Due to the spread of coronavirus and pressure its putting on the food system there has been a surge of interest in home gardening from total beginners interested in taking some power over their food security by growing vegetables at home. This page is intended to be a crash course for those beginners who live in South Florida and are starting ambitious gardening projects in April, which happens to be the very end of our annual vegetable growing season.
SEASONS IN SOUTH FLORIDA:
South Floridas veggie growing season starts in October and ends in May (roughly). That means it is technically "too late" in the season to grow many of the foods that you may be used to buying in the grocery store and eating at home like lettuce, tomatoes, snap peas, strawberries, fennel, celery, cabbage and kale. We know this is kind of a bummer and you may want to challenge this, however if you are a beginner you need to do your best to trust the many gardeners and farmers who have come before you and have established these seasonal guidelines through trial and error. Also, gardening against the seasons, instead of with them, is hard. You are a beginner and you need to start with easy projects and then build up to challenging things like pushing the limits of your gardens seasons. The good news is there is always something edible to grow in the Tropics, we will explore what items you can plant later in this guide.
USDA PLANT HARDINESS ZONE & CLIMATE:
This is an important tool for a beginner to use in research in books and online. The USDA splits the country into growing zones based on climate, rainfall, humidity, nighttime temperatures, frost dates, etc. and farmers and gardeners use these zones to refer to their climate.
Miami is in zone 10b. Similar climates throughout the world, where you can look for plant and gardening inspiration include the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Hawaii, Costa Rica, India and parts of Australia. The rest of America has reversed growing seasons from South Florida... while all other farmers and home growers around us are going through the motions of spring, starting seeds with warming mats and preparing the ground once it thaws we are removing old crops, closing up infrastructure and turning our attention to fruit trees and perennials.
Most people think that we grow vegetables year round because its always hot, but it all depends on the plant! Many of the western European vegetable crops that we are used to seeing at the grocery store actually prefer cold conditions. The entire brassica family, for example (kale, cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli) can survive under snow throughout the winter, as can leaf lettuce and carrots. Many plants take a severe increase in heat to mean that the end of summer and thusly the end of their annual year of life has come, and it triggers their reproductive cycle. They stop focusing on growth (aka making us food) and start focusing on making seeds (aka “bolting”) so that they can fulfill their biological purpose before dying. If you’ve ever seen a lettuce all of a sudden make a big stalk and get really tall, that plant has “bolted” and is now sappy, bitter and inedible.
Carrots help explain another important factor in heats relationship to plant growth, and that is sugar storage. Carrots are also cold loving plants that many farmers keep in the ground through winter. This is mostly done to help sweeten the root. During winter carrots store sugars and become sweeter and sweeter. They do the opposite in the heat and become very unpleasant to the palette once stressed out by heat. If you've ever harvested a carrot in June, like we have (we planted them past march and wanted to make use of them because we had spent months growing them) you'll know they taste awful, and this is all relative to the heat.
RAISED BEDS FOR VEGGIES:
If you'd like a smaller system thats better suited to annual vegetable production you'll want to install a raised bed garden. Most raised beds are made of hard wood (or treated pine) and are 4 x 8 feet and about a foot deep. The frame is useful for keeping fresh soil in place, which you will need because South Florida doesn't have an abundance of topsoil, which is what you need for gardening. Your soil should be well composted and provide good drainage and adequate moisture holding properties. Pretty much all soil that you can buy (either from us or from any other garden center) is NOT fertile or alive, its your job to add fertility (in the form of organic granular fertilizer) and living compost (from your compost bin or a local compost source).
One raised bed provides 32 square feet of growing space, and it can be challenging to figure out what to plant and where. "Square foot gardening" is a gardening technique where beginners are encouraged to grid off their raised beds and use charts to see how many plants to plant per foot. We tell beginners to google each plant they want to include and see how many of that plant fit in a square foot. For example, peppers and kale need 1 square foot to grow... bush beans can be planted 12 plants to a foot.
WHAT TO GROW IN APRIL:
There is definitely still food to be grown in a raised bed in April but be very thoughtful when choosing varieties. Our nursery only stocks plants that are season appropriate so start on our inventory web page for making your late season garden plan. Beware of big box stores like Home Depot, who don't consider our unique climate when stocking edible plants. The IFAS vegetable planning calendar is also a great resource however we do take issue with some of the plants included.
If someone told us to plant whatever we like in a raised bed for a nice diverse selection of veggies, greens & herbs we would include the following from our inventory of plants:
32 square feet of growing space:
1 ping tung eggplant
2 hot peppers
1 everglades cherry tomato
1 suyo long cucumber
1 row of mixed heat tolerant greens like bok choi, dandelion greens, mustard greens, tat soi, tokyo bekana & arugula
1 thai basil
2 garlic chives
1 row of green bush beans (from seed)
and a few unique summer plants like:
BUT IT SPROUTED:
One very common retaliation we get from people when we tell them "that wont grow now" is that their seeds sprouted... so that must mean that the plant will grow now. A seed only needs constant moisture to germinate. When contemplating wether a plant will grow long and happy enough to make you food you need to look all the way out through the plants life timeline. Under ideal growing conditions, including the perfect temperature range (which is 60-75 degrees farenheit), fertile soil, minimal pest pressure, and ideal spacing a carrot takes 75 days from seed to maturity. On our farm we typically harvest at around 90 days. Thats 3 months... If your carrot seeds sprouted today that means you'll be harvesting this cool weather loving crop for July 4th, when the highs last year were 91 with 97% humidity. Make sure to consider the plants whole life cycle when planting now.
ADDED PEST & DISEASE PRESSURE:
As temperatures, rainfall and humidity increase through summer the reproductive life cycle of bugs quickens, meaning that their populations balloon. This means that infestations on your plants become very hard to manage very quickly. Additionally, pests seek out stressed and unhealthy plants, they can literally smell them as they drift and fly by. If you have plants that aren't best suited to the climate planted in your garden that means they are stressed out, and that means the pests will target them.
THE EFFECT OF HUMIDITY ON PLANTS:
Often people think that our summer is hot (daily highs in the mid 90s) and other summers are hot too (Upstate New York for example) so whats the difference... well, its the increased humidity that makes our climate so unique. Humidity means the air is very heavy with moisture, which causes mold, fungus and rotting issues in live plants. "Powdery mildew" is a common humidity related issue found on squash and cucumber plants in the tropics. "downey mildew" is another common killer thats most often found on basil plants. Mildews love moisture, and humidity is lots of moisture in the air. Soft stemmed plants like tomatoes can be completely colonized by mildews during the summer and they will literally melt.
As you start to explore the world of sub tropical food production you may see the term “food forest” come up again and again in your research. A food forest is a food production environment that is planted in a way that replicates the natural order of a forest. Permaculturists and agriculturalists have been replicating this natural organizational pattern with perennial edible plants, making unique environments that are dense with food! The tropics are very well suited to this setup since many of the things we can grow year round are trees or perennials. This type of system requires much more space and doesnt require the building of a bed system, as the plants go directly in the ground and you build soil around them over the years.
A perennial plant is one that lives for more than one year. Perennials are typically used in food forest plantings because the idea of the system is that all the plants mature together in a system over time. Some plants that we think of as annuals are actually perennials.. like peppers and strawberries, however many tropical perennials are quite exotic and unknown in America.
Here is a rough list of popular plants for each food forest category. Research each variety carefully and make a planting plan for your yard based on available space, light, fertility, and other factors.
large fruit trees like: mango, avocado, canistel, mamey, sapote, strawberry tree lychee and longan, loquat, tamarind, wax jambu
bananas & plantains
pollinator friendly flowering natives
african blue basil
red leaf amaranth
christmas perennial lima bean
black pepper vine
the ginger family (ginger, turmeric, galangal)
sweet potato mint
perennial peanut gotu kola
A freshly planted raised bed in March. Note the generous spacing for each plant. Tall plants that will be trellised are on the north side of the garden so as not to shade smaller plants that should have full southern exposure to the sun.