September in South Florida is equivalent to April in most of the United States. Think of September as our version of "Spring". Imagine that you see thawing snow and budding blooms on bare trees outside your window. Instead of sweltering heat when you open your front door imagine you sense a slightly less frigid chill in the air. Imagine that nature is giving you signs that the ground is "warming up" and that you'd better get ready to grow some food.
Now think about how different our reality in South Florida actually is! No wonder so many people have a difficult time wrapping their minds around the rhythm of the growing seasons here. In September nature isn't giving us any clues that we should be preparing for the growing season, which is right around the corner. Ideally by the beginning of October we should have our first crops in the ground to take full advantage of our 8 month growing season. There is certainly wiggle room in those calculations and planting your garden in November works perfectly fine too. In fact, waiting until November is advisable for newbies because things get a whole lot easier when the weather is consistent. Believe it or not during the month of October we still experience some pretty wild heat waves in South Florida.
So, what does preparing for the growing season entail? It's all about planning ahead when it comes to growing a productive and successful vegetable garden.
Preparing your soil and planting area ahead of time is a great idea. It helps to alleviate some of work later and it gives you a clear idea of how much planting space you have to work with. If you already have a garden set up that has been over-summered with covers crops you'll want to take care of cutting down those cover crops now, if you haven't already. People who covered their garden beds with straw or other types of mulch (for example cardboard or plastic tarps) wont have too much to do to prepare their soil. It's a good idea to move the mulch to the side and double dig your soil to make sure it isn't compacted or taken over by neighboring tree roots (this is a very common issue in urban gardens where hedges and large trees are never too far away from your rich garden soil). If you are starting from scratch, now is the time to get some raised beds made! It's important to get this done now because you'll need to know how much planting space you actually have to work with in order to plan your crops.
A crop plan is basically a list of plants you want to grow, but it's a well thought out plan with succession planting and harvesting goals. In our Introduction to Vegetable Gardening Workshop we like to tell people that first step in making a crop plan is to make a wish list of your dream crops. Then do some smart research to narrow down that list into something realistic! We highly recommend that newbies stick to easy crops the first year or two because failures in the garden can be very discouraging. What do we mean by easy? Stick to crops that are well suited for our climate. Sure we can grow lavender, heirloom tomatoes, striped zucchini varieties and chamomile, but.... there is a bunch of detailed information you need to understand before you can be successful with things like that. They require deeply rooted knowledge based on experience and observation that can only come with time. In the beginning it's a good idea to start with crops that are most likely to produce yummy food no matter what you do!
So you've got your wish list made out. Now you'll need to figure out which of those crops are easy and which are either not a good idea or too complicated for now. The USDA plant hardiness zone map is your ticket to success in this process. The entire county (actually the entire world) is divided into climate zones which are classified not just by temperature, but also rainfall, humidity, elevation and other geographical characteristics. The climate zone in South Florida is 10b. This zone is extremely rare within the continental United States. You'll find that we share a climate zone with many other places around the world located near the tropic belt, for example Hawaii, Puerto Rico, parts of southern India and Africa. Since our climate is so unique compared to the rest of our country most of the information on the internet isn't geared towards our unique growing conditions. You may look up "growing carrots" and get results that recommend planting your carrot seeds in May after the last frost. That is literally useless information for us and can leave people feeling like they have to just make wild guesses about when and what to do. Instead, try searching for "growing carrots in zone 10b". Bingo, you'll get advice that actually works for you, for example this search result which recommends planting carrots between October and February.
Use this search tip to look up all of the plants on your wish list and determine which ones don't make sense because of the climate. For example, if garlic or artichokes were on your list you should come to the conclusion that they don't belong on your list :) Oh and here's a shortcut if you don't have the time to invest in a good old fashioned research session; check out the plant list on the nursery page of our website, we update it with everything that is in season in South Florida regularly. If it's not on our list, it probably doesn't grow here.
The next step is to figure out what you can realistically grow within the amount of planting space you have to work with. For this we highly recommend using square foot gardening charts which are littered all over the internet. Square foot gardening is sort of a patented gardening method that started with a book and is now a foundation, but unfortunately most of the techniques and planting dates aren't suited for our unique growing conditions. However, a lot of people have used the many square foot gardening plant spacing charts found on the internet; they are a really simple way for newbies to get acquainted with proper plant spacing. Do a quick google search and find one you like to use for reference. You don't actually have to divide your garden into square feet, although it is a fun activity for kids and makes planting with them super easy. As long as you have the dimensions of your garden (for example, a standard 4x8 garden beds has 32 square feet of planting space) you can use that measurement to make a realistic list of what will fit into your garden.
If you do want to try marking off the square feet in your garden you can try the technique we use. We staple a piece of sisal twine every 1 foot along one short edge of the garden bed and one long edge. Then we pull the pieces across to the opposite side and staple the other end of the twine every 1 foot. The clearly marked squares in your garden bed are super easy to use and make the process of planting a no brainer. Sisal twine is compostable so at the end of the growing season you can toss what is left of your grid into the compost along with plant scraps.
The last, but equally important element of planing a vegetable garden is taking succession planting into consideration. One thing we tell people all of the time is, a garden is never done. Annual plants, which encompass the far majority of common western vegetables, are quick growing and fast to mature. That's not by accident. For a long time humans have selected food plants that produce food as fast as possible, especially in the more recent past with the industrialization of farming. The faster a seed grows into an edible and sellable product the more production every square foot of farm land can produce. The same principal should apply to your garden if your goal is to grow food for yourself and your family. If you think about the fact that the average vegetable takes about 3 months to mature and our growing season is 8 months long, you can see how every square foot of your garden has the potential to produce 2-3 crops. Now the 32 square feet of planting space in your 4'x8' garden is actually 64 or 96 square feet of planting space! Succession planting is tricky though. It's even challenging for very experienced gardeners and farmers like ourselves and Chris of French Farms. It requires careful planning and continuous seed starting throughout the season.
Seed starting presents it's own set of advanced gardening skills. In fact, we see so many people struggle with starting seeds that we made a video tutorial specifically about our seed starting tips and tricks. Take a look at our seed starting video here! We would like to encourage people to give seed starting a try, but we also want to comfort those of you who have had a really hard time with this process by reassuring you that we are doing the hard work of starting seeds for you! That's what our nursery is ALL about. Our greenhouse is painstakingly designed and our team is trained and equipped with carefully chosen tools for success with starting seeds. If you plan to buy starter plants from our nursery you can consider yourself ahead of the game. We've already started "working on your garden" because our nursery has been filling up with baby plants for the past two weeks. The beauty of buying seedlings for your garden is that by the time we sell you plants in October they will be perfectly healthy 6-8 week old plants, which means you saved yourself 6-8 weeks of caring for baby plants when they were at their most fragile stage. That's our job, like literally.