The Coastal Star

Wake from catalog fantasies and get planting

How Green Is My Island?

By Mary Kate Leming

Seed catalogs come at the wrong time of year. Each spring, we curl up in our favorite chair and indulge ourselves in page after page of award-winning zucchinis and crayon-red tomatoes. But while we’re distracted with fantasies of deep, dark topsoil and giant, wiggling night crawlers, the South Florida summer sneaks in with saturating humidity. Better for growing mildew than honeydew.
But we can’t put down the catalogs. We frantically scan the glossy illustrations for anything that might survive Zone 10. Maybe we can still plant collard greens? How about jalapeños? Wishful thinking. Before we even finish selecting seed packets, we’ve missed another growing cycle.
Not this year. Throw away your Old Farmer’s Almanac. November is the perfect month to plant your winter vegetable garden.
Now is the ideal time to begin haunting hardware stores and greenmarkets for seedlings, topsoil and cow manure. Once you have the key ingredients, just mix the loamy elements together in as large a pot as you can find. Then gently insert the tiny plants, add a little water and let the magic of winter begin.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. That’s why the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences creates publications to help us out. Here are some of its tips for growing basic winter vegetables in South Florida:
Locate your garden near the house and within reach of a hose or other water source.
Plan to water at least two to three times per week and make sure there is good drainage.
Our South Florida soil benefits from mixing it with some organics such as animal manure, rotted leaves or compost. Unless you’re buying this stuff in a bag, mix it into your garden soil about a month before you plant. If you’re not inclined to use the organic fertilizers, you can purchase commonly available grades like 8-8-8 or 15-15-15. If you use these artificial fertilizer products, mix them in at least two weeks before planting.
If you’ve had a garden plot (or pot) before, get rid of the old soil. Chances are good, there are too many things left behind ¬— like the scary-sounding nematodes — that can destroy your tender plantings.
Consider all pesticides as potential poisons, but know that you’ll probably need to resort to this extreme to grow a well-rounded, ruby-red, table-ready tomato. Start by using organic soaps — about four tablespoons per gallon of water. But if you’re still not happy with the results, there are plenty of more powerful poisons on the market: Carbaryl, Malathion, Diazinon. Most of these can be found in on-the-shelf pesticide mixes available at your local hardware store. If you do use these chemicals, be sure to keep them out of the reach of children and irresponsible adults.

So now you’re ready to plant. What can you grow in your South Florida garden?
Try these yummy and healthy suggestions: Snap beans, pinto beans, pole beans, lima beans, cantaloupe, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, black-eyed peas, peppers (just about all kinds), sweet potatoes, pumpkins and squash, tomatoes (of course), and watermelon.
If you procrastinate long enough for the weather to turn chilly (December or January), you might have luck with these edibles: Beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, Chinese cabbage, collards, endive/escarole, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard greens, onions, herbs, peas, potatoes, radish, spinach, turnips, and even strawberries.

Remember: Once the glossy seed catalogs arrive in the mail, another gardening season will have come and gone. So, don’t waste time; get your South Florida winter vegetable garden started now.
To get more specific growing instructions, check out the IFAS Web site at:

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