Storm clouds, blisteringly hot days, and humid evenings... welcome to May in South Florida. May is our most transitional month here for gardening. Its the last chance to plant some heat tolerant annuals, 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 new and 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 during our Summer Plant Sale which is happening Friday, Saturday & Sunday May 20th, 21st and 22nd but we will also have them available 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.
7. TARO LEAF
Taro is a really cool and beautiful summer veggie that produces two unique yields because its leaf and its root are both edible. As the plant matures you can harvest the outer leaves for use in the kitchen, and after about 8-12 months you can harvest the whole plant and use its tender tuber too. Most people are like... "what the heck is a taro root" and then they realize... taro chips! those white chips with the little red squiggles in them are made from taro root, and you can use it much like you would a potato... mashed, cubed and baked or fried.
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. THAI BASIL
While we Americans may not consider something like Thai basil a vegetable there are cuisines worldwide that literally treat it like spinach, or kale! Cake Thai, Miamis most authentic Thai restaurant, has a tofu dish thats literally like 50% tofu 50% Thai basil leaves and its soooooo delish... While Genovese basil (aka Italian) loves the heat it absolutely hates the humidity, so luckily for us its relative Thai basil loves it. Use in herbaceous salads, in Thai stir fries or curries, and as a filling for spring rolls. Allow it to flower and the pollinators in your yard will thank you.
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.
If you're hoping to grow summer crops like this in your raised bed make sure you manage the spacing and size of the plants properly or else you'll end up with a messy and non-productive jumble in there. Some of these plants stay small, like the garlic chives. others need to be trellised, like the winged beans, and some can get quite big and will need very regular pruning to stay within a couple of square feet, like longevity spinach or cranberry hibiscus. Also, your soil will be quite depleted if you are doing 4 season growing in a raised bed, so you'll need to make sure you are building soil elsewhere during the summer, like in a compost pile. Summer is the best season to be building soil because everything composts faster when its hot humid and wet out. You can build a finished pile out of leaves, hay, mulch, spent plants and other compostable materials like kitchen scraps and cardboard and then by the end of the summer it'll be perfectly cooked down and ready to be added to your fall garden to replenish the soil. What we mean when we say a "finished pile" is that, instead of slowly building a pile as you eat dinner and rake the yard, you can hoard those materials, go to the park to get leaves, go to a horse stable to get manure, buy a couple bales of hay, steal your neighbors grass clippings, and in one weekend you'll have a big pile that you can stop adding things too and it will compost through the summer. Most people think of composting as something they have to do slowly but many farms (like us) will get huge amounts of material delivered in the spring for just this purpose.