Getting Started – The First Two Lessons

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September 16, 2012 by frontyardfarm

So you want to grow at least some of your own food, and you live in Florida.  Other states in the Union think of us as the land of lush citrus groves that grows all their winter tomatoes.  You’ve tried growing a few tomatoes in the past to no avail.  The very thought of Florida, with its sandy, salty, alkaline soil as an agricultural state makes you laugh.

Well, I’m here to help you.  Not because I am some expert (although working at Lindley’s has taught me a few crucial things) but because I am doing it.  I am reaching toward produce (as in vegetable) self-sufficiency right here in Central Florida, stumbling and learning as I go.  And I’m doing it on .27 acres (which includes the house and driveway).  I’ll make the mistakes on your behalf and tell you loudly and proudly all about them.

The first mistake I made when we first moved to Florida at the very tail end of 2010 was I tried to start a garden in spring.  Oh, sure I knew logically that I was in a warmer place and that I should start all my seeds very early.  And I did, I nursed little flats of heirloom tomatoes and peppers starting in mid-February (it should have been a clue that I was already able to leave them outside all night).  Matthew and I set up a raised garden on the western slope of our little rental lot.  I planted out bush beans, and I even tried celery in April.  I had just gotten a job at Lindley’s Nursery and Garden Center in New Smyrna Beach, and I was learning a lot fast about this whole Florida gardening thing.

And then the tomatoes produced almost no fruit.  The bush beans sprouted and then withered away.  The evil mastodon grasshoppers ate everything and I learned two very important lessons.

1.  As you learn to garden (vegetable or ornamental) in Florida, plant in the “fall”.

(Here I use the term “fall” because that’s what everyone calls the time of year that begins in September.  However, when we started putting the raised beds together and filling them on Labor Day weekend it was still reaching 95 degrees in the afternoon pretty consistently.  Where I come from in the frigid north there is nothing autumnal about 95 degrees. It rarely gets to 95 degrees.  And to confuse matters further if you are going to start tomatoes, peppers, or eggplant from seed, you should set out your little trays sometime at the close of July or beginning of August, but more on growing from seed later.)

So, plant in the fall, at least while you are learning the ropes of gardening in the Sunshine state; and especially if you want to harvest food from your labor.  It’s starting to cool down which means less stress on you and the plants.  Plus you will be able to grow lettuce and all the delicious things in the Brassica family.  And the fall/winter is when we here in Central Florida get to have all beautiful, abundant and delicate flowers of northern spring.  As we say at Lindley’s, fall is the new spring!

The second mistake I made was trying to cut corners on the type of soil I used in my raised beds and containers.  I least I knew first off that the sandy soil beach side was not going to be healthy environment for my fledgling crops.  I had tried to follow the Square Foot Gardening method.  But the $80 price tag to fill my one little 4×4 raised bed was tough to swallow. So I substituted some of the more expensive amendments with more mushroom compost.  And then I was very unwilling to fertilize regularly.  I had just come from a 450 square foot bed on good Iowa land.  The only amendment I had done there was to till in horse and chicken manure in the fall.  But here you can only get out what you put in.  Starting in a raised bed (or even in the ground) is akin to starting with a blank slate.

So my vegetables suffered from nutrient deficiency as well as heat and drought stress.  And they called out to every pest in Volusia County to come into my little plot and take them down.  Therefore:

2.  Start with a good growing medium and use organic fertilizers.  You must give your plants all the nutrients they need to survive and to feed you.  It doesn’t matter if you are growing in containers, or attempting to plant in the ground.  The only thing that Florida gives freely to your garden is the sun’s energy, and, occasionally, water.  To make this easier I highly suggest raised bed or container gardens.  I am doing a combination of both.  I will later expand on the organic vs. inorganic fertilization question.

Next up, how to put together raised beds.

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