Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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No-Excuse Gardening: Container Vegetable Gardens in a Small Space

September 21st, 2010 · 9 Comments

Small space gardens still give big yields

The biggest complaint I hear about growing your own food down here is that it’s too much work to tear up a yard – or there’s no yard, or the nematodes or fungus will attack anyway.

In the next few weeks, you’re going to read a good deal about container gardening. It’s time to start seeds to be ready for October planting into containers or the ground. I’ve just come from a Farm-Your-Backyard class on vegetable gardening, given by the Palm Beach County Cooperative Extension agents  at the Mounts Botanical Garden. There, I learned all kinds of great tricks for outsmarting South Florida’s peculiar growing conditions and will share them here.

Before I tell you about the grow bags I’m going to use this year, hear the story of my friends, Linda and Jim Ferris. I’m hoping to convert them to grow bags to cut down on the water they’ll need for their abundant garden. But they’re so successful growing in plastic and clay pots, with so much food coming in, they may not want more help.

Here’s their story.

West Palm Beach residents Linda and Jim Ferris prove you can grow anything in a pot with a little patience – and have a bountiful garden to prove it.

Linda is a staff member of The Palm Beach Arts Paper. We worked together at The Palm Beach Post for many years in the Features department, and she was at its sister paper, The Evening Times, before that.

Tomatoes started it all

In 2008, they couple decided they wanted some homegrown tomatoes and put out a few pots of them by their pool in December. Their success led them to try their hand at other growing other vegetables in ’09.

“This is the second year we’ve tried container gardening,” she said last fall. “Last year was our first year, but we planted our seeds in December, after getting the bug from our neighbor, Bob McKay. We had beautiful plants in March and April, but it was too hot for them to survive, even though I had vegetables until June.

“The Mounts Master Gardener told us the growing season was October through April, and anything we get past that time was bonus veggies.”

Neither of the Ferrises had a garden up North, although Linda’s mother did when she was growing up in West Virginia. Her 90-year-old mother still tends a small garden at her home there, with the help of Linda’s brother.

Heirlooms from California

Linda emailed me sometime before Thanksgiving to give me a report on her container-garden, and later as it progressed.

In answer to my questions and in between watching her beloved West Virginia U football games, she wrote, “I started the seeds at the end of September and added some seeds later that I got from my neighbor, Bob. Jim ordered organic heirloom tomato seeds from Gary Ibsen’s  Tomatofest, a California company.”

Big Beef, German Giant, Aussie, Brandywine, Pink Accordion and Dagma’s Perfection, along with free Ibsen’s Gold varieties came with the order.

They bought their starter-seed boxes at Uncle Bim’s Gardening Supply in West Palm Beach and Jim had ordered The Great Tomato Book from Ibsen as well.

Divided chores

Cabbage starts

Linda did all the planting, and she takes care of pruning and some harvesting. Jim took care of getting the soil ready for the pots, and he does any spraying with organic spray.

By the end of October, the seedlings were ready to go into pots.

“We’re gonna need a bigger yard!”

Along with the tomatoes, they decided to try a full-blown garden. “We have corn, tomatoes, cabbage, squash, carrots, beets, green bell pepper, Thai hot pepper, eggplant, broccoli, basil and Italian parsley.

“We have more than 70 plants, plus I gave away more than four dozen plants to Women’s Club members, friends and my neighbor,” she said. She planted the give-aways in foam cups, thinking ahead.

Why not dig up the yard?

“We wanted to find out which tomato would perform in South Florida’s climate, plus which variety tasted the best. We did plant two patches in the ground outside the patio: One small one in the flower bed in front (it gets east/south sun and did well last year).

“We also have a larger patch in the back with about 20 plants in it. It has a very tall fence to keep ducks out.” The ducks are problematic – they live on a lake.

Growing organic

She says that they use organic pesticides and soil enhancers. “We got NaturalLyte Insect Control—bought at Uncle Bims for $30, main active ingredient is spinosad. It controls white fly, leaf miners, and aphids. Organic farms can use this.”

For diseases and bugs, they use Organocide. She said it’s listed on OMRI which is Organic Materials Review Institute, and availaable at Home Depot. It’s mixed with water, and sprayed on the underside of the leaves.

New Year’s, and the corn’s high

Corn was the miracle crop for the couple – they weren’t sure it would grow in a pot. But not only did it grow, it produced a little ear of corn by New Year’s Day.

The other plants grew very well, and the heirloom tomatoes required a second transplant. “The heirlooms need bigger pots than the ones we grew last year,” she wrote. So in early December, they were moved to their big pots.

Someone gifted them with a Topsy-Turvy planter; the tomatoes hang from it and did well in it, too.

Squash fails

Of all their plants, the squash failed. “No matter what size pot you have, it just doesn’t grow. We ended up pulling it all out,” Linda said. (I’d learn this too, from the Mounts gardeners: squash is difficult to grow to get any decent yield in South Florida and like corn, isn’t worth the cost when it’s so inexpensive fresh from the fields down here.)

By New Year’s, the tomatoes and other plants had matured and the harvesting was going great. “We even had two ears of corn!” she said.

New Year's Day and plants are as tall as Linda

Then came The Freeze

With farming, it’s always something, and Mother Nature is usually behind it. South Florida had record low temperatures in early January – long stretches of it where even snow flurries were reported by some in Miami.

Here in Zone 9.5-10, we seldom experience these temperatures — thus our winter plantings. It’s always a risk, but we usually dodge the bullet. Not so this past year.

But growing in pots allows a gardener to move plants indoors, and so the bell peppers, eggplant, basil and other herbs were moved indoors. “The tomatoes were too big,” Linda reported. They sustained leaf damage, and lost some of their flowers, but the green tomatoes on the vines suffered no apparent harm and kept growing after that.

Cabbage heads remained on the cabbage plants – which seem to thrive in some cold air. “It takes a long time to mature in pots, but cabbage does great. One tip: Keep the leaves off the dirt as much as possible. And animals love them – the ones we had in the ground were eaten by some critter.”  They couldn’t get to the plants inside the pool enclosure, however.

Heavy rains were problematic as well. “We learned you can’t let the pots sit in water – they have to drain.” The couple were physically emptying pots several times daily during all the rains.

They continued to get vegetables throughout the spring and into June, though by then, things were winding down and the heat eventually would take its toll. They considered it a successful season. “We didn’t get enough to can – we ate them all fresh or gave them away,” she said.

Worth the price and work

So how much did all this cost? “Way too much!” Linda said. She was only half kidding about a $10 ear of corn, though the abundant tomatoes and peppers made up for the corn. Organic fertilizers and soil treatments are expensive; seeds and tomato cages, pots, and hardware eventually add up.

The yield may be costly, but the flavor of the foods that’s missing from supermarket vegetables, and the accomplishment of growing their own food has prompted them to continue. “We’re still learning and getting better — you have to try different things and learn what works.”

They relied on advice the master gardeners at the Mounts Botanical Gardens, and the experts at Uncle Bim’s in West Palm Beach for advice as well as several books.

Getting gardening advice off the internet is problematic, especially for gardeners in South Florida. The tropical climate and soil conditions are unique – and don’t match Iowa or Pennsylvania or Georgia backyards – or even those from Orlando.

So who do you talk to? The local growers.

Next installment: Grow bags; and where to go for seeds and advice.

Tags: Gardens: Grow Your Own Food

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Linda Ferris // Sep 21, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks Jan for letting friends know about our container gardening experience. We are anxious to hear about your grow pots. There is always room to improve when gardening.

  • 2 Gardening // Nov 21, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    I am so glad I don’t eat all that processed food anymore. Having my own garden and feeding my family from it has been very healthy for us.

  • 3 Uggs Kopen // Jan 13, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    Hello from Paris! Will i be able to quote a post in your blog with the link to you? I’ve tried contacting you about this problem but it seems i cant reach you, please response when get a time, thanks.

  • 4 pozycjonowanie // Jan 28, 2011 at 9:58 am

    I dont understand few issues. But anyway thx for article!

  • 5 Danelle Perretti // Feb 2, 2011 at 4:26 am

    I thought it was going to be some boring old post, but it really compensated for my time. I’ll post a link to this page on my blog. I am certain my visitors will find that very helpful.

  • 6 Sunday Popken // Feb 13, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    Right, it really is a nice beginning however i’ll have to explore this a bit more. Will let you know exactly how I do.

  • 7 heirloom vegetable seeds // Feb 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    Wonderful entry! I’m beginning my own vegetable garden and this inspires me even more! And like the Ferrises, I’m beginning with container-gardening.

  • 8 Melissa Rothmel // Jan 24, 2013 at 4:26 am

    Great article! I’m in charge of the garden at South Grade Elementary in Lake Worth. We do all container gardening and we are pretty successful. We also have keyhole gardens filled with brocolli and hydroponic water beds for lettuce built by our local Kiwanis Club. I too visit Uncle Bim’s for advise. They are so knowledgeable and super friendly!

  • 9 Jerry Baugh // Jun 8, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Really appreciate all the insights. Coming from Michigan the climate and insects here provide a real challenge! My wife and I are transitioning this year from pot gardening to full blown, yard replacing, raised beds. Any articles related to this? Any summer planting advise?

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