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.
That said, once we get over the hump and into July, the rewards are incredible! 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. Pictured above is a before and after of the arch trellis at this garden; these pictures were taken exactly one month apart!
All of this growth and bounty in a month can only mean one thing. We gotta 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.
Sure, most of the country gets to enjoy apple trees and blueberry shrubs, but we have the privilege of plucking pineapples and bananas from our backyards! You loose some, you win some :)