Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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Growing Your Own Food: Time to Get Back to the Garden

February 18th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Editor’s Note 2/25: This post has been updated to reflect the new classes for backyard farmers at the Mounts; next class is March 7.

Webmaster Matt approached me in December, saying I should write about growing your own food. Times are tough and people should start growing their own vegetables, he says.

A noble idea. Just how much vegetable gardening have you done, Matt? “None,” he told me.

But he’d seen a lot of gardens.

One in particular near our neck of the coastline, a demo garden at Art by Nature Garden and Landscape center, is the reason he was so excited.

“You’ve got to see this garden — he’s got everything growing! Peppers, onions, squash, beans –we ate these awesome tomatoes right off his bushes!”

But they’ve been growing a while. It’s December, I told him. He was already four months into our growing season.

South Florida’s growing seasons upside-down

Generally we have two seasons down here — the 363-day summer, and winter (it was February 4-5 this year). Some say “summer” and “tourist,” but this year’s crop of tourists is thinner than my wallet these days.

Tourists (note stylish white socks)

Plants don’t like the heat any more than the tourists, so tender vegetables don’t grow here in the hottest months — unless they’re kept indoors. It’s not practical to air-condition a garden.

Fall is when we plant – when the rest of the country begins their harvest. We grow from around October through April with a few things straggling into May, depending on the heat.

Parasites in paradise

That means we begin prepping the ground in late July. Because nothing freezes and dies off in the ground, our many fungi, parasites and everyday garden bugs have a 363-day paradise to munch around in.

Virgin Farmer Matt (heretofore referred to as VFM) was unaware of this, and wanted to go get some tomatoes and just stick them in the ground and poof! Instant salad.

Nematode (not really)

“No way! Nematodes,” I said. “Your garden will be alive for six or 10 days and doing beautifully. You’ll be giving me updates on every blossom and leaf. Then one morning you’ll come out and every last plant will be flat on the ground and deader than Spain’s King Franco. You’ll be freaking out and calling me at cock-a-doodle-o-clock in the morning to yell about your decimated garden.”

Nematodes are a particularly mean parasite that get into the heart of the plant and suck the life out of it from the inside out.

I know nematodes first-hand

My first encounter with them years ago flustered both me, and my then nanny-grandma, Florence (Sherm) Shremp, a native of Corapolis, Pa. She wanted to grow zucchini like she did up North in my big garden in Lantana, so we sowed seeds on nice mounds. They were the most beautiful plants ever — and Mrs. Shremp taught me how to put some Sevin dust into an old sock, and tap it on the leaves to coat the leaf just enough and keep the aphids and worms and other bugs off. We watered them and tended them a couple of weeks, and got the first blooms on them — huge things that had me thinking one night I’d pick and stuff with cheese, then fry up for supper.

The next day, we went outside to find every plant flat and every leaf limp and withered. Just that fast — nematodes had struck. It’s a frustrating experience, but very common with new gardeners in South Florida.

Baked dirt, raised beds and bucket gardens

Farmers are generally a hearty bunch who can figure out a way around anything. So the small gardeners figured out that you can grow in a raised bed, with sterile dirt. You bake the dirt first, however, (that’s where July and August come in: solar baking under a clear vinyl tarp kills weeds, pests and any small animals hanging out in there). Barring that, you can set a grow-cloth down on the ground (in Matt’s case, inside his box garden) and that will work for a while, too.

So after informing VFM of this, he agreed he could do this — and so our project was born.

Art by Nature

Tim Whelan of Art by Nature

Tim Whelan of Art by Nature

I went to see Tim Whelan, at Art by Nature Garden Center, the place that started all this with Matt. Indeed, they had a lovely demo garden with heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, squash, beans and onions. I met Whelan, who told me Nancy Roe, of Green Cay Farms in Boynton Beach, was his hero and mentor for all this. “I’m just getting into vegetables — I’m mostly landscape. I bow to Nancy — she knows everything.”

Indeed, she does. She’s has her doctorate in agriculture and consults for a number of places. But Green Cay Farms and its very successful CSA program is another story on another day.

Whelan took me around and showed me the heirloom tomatoes, giant and slender eggplants, fat green peppers and full herbs — all growing beautifully in pots that are for sale. For less than $20 you can have a bucket garden and grow the makings of salsa — VFM’s goal. Whelan’s center has so much produce growing at any given time, he sells the leftovers at the Palm Beach Gardens Greenmarket on Sundays.

Freezes happen

So finally in late January, VFM and I got together and went to get plants for his new box garden. He details the building of it on his web site. We chose tomatoes, peppers, and got a few onion plants from Whelan, plus some jalapenos, cherry tomatoes, and bean seeds —  and an eggplant plant just for me. A couple weeks later, I got Matt a few strawberry plants from The Girls Market in Delray Beach, and he set them onto mounds in the “annex” — a couple of smaller boxes he filled to grow beans and the berries, which need room to spread.

Then came a February freeze. This happens in Florida from time to time. VFM, to his credit, was more than prepared. He stuck a lightbulb under the sheet that he threw over the veggies. They were fine –and are still at it. A couple of the tomatoes took a hit, but he surmises it’s from the transplant — they went into shock. He also has a critter that takes a bite of his tomatoes now and then; we’re not sure if it’s a possum or raccoon. No tracks evident.

Matt’s hooked up a web cam to watch the garden from his computer — it’s the thing you see on the top left of my site, and if you click it, it will take you to his site: WatchMyFoodGrow.com where you can read his story firsthand.

Matt in his box garden, Feb. 15

Matt at the garden

I’ll be following Matt’s gardening progress, and adding photos to this post as well, as he grows his way through spring.

Moral of story: Hit the dirt!

The whole point of this is, if Matt can do it, anybody can do it. Get a 5-gallon bucket, plant some tomatoes and a pepper plant and grow some food! (Or be greener still: Cruise your neighborhood on Big Trash Day — surely you’ll find an old dresser at the curb. Grab a drawer or two out of it, set them up in a sunny spot, break out the bottoms or drill holes in them, and line them with a grow cloth. Fill with dirt, and get planting! This is a perfect project for kids!

It’s most important to me to get your kids/grandkids/stepkids/neighborhood kids involved — we’ve got to teach them where their food comes from, so they can appreciate the value of it when they see it in the market, and of growing it with earth stewardship in mind.

Remember the adage: “Teach a man to fish” – so there will always be food on our tables. Share with others, too — plant a community or neighborhood garden — chip in and share the cost, the work, and the harvest. Everybody wins!

Resources for backyard farms

Plants and seeds, advice and dirt are available from our source — Art by Nature Garden Center (4601 W. Northlake Blvd., Palm Beach Gardens) — the green markets, some nurseries, even at the big home improvement stores.

Check out the classes on vegetable gardening at the Mounts Building in West Palm Beach. Saturday, March 7,  they’re offering a class on backyard farming: “Farm-Your-Backyard” an educational program designed to assist small and backyard farmers.

Here’s the info:

Backyard Farming: The half-day program will provide information on crops of interest, growing mediums, site preparation, planning, crop maintenance, harvesting, and marketing issues relating to starting a small-area vegetable garden. Registration is required – call (561) 233-1792 – Palm Beach County Cooperative Extension Service Saturday, March 7, 8 a.m. – noon.
Mounts Building: Hutcheson Agriculture Center, Exhibit Hall A, 559 N. Military Trail, West Palm Beach.

The Master Gardeners at the extension service can give you great advice, too — you can call them at the above number and leave questions for them. If you like to read about gardening, we recommend James Stephens’ book, Vegetable Gardening in Florida. Other books on gardening in South Florida are available at the Mounts Building book store.

Time’s running out – get growing!

Tags: Food People · Today in the World of Food

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lurch // Feb 18, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    The Mounts garden office and the extension service offices are separate. Both offer lots of info. The lobby of the extension service office, next to the Highway Patrol station, is loaded with pamphlets on every garden subject you can think of.

    They also have plenty of info online. See the Vegetable Gardening index page and do a search for your favorite edible:
    http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_vegetable_gardening

    Here’s an example of one of their extensive info sheets:

    Tomatoes in the Florida Garden
    http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/document_vh028

  • 2 llco // Feb 25, 2009 at 9:45 am

    One offshoot of home vegtable gardening is composting. It’s a wonderful way of recycling nutrient rich organic waste into helpful garden fertilizer. It does wonders for Florida gardens and is easy to do. There are many sites online for those interested and all the new closed containers prevent critter infestations. The results are amazing.

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