends on weather during springtime when plants are flowering or trying to support large amounts of young fruit. This year the weather was just right and the season is insanely abundant! Every restaurant has a mango desert special on the menu and it feels like every street corner has a "FREE MANGOS" box or a lemonade-stand style setup manned by neighborhood kids. If you drive down to Homestead or the Redland, where they are farmed commercially, you can visit Mango Men to taste and buy fruit, or attend a number of mango related events at Fruit & Spice park. If you don't have lots of room in your yard and you are considering what trees to plant for yourself, you may want to carefully consider choosing a mango for the simple reason that there are all ready so many of them all over town. Mangos can reach heights of 30 feet (especially if not pruned very regularly) and the shade of a mature mango tree isn't a great place to plant other things. As a homeowner who has a huge heritage mango on the side of my property, it's also a lot of work when it's fruiting. First off, about 50% of the fruit that falls has already been ruined by squirrels, and when it falls if you don't clean up multiple times a day then the rats, raccoons, flies and fruit flies will have an absolutely bonanza in your yard. This year i had so many it filled my compost pile, which is way too buggy because of it, and it filled my kitchen, my deep freezer, my dehydrator and I gave so many to neighbors they started to say "no thank you". We definitely prefer fruit trees that stay smaller and give fruit more quickly, especially if you are working with a small space.
Sure, most of the country gets to enjoy apple trees and blueberry shrubs, but we have the privilege of plucking pineapples, mangos and bananas from our backyards! You loose some, you win some :)