Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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Grow Your Own Food: Start Now in SoFla

August 15th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Planning on a garden this season? In South Florida, our planting season starts now for a harvest October through May.

Growing your own food has many benefits — it’s smart earth-wise, wallet-wise and taste-wise. Plus, it’s an instant stress-buster, as long as you don’t mind the bugs and quirky weather, both of which can do you in on any given day. The frustration can be part of the cons, but part of the pros, too: foiling the enemies and working through puzzles, and learning the roller-coaster moods of the mighty Mother Nature.

Learn from Matt


Matt Steinhoff, with early raised-bed garden

My web master and friend, Matt Steinhoff, planted his first rasied-bed vegetable garden last fall. Go back and read his WatchMyFoodGrow blog about it (the web cam focused on his garden is what you see on the top left of my Home page). He took copious notes and photos of his trials and successes, and catalogued the harvests.

On his site, you can get all kinds of tips about raised-bed gardening —  how to build one, what not to do, or how to do it better the first time around. He’s done the experimenting for you at his Palm Beach Gardens home.

Time to treat the soil

He’s now harvesting the last of his ’08 garden — yellow crookneck squash.



But it’s August 15 — time to start over. That date is always my cue for treating the soil if I’m planting. Down here in the tropics, the dog days of summer (Caniculares dies) are tough on us humans and canines alike — but great for the garden-to-be.

Giant nematode - not really

Humongous nematode (thanks, Photoshop)

In Florida, we have a big problem with nematodes — microbial leech-like worms that eat the plants from the inside out. Fungus and other soil problems are rampant. To get rid of them, you can poison them, or cook ’em. The sun’s heat is free and has no ill effects on the environment – an easy choice for most of us.

Here’s how to cook dirt:

  •  Stake out your garden space – a 4-by-6-foot garden will easily produce enough produce for a family of six in season.
  • Clean out the grass and weeds or whatever’s there to leave bare soil.
  • Buy a roll of heavy, clear plastic– you’re going to need it for hurricane season anyway.
  •  Lay the sheet of plastic over the soil; place concrete blocks or other heavy objects around its edges.
  • Bake, at full sun, for one month, covered.
  • Pick up your plastic and put away the blocks, or use them to support a raised bed elsewhere in the yard.

By mid to late September, you’re ready to plant and you’ve killed off all the nematodes and other soil pests that stand in your way of great plants.

Choose Florida-friendly produce

tomatoesgrowingWhile some plants do well in South Florida, others merely muddle through – they seem sorry to be where they are planted. The little Japanese eggplant go wild. Certain tomatoes do, too. You will have more grape tomatoes than you can possibly use if you can keep your hands off them while in the garden. Peppers, pole beans, strawberries, snap beans, radishes, lettuces, certain squashes, herbs — all do splendidly.

Root vegetables are trickier, but they do OK in some instances. Carrots and radishes fare well. Potatoes? Not so much. My Aunt Sunny in Fort Lauderdale created a mound of dirt shoulder high, about six feet across, and planted sweet potatoes throughout it. The entire mound was covered with the leaves, and the potatoes were great.

I had no such luck when I tried this on my farmlet in west Lake Worth — the potatoes rotted. A gardening buddy said the ground under the mound was too wet in my area.

Get your plants at local garden stores

You can plant from seed — we like ejseed.com for its heirloom, non-genetically modified seeds. Or, you can start from “sets” – baby plants you can buy at the garden and home improvement stores. The big-box stores are not my favorites — help there is typically clueless — and you will eventually need help if you’re a beginner. Because you can get personalized attention and free information (and sometimes, free plants) at the numerous garden shops in our area, I cheer them on.

Tim Whelan

Tim Whelan

We use Art by Nature Garden and Landscaping in Palm Beach Gardens because they’re close by, and because the owner Tim Whelan is a natural gardener himself. He and his staff plant a veggie garden on the side of the garden center right on Northlake Boulevard to show you how you can do it in a raised bed. He also grows beautiful hot peppers in a border along the fence — again, something any homeowner can do.

He sells organic plants and organic pest treatments. He also sells organic vegetables at the Gardens Green Market, and gives away a lot to some soup kitchens to use for cooking. Great guy, who walked Matt through his garden plans.


Free help from the IFAS extension folks

The very helpful Master Gardeners at the Mounts Botanical Gardens in West Palm Beach are a treasure source of information — they answer all your questions, give free pamphlets, staff a call-in help line, and provide visual plant and pest ID. They also teach numerous classes (click here for info on Sept. 3 vegetable garden class) for the public. And did you know? They have a huge bookstore there where all kinds of books on gardening, pest control and cooking your harvest can be found.

Big or small — just grow!

herbs-in-crateMaybe you don’t have a yard to offer to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and fertility. Surely though, even on a patio or condo balcony, you have room for a 5-gallon bucket or similar container. One small container will produce a harvest of grape tomatoes and lettuces for you all season. A windowbox or outside planter box can become an herb and kale garden.

So – get busy and hit that dirt! – and get your youngsters involved – it’s an A-plus learning experience. Teaching kids where their foods come from is a great start at teaching them about their place on the planet – and how important it is to help preserve it. If they’re picky eaters, you can swing them to the nutrition side:  they love to eat what they have grown. Win-win all around.

Happy gardening!



Tags: Gardens: Grow Your Own Food

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Annie O'Reilly // Aug 15, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    Jan, thanks for this timely post. I’ve lived here 12 years and have always wanted to start a vegetable garden and have always been either too busy, too distracted, or too frustrated with the efforts I DO start to do so successfully. (This, from a girl who had a gorgeous, improbably lush and robust herb garden and three rhubarb plants the size and shape of VW Bugs back in Laramie…)

    This may be the year I grow things in FL. Off to get a roll of pastic to cook my dirt…

  • 2 Annie O'Reilly // Aug 15, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Also, thanks for the link to Matt’s blog; it looks very detailed and useful. Plus, his dad’s awesome.

  • 3 Lila Steinhoff // Aug 15, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    I was going to wait until we got back in October to start my raised garden. Looks like Matt (He offered to build one for me last year.) and I should be talking now.

    Beef-steak tomatoes, here I come!!! … and little sun tomatoes and okra and yellow squash and fresh celantrao and basil and ….

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