A Northern Gardener’s Guide to Florida Gardening

A common concept in gardening is “right plant, right place, right time.” All gardeners know that certain plants have certain seasons where they will thrive and produce their fruits or flowers or sought-after foliage. And if you don’t, well, now you do.

Know where it should go before you plant…and if it’s the right time to plant it!

As a gardening supply store, the number one problem we see gardeners have in Florida is not planting the right plants at the right time of year. That usually results in crop failure, and frustrated gardeners. These are people who were able to grow lush, wonderful gardens where they came from, and have nothing now but brown, chewed up lumps of leafy fungus-rotted stems down here.

And believe me…we know your frustration. I was born and raised here. We do, and have done, crazy work to keep pests and disease away from our prized plants. And we still sometimes end up with a brown shriveled up mess. As it says in my bio, the late great J.C. Raulston of the NC State Arboretum said often, “if you’re not killing plants, you’re not stretching yourself as a gardener.” I just remember that when I have the heartache of a dead plant and learn as much as I can from the experience.

Summer Heat Damage can look like this on a tomato.

So, here’s my best general advice for those of you who are “transplanted” from other places in our giant country…and anyone in Florida just getting into gardening too.

Tip #1 – Know where you are, and the conditions of YOUR growing space.

Know your USDA Agricultural Zone, and make sure what you’re planting will grow in that zone. Have a question about this? Check out my garden planning article from earlier this year, tip #2.

USDA Zone Maps were updated in 2012 – make sure you have the latest!

The thing about gardening in Florida, as compared to gardening North of here, is that the growing seasons are SO different. We also have 4 growing seasons (unless the heat is not for you, then we have 3).

Up north, you have actual seasons – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter.

We have Hot, Scalding Hot, Under-The-Broiler Hot, and Slightly Less Hot.

And the national-chain store advertising that happens in Florida doesn’t help gardeners understand our growing seasons at all, because is still tuned in to more northern climate growing schedules…so by the time their “Spring” advertising hits TV, Radio, and the internet…well…Florida’s Spring season is already nearly over and we’re moving into the heat of Summer.

I mean, sure, there’s still stuff you can plant right now (see my last article for some guidance on that), but it’s not the same stuff you would plant right now in, say, New York, Massachusetts, Michigan or Canada. And that’s how people waste a LOT of money, and time. Plants that don’t grow well right now in our climate are still available to buy in the big box stores. Sure, they’ve got a “guarantee”, but honestly, wouldn’t you rather just succeed out of the gate than trying to pulling a dead plant out of the ground to take back for a refund when it gets fried from a 104-degree day?

Here’s a final point on this first tip – and it’s a real mind-melter. Ready? OK, here goes:

The best time to plant seeds for Spring in Central Florida is in January and seedlings can go in the ground in early February. OK, you can say that’s my opinion for the Tampa area…but so be it. Yeah, there’s a chance of frost, but that’s what our N-Sulate frost-cloth is for. We can even garden in the Winter here…plant in November, harvest in January/February. Mind blown yet? It’s a pretty sweet deal if you like to eat.

Look at all that stuff you can plant in Central Florida in January! AMAZING!

Tip #2: Lean on Local Gardeners for Advice

It pays to ask local gardening folks about local gardening practices before you spend a bunch of money on stuff that doesn’t work where you are. The internet is great for researching, and social media gardening groups are decent places to get “what would you do” type advice (taken with a grain of salt of course). Even our own local extension offices (in our case, UF/IFAS) have some information published that makes me scratch my head in wonder, because what they’re saying doesn’t apply to or work in my area at all.

Local law changes in Florida make front-yard gardens allowable in many places now! YES!

If your neighbor has a gorgeous landscape, talk with them about it. If another neighbor brings you heaps of greens or zucchini or tomatoes (guilty!), ask them how they get such great yields. Ask to see their gardens, or to let you know when they do something to their garden so you can do it to yours too. If they really like you, they’ll pass down their family gardening secrets…the treasured “old ways” that I love finding out about so much (like the ones that my daddy passed to me, before I lost him).

Of course, if you’re having a specific pest or disease issue, you can come ask us here at the store. We’re here to help you get the most out of your garden.

Tip #3: It’s ALL in the PREPARATION

The Scouts code says “BE PREPARED” for good reason.

If you’re prepared, you’ll have more success – a little work now leads to a lot less later!

Garden success is predicated on the prep work you did in the weeks and months BEFORE you planted the seeds. Summertime is a great time to do a lot of prep work for the coming prolific Fall Gardening season. Want a quick read on things you can do in the Summer to prep for Fall Planting? Try this article and see what you think.

Another thing that you can play with is using nitrogen-fixer summer crops like Peanuts (not the ornamentals, the actual ones that you eat), and Cow peas/Black-eyed Peas, to plant in your garden beds over the summer. You can harvest the crops, and then till the plants under a couple of weeks before planting for Fall. Their roots/stems/leaves make a wonderful soil-builder, and of course the peas and peanuts are tasty to eat. I plan on trying cowpeas in my raised beds this summer (it’s on the list!). I’ll let you know how it goes, I plan to plant next week!

If you’re going to let your garden ground go fallow over the summer (“fallow” = not planting in it), instead of letting random weeds take over, I would suggest an easy cover grain like sorghum or Sunn hemp or buckwheat, or toss a bunch of marigold seeds out there and let them grow wild. Marigolds make great natural insecticide, battling root knot nematodes and other soil-borne pests – so having a bunch of those growing in your beds all year round is never a bad thing. When they die (they are annuals, they can die off easily), till their remains into the soil so they can continue to work for you!

Cowpeas in the summer garden – tasty peas AND added nitrogen to the soil.

Well, there’s my gardening $0.02 for transplants to our beautiful Sunshine State. I hope you, and maybe even new gardeners, found this useful!

What are your Summer garden tricks? Let me know in the comments below. Happy HOT gardening!!

Sincerely,

Marissa

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