March is a really beautiful month in South Florida (its going to cool down again, trust us....), but it does come with the bittersweet fact that it's the last call for planting some of our beloved winter veggies like kale and tomatoes. We can still grow quick crops like lettuce, arugula, radishes and even cucumbers through May, but since tomatoes and kale take about two months to mature planting them in your garden much later than March is kind of a lost cause.
This time of year we start getting the "is it too late to plant anything" question more and more, and while our short answer is "NO, it's never too late!" let's dig into our long answer here. We consider our cool weather veggie season to be over by the end of May. So, if you want to figure out if its too late to start something new from seed you'll need to find the "days to maturity" of the variety and then work backwards from the end of may. Let's do this together for Sungold cherry tomatoes. Their listed days to maturity is 60.... but its not as clear cut as that, because thats considered to be the day of first fruiting, so you'll want the plant to be able to thrive for at least a month after its maturity date so you can try to get a good amount of fruit off the plant. so we want the plant to be alive for at least 90 days at the end of may. that means you shouldn't put the seeds in the ground after the last week of February. Because this is all weather dependent and there are so many other variables too it really isn't this cut and dry. There isn't a week every year when every gardener and farmer in miami declares in unison "we aren't planting tomatoes anymore" and one thing we have learned over the years its that EVERYONE has an opinion about stuff like this. For example if a market customer casually asks when we stop planting tomatoes we will say "sometime in March" and the shopper next to them will be like "i grow tomatoes year round and they do great" and then someone walking by will chime in with "i don't grow anything besides everglades wild cherry and i plant them in on December 15th".... Because we consider ourselves a nursery thats good for beginners lots of the info we share is skewed to the easier side of gardening, so we do stop selling tomato seedlings in March because summer tomato gardening, while possible, is more of an advanced gardening move. For the very same reason we don't sell anything during a time when we don't think you should plant it. We consider all of our inventory "season appropriate" so if you come to the nursery and we have it in stock, you can plant it. This time of year we are removing varieties every week as the season progresses, and we are also adding new items that are more heat tolerant and better suited to spring growing.
Our nursery stocked the last batch of assorted tomato varieties right now and we will be selling them at 20% off until they're all gone, at which time we will declare our tomato season OVER! But wait.. theres one super cool variety that we grow until June.... after March the only tomato variety you'll find on our web store is Everglades Cherry Tomato. This little guy is worth talking about for a bit because we're big fans of this pretty unique tomato variety! Everglades cherry tomatoes are a cult favorite down here in South Florida, and for good reason. Legend has it that these were found "growing wild" throughout the everglades, and after their discovery the seeds were saved and distributed by local gardeners who were looking for a tomato that could stand the extreme heat and humidity of a South Florida summer. Nowadays they're a staple in summer and winter gardens throughout the area. Their tiny size makes them adorable for use in salads, as garnish, and as snacks, and their sweet taste make them irresistible. These wild cherry tomatoes make large highly branched plants that are best grown in a wild and non-trellised fashion. If allowed to grow like a groundcover, left to sprawl and crawl along the ground they can make enormous plants with hundreds of fruit clusters on one plant!
Allow a few clusters of Everglades cherry tomatoes to stay on the plant and they will happily reseed themselves year after year. If you'd like to save the seeds instead just choose a few very ripe fruits, squeeze the insides out into a jar with water, allow it to ferment for a few days (this simulates the digestive system of an animal and will break down the mucilaginous coating around the seed) and then dry on a towel.
Despite its tolerance of the tropical heat Everglades cherry tomatoes can be grown anywhere where all other tomato varieties are. A tip for harvesting the tiny sweet fruits: instead of picking fruit by fruit, cut the entire cluster off the vine when all the fruit is most of the way ripe. Alternatively, break the fruit off of the vine one by one with their little green hat on (the technical term is "peduncle") since the fruits skin tends to rip when its removed hastily.
Ok, so what crops should we be focusing on in our March gardens? We have 2-3 months of cool weather left which actually lets us plant a pretty very wide range of veggies and herbs at this point. I like to look at categories of plants one by one to keep my list organized. Let's start with greens because this category has the most potential for late season production. Greens, especially cut-and-come-again greens produce the most food in the shortest amount of time in the smallest amount of space! Lettuces are an obvious choice, not only because most of our palettes are happily adjusted to lettuce so we should take advantage of growing it for as long as we can in the home garden, but also because they are highly productive and the benefits of home grown lettuce are huge. The benefits I'm referring to are freshness, quality and variety. Tender leafy greens are extremely perishable and when you buy them at the store they are typically already days, sometimes weeks old, which means you not only have just a few days to consume them, but their quality is already diminished. When you have lettuce growing in a home garden you can literally harvest on demand for each meal and you'll notice the difference in texture (crispy!) and flavor (bright green flavor). At this point in the season you can still start lettuces from seed or plant starter plants for a little head start. Not at all lettuce varieties respond well to our unique climate so we recommend either buying the lettuce varieties we have at our nursery, or you can use our list as a guide for what to look for elsewhere. We've spent many years of trial and error to select the varieties we currently grow and if you take a look, it's a seriously fun assortment of colors and textures!
Other worthwhile greens to include in a March planting include dandelion greens, French sorrel, arugula, bok choi and collards greens. Arugula, mustard greens and baby bok choi are crazy fast growing so you'll have an opportunity to plant them 2-3 more times before the end of May when the growing season makes a drastic shift to tropical crops. Collard greens, French sorrel and dandelion greens are all more long term crops that you may even keep in the garden further into the summer months. They are somewhat heat tolerant and have a naturally bitter or sour flavor profile so they hold up better when the weather in South Florida starts to get hot. Planting any of these greens in a March garden will yield good results and make yummy food for your family.
Another major category of plants to be focusing on right now is culinary herbs. Most herbs can make it through the summer, or at least make it deep into the summer months. The prerequisite is that they are well established by the time the weather gets extremely humid. For example, the hardy Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, oregano and sage will actually thrive and get huge over the summer if the plants are well established early on. March is our last change to get these kinds of plants into the garden safely. That also applies to Thai basil, dill, parsley, scallions, mint and lemon balm. Some of the herbs that definitely won't make it through the summer, but are good to plant right now because they are quick growing and will be harvested before May include Italian basil, cilantro, thyme and cutting celery. Another group of herbs to start taking seriously this time of year are the more tropical herbs like lemon grass, garlic chives, Jamaican oregano, Costa Rican mint and culantro. In a nutshell, March is a great time to plant the widest variety of herbs imaginable!
Moving on to a more colorful group of plants, hot peppers and eggplants! Did you know that these also grow and produce year round in our sub tropical climate? Certain varieties, especially Asian eggplants and most of the hot peppers, actually thrive stronger during our long hot summer days. They like heavy rains, increased sunlight and they aren't heavy feeders (summer soils usually hold less fertility because the heavy rains was away fertilizers and organic matter at a faster rate). That said, we like to warn people of the pros and cons of growing these crops in raised beds during the summer months. Both of these crops are in the same family as tomatoes and ALL of these crops are nematode magnets :( Nematodes are the scourge of South Florida gardening. They are present in all types of soil, and thrive here because they like sandy low-organic matter soil. They are an invisible ringworm that feeds on the roots of plants causing a general weakening of the plant and sometimes death, depending on the density of nematode population. Its hard to tell if you have nematodes or not until you pull the plant out of the ground and inspect roots; nematode affected roots are dark or muddy looking, brittle and thick, covered with many small nodules and bumps (compared to healthy roots which are usually white or light colored and fine like hair). Since nematodes are usually present in most gardens it is super important to manage them. There isn’t an easy solution for nematodes which is one reason why they are such a problem.
the roots on the right are infested with nematodes. compare them with healthy roots on the left.
If you know you have nematodes, the last thing you want to do is plant crops that attract nematodes during the "off-season". If you aren't sure if you have a nematode problem, but you know you really want to plant tomatoes in the Fall, avoid these crops during the "off-season" because you'll most likely develop a problem by the Fall. Another pest problem to look out for with this family of plants is white fly. If your garden is prone to white fly outbreaks it might be a good idea to avoid these crops during the hottest months of the year, although white fly is much more manageable than nematodes ;)
March is for sure still a month during which you can plant new plants in the garden and continue harvesting food for yourself. Our Spring plant sale is scheduled for March 25th, 26th and 27th this year, which is about 2 weeks later than last years spring sale. Thats because last year we felt like we called it a bit too early and it ended up staying mild and plant-friendly way later than we imagined it would. Lets see what this Springs weather patterns have in store for us!