Storm clouds, heavy rain, blisteringly hot days, and humid evenings full of mosquitos... welcome to May in South Florida! While may is technically still part of "Spring", this year it feels like Spring skipped us and we are already in full Summer mode. May is your last chance to plant some heat tolerant annuals (like asian greens & everglades cherry tomatoes), and also the first chance to go ahead and replant your garden with summer loving longer term perennial food crops. We've noticed over the year that the main reason why people decide to stop gardening altogether for the summer is the big learning curve with getting to know all of the unusual varieties that like the summer. So this blog post will focus on our top 10 most beloved summer perennial veggies and herbs.
May is basically like, the most transitional month between the last of the annual vegetables and the beginning of the perennials & fruit trees, and the below varieties kind of symbolize that hybrid of seasons for us. Some of these are annuals, some are perennials, and all of them are perfect for May. All of these varieties should last through the summer if treated properly and they can be planted in your raised bed or your landscaping depending on how much space you have available. If you've only ever grown in a raised bed consider adding a "food forest guild" to your back or front yard landscaping to provide a permanent home to some perennial food crops.
Check out this article about food forest guilds & the accompanying diagram which easily helps explain the planting design for a food forest. Basically, gardeners take design inspiration from the way that forests naturally organize themselves so that all of the plants can live harmoniously together in a small space instead of fighting for space in the system. One of our favorite modification to the food forest guild system is to remove the "upper canopy" plant, which is typically a very large fast growing fruit tree that will make lots of shade and requires the most space. Sometimes adding an upper canopy tree to your backyard can be a bit too much, so you can use a mid-level canopy tree like a papaya, mulberry or a banana as the largest specimen in your guild and then surround it with smaller annuals and perennials like the ones in the below list to round out the system.
Without further ado here comes our top 10 list. All of the plants on the list can be sourced from our nursery in the Redland from now throughout the summer. Happy planting!
OUR 10 FAVORITE MAY FOOD CROPS:
1. HOT PEPPERS
Hot peppers are a great choice for a May garden because they love a lengthening day, and they love the heat and humidity. In climates like ours without frost peppers are technically perennials and a good healthy nematode free pepper plant can become quite a formidable presence in your garden, turning into a big bush and lasting years before loosing productivity. The hotter the pepper variety the easier is it to grow in the heat. We're not sure why thats the case but a guess is that the amount of capsicum in the whole plant is higher and the bugs don't like the taste! Bugs are going to be the one thing that might negatively effect your pepper plants health as one of the negative features of summer gardening is that the pest pressure increases. Keep an eye on the underside of your leaves where aphids and whitefly like to hide from your inquisitive eyes, and if the growing tips of the plant get krinkly or shriveled up that means you have a two-spotted spider mite issue.
2. GARLIC CHIVES
Garlic chives are the closest thing we can come to growing garlic, or something that kinda tastes like garlic, here in South Florida. Garlic Chives are literally indestructible and will be the very last plant standing in your garden no matter what challenges are thrown at it. The root system of this plant is incredibly robust which means it can handle dry conditions and low nutrients pretty well. Cut your clump of garlic chives down to the base whenever you need to use it in the kitchen and two weeks later your plant will be fully grown again! Garlic chives make a great ingredient for stir fries, stuffing dumplings & gyoza.
3 & 4. LONGEVITY & OKINAWA SPINACH
Longevity & Okinawa spinach are plant cousins so we are including them together in our list. Longevity is a lime green leafed plant while Okinawa is a big more showy with dark leaves and bright purple undersides of the leaves. Summer greens are all a bit weird, and they all have funny names with the word spinach in them, even though none of them are related to or very similar to spinach! They are commonly referred to as spinaches to give people an idea of how to cook them, since they are all a little slimy if overcooked (like spinach is) and are basically mildly flavored green leaves. Okinawa & Longevity are perennial greens and they make low lying shrubs that spread and grow in low branches. they make a great ornamental ground cover in your food forest too.
5. WINGED BEAN
Winged bean is by far our favorite weird warm weather vegetable. This beautiful bean is scalloped ruffled and winged, and when you cut it in pieces they look like little throwing stars. The plant is easy to grow and the entire thing (leaf, flower, bean & roots) is edible. This is a vining plant so you'll need to make sure to give it lots of space and support from a fence or trellis and keep an eye on the young pods to make sure aphids don't attack them when they are small. Include a winged bean in your summer garden and you'll be harvesting the asparagus flavored beans all summer long.
6. SISSOO SPINACH
Sissoo spinach is like the kale of summer veggies. Its super easy to grow, easy to cook with, tastes pretty good, and lots of people know about it so its popular with our customers. It doesn't have many pest issues (but worms will eat it. they eat everything....) and it thrives in lots of different situations, from partial shade to full sun. Harvest the first few inches of growth for the most tender leaves and eat them lightly cooked. As with the other "spinaches" if you overcook Sisso it will become gooey and unpleasant.
Okra is an indispensable ingredient in many soups, gumbos, and stew recipes. The immature pods contribute unique flavor and consistency to ethnic dishes like Cajun gumbo. Okra is a tender annual that grows best in hot weather and can even thrive in our hot, humid and rainy summers. The pods should be picked when tender and immature, about 2-3 inches long, usually about 4-6 days after flowering. Keep pods removed to encourage flowering. Plants can reach 3-4 feet high and do not need trellising. A member of the hibiscus family, Okra has similar pest issues (a favorite plant of the mealy bug) and a beautiful edible flower. Burgundy Okra is a beautiful variety with dark red fruit and stems.
Lemongrass barely needs an introduction since its quite a popular herb in lots of different delish cuisines like Indian & Thai, however did you know that it grows super well down here in South Florida? Or that its essential oils help keep mosquitos out of your garden? Indeed! Besides being a prolific and easy to use herb & tea plant, lemongrass can also be used in natural bug repellants and other body products. Lemongrass is luckily also very easy to propagate, just rip a piece out by the roots, cut away the top of it to leave just a few inches of plant and stick it in the ground. So long as it gets consistent watering until its rooted itll happily make a new plant.
9. SWEET POTATOES
This crop thrives in nutrient poor well draining soil, which we have plenty of here in South Florida. A great way to encourage the plant to produce more tubers for you is to regularly prune the vines and bonus: the leaves are edible! Sweet potato weevils are the main issue with growing this crop in south florida, as they eat small holes in your potatoes without you knowing. Whitefly on the underside of leaves are also an issue so make sure to check your plant throughout its growing season. Sweet potato is a vining plant that will sprawl throughout your garden creating a beautiful dense ground cover, which is one reason why we love growing it in the summer instead of the fall, since it can be quite competitive in a small space where you are trying to grow other annuals. If you don’t have plans for your veggie bed in the summer consider planting a few sweet potatoes and using them as a cover crop, to protect your soil from erosion and weeds.
10. CRANBERRY HIBISCUS
Cranberry hibiscus is another super cool leaf that is really unique to summer and adds a welcome splash of color, texture & tart flavor to an herbaceous salad. The hibiscus family is full of fun summer friendly food plants like roselle, okra, and south sea salad tree, but cranberry hibiscus is definitely the prettiest with its dark purple maple shaped leaves and its baby pink hibiscus flowers. Prune your cranberry hibiscus regularly and it'll get nice and bushy and try to get it a spot in your garden in full sun because the more sun it gets the deeper the color in the leaves.
Honorable Mention: ROSELLE!
And while we aren't including roselle in our list because it wont make you food during the summer months (because it wont be ready to harvest until fall) its still an amazing summer plant that we feel we have to mention. Roselle is the hibiscus family plant that makes hibiscus tea. It flowers and fruits based on the length of the day so it can only be planted in spring & early summer so that it can grow all summer long and then the ruby red calyxes are ready to harvest once the days start shortening in fall. Hibiscus tea is high in vitamin C and antioxidants and tastes citrusy and tart. Its great to use in cocktails, fresh in salads, or to make jams and jellies.
Expect your Roselle bush to get about 6 feet wide and the same height if its planted in spring and gets extra happy. Roselle, like all hibiscus family plants, is particularly sensitive to nematodes, and if you see chlorosis occurring in the new growth you may need to add some chelated iron to your soil.