Monday, January 17, 2011

Seasonal Vegetable and Fruit Guide for Central Florida

A rainy MLK day has put me to thinking about vegetable gardening planning. People write me all the time asking when they should plant seeds or set out transplants. It's far more complex than up north, where there's a flurry of activity in early spring, and then a waiting game. For me, Florida has four seasonal vegetable gardens: A Spring Garden (full of summer vegetables), a Summer Garden (tropical vegetables), a Fall Garden (a shortened version of the Spring Garden, and one I often omit), and a Winter Garden (frost-proof vegetables).

Gardening is very, very local stuff. Thirty miles or so north of here (north of highway 40) is a completely different zone, and forty miles south of here (somewhere south of Melbourne) begins a much more tropical zone with many fewer freezes, historically speaking. So, my thoughts here are pertinent for a very narrow band of Central Florida--roughly the I-4 corridor, broadly conceived. St. Augustine to Tampa.

These are optimal planting times for broad categories of plants. I say optimal because I hardly ever manage to get my act together sufficiently to meet these dates--seeds aren't ordered, or they don't germinate, or I don't have space in the garden. But, anyway, this post is mostly for me, to set some goals for future seasons based on five years of gardening and thinking about these things. Not long, all things considered. I'll start in the middle, where all good stories begin.

August 15: The Florida Summer Garden is still going strong: Cassava, sweet potatoes, roselle, hot peppers, lima beans and yard-long beans, peanuts, okra, and trombone squash (Cuccuzi) are all still producing. But mid-August is the right time to sow your Winter Garden staples: Cruciferous/brassicas like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, collards, as well as beets, chard (which is like spinach only it tastes good), and maybe turnips. (Despite everything you've ever read, beets transplant just fine.) Maybe it's a little early to try lettuce seeds, but they're cheap, so go ahead a sow a row or a pot of them for transplant later. (I've found lettuce to be somewhat picky when it comes to germination temperatures and conditions: If I sow too early, they don't sprout, either because of temperature, soil moisture, or various fungi that thrive. If I sow too late, they take forever to germinate.) My gardening friend Christine said she planted carrots mid-August and that they did great--much earlier than I've done it, but, hey, it's just seeds.

If you want to do a Fall Garden, now's the time to sow your heat and disease tolerant tomatoes and peppers. I rarely put in a Fall Garden since I'm so busy in August; what's more, I don't really want to eat fresh tomatoes in December, and too often, my tomatoes start to really produce the very week that we get our first big cold front... too much frustration with too little satisfaction. Maybe if I lived forty miles south, it would be worthwhile.

In the fruit department, August means persimmons, chestnuts, grapes, and bananas.

October 1: Mid-Late September: The sweet potatoes and peanuts I planted in my Summer Garden in mid-June take around 110 days to mature, so most of the Summer Garden stuff should be ready for harvest now through mid-October. Limas and yard-longs are declining. Everything is suffering from fungal issues. Time for general garden cleanup, spread a yard or two of compost, wait a week, and then transplant your large brassica and lettuce seedlings from mid-August into the garden. Don't forget a row of onions (short day onions!) planted densely, a row of carrots, some potatoes, turnips, and a row of peas. Mulch and sit back. It's still hot out there. My traditional date for harvesting sweet potatoes is October 15, so there's a bit of a conflict here--I should plant out my cabbages and broccoli, but the garden is still full of sweet potatoes and peanuts. So I typically harvest some sweet potatoes to clear space, while leaving others in the ground for a later harvest. (I never plant sweet potatoes in rows, in fact, I never plant sweet potatoes. Since I inevitably miss some tubers and roots during harvest, the vines pop out in March. I leave some to grow and others I cut and distribute throughout the garden.)

January 1: Start tomatoes, peppers, eggplants for transplanting on March. You want large, vigorous seedlings to go into the ground as soon as the weather becomes consistently warm and the cold fronts have passed. This means protecting them from temperatures below 35°. Germination will be slow. (You could start cucumber, melon and squash seeds now, but I never have... they grow so quickly that I doubt it's worth sowing them much before the end of January... But if you have space or a greenhouse, why not?)

The Winter Garden is in full production: Brassicas, spinach, and lettuce mostly, but sweet peas should be producing if the winter hasn't been too cold. Onions can be thinned and used as scallions. Beets, turnips and radishes should be large and completely indifferent to cold spells. Anything green and leafy thrives this time of the year, especially if you got them into the ground early and they are large. Sow the peas every couple of weeks so that by mid-February, when things have warmed up, you have tall, thick rows of peas. The potatoes will get burned with every freeze, but they come back. Start more broccoli and cauliflower to replace declining plants. If you have the space and the organizational skills, you can rotate into your garden brassicas all winter long, remembering that by May they won't be producing very well. That means the last round of broccoli and cauliflower should go in the garden as seedlings no later than the beginning of February. Remember to sow lettuce every few weeks--I use window boxes, and then transplant the seedlings when they're an inch or two.

This year, with the coldest December on record, I haven't lost anything in my garden, even though I didn't bother with blankets. Several nights of 21° or 22°. The peas got burned, and the potatoes suffered, but everything else came through with only minor damage. Of course after a week of below-freezing nights, the growth rate on everything slows down to a crawl.

So far as fruits go, it's high season for citrus and strawberries. Mid-January is the perfect time to put in new fruit trees.

March 1: As winter ends, I resist the temptation to re-sow winter crops in the sunniest, best spots in my garden clear, leaving space for the tomato, peppers and eggplant seedlings that I started in January. The Spring Garden in Florida is filled with what northerners would call summer crops. Our "summer" lasts from the beginning of March to the middle of June--much shorter than the May to October growing season up north. Our days are furthermore much shorter (30° of latitude makes a huge diurnal difference), and the conditions are often very dry. So we Florida gardeners have to be really organized in order to get good tomato crops: large transplants by the first of March 1.

You can still harvest winter crops--last year I cut my last broccoli head in early May--but don't bother resowing them. [June 2013: I left a few broccoli plants in the ground this spring, and I'm still harvesting small florets, though the quality isn't great and the plants have a case of whitefly. It's been a cool spring, but it's clear to me that the brassica season can last well into late May at least.] Lettuce tends to bolt quickly, but I still manage to grow some heat-tolerant varieties until the weather turns really hot in late May. If you've got the space, small potatoes (like Russian bananas and fingerlings) can be planted in a sandy, sunny spot. They take maybe six weeks to produce a small harvest.

I wait until the first hot week of March to sow my pole beans--otherwise they rot or get rust. I tend to replace peas with beans this time of the year: The peas are slowing down and will burn out soon, and the beans will grow up the strings to replace them.

March is the time to start sweet potato slips: I stick a couple of sweet potatoes I harvested the previous October in a nursery pot full of pine mulch and a little compost and let them run all over. A good time to start roselle, too, if you're going to grow it.

The first week of March is also a great time to direct-sow watermelons. I had tremendous success with Asian-hybrid icebox watermelons from Evergreen Seeds last year. They can be sown at the tops of rows of winter crops, and their vines guided to run down the rows. By the time they need more space (and start to root at nodes) your winter vegetables will be ready to pull.

The only fruit I know that ripens in March is the loquat. There are a few selected cultivars out there, but the wildings that people grow as shade/ornamental trees produce bushels of fruit. I like to eat them out of hand, but they're even better made into butters and jams. The peach, plum, persimmon and blueberry plants are all in full bloom.

May 1: The height of the Spring Garden. I've harvested my first tomatoes, peaches and blueberries at the beginning of May and look forward to weeks of great fruit and veg. My favorite time of the year. It's hot, dry, but comfortable. Winds are dying down so I can fish.Windows are open, and the garden's full of flowers and vegetables.

June 15: I think of June 15 as the end of the Spring Garden and beginning of the Summer Garden. Some tomatoes, particularly the small-fruited ones, will continue to produce until the beginning of July. But most tomatoes need several hours of 70° or lower temperatures to set fruit, so they generally stop producing around mid-June for me. I always pull my last tomatoes out on July 1, my birthday.

The Summer Garden is an African/Tropical garden--now is the time to plant or transplant cow peas, lima beans, cassava, sweet potatoes, peanuts, hot peppers, Trombone squash, luffa, Okinawan spinach, eggplants, chaya, and roselle. All of these should be planted by the end of the third week of June. (Hot peppers are year-round plants for me, if they are container-grown and protected from cold. I had several three-year-old plants that died last year in the severe cold snaps. Generally best to sow them in January with the sweet peppers, but transplant them into containers rather than the ground.)

I had great luck with watermelons planted in March last year--they produced a harvest in July and another fruit set in August that was destroyed by raccoons before I could harvest them. Peanuts are dead easy, pretty, and good for your garden. Buy a package of green peanuts from the grocer and stick them where ever there's a bare spot. Nothing beats the production of sweet potatoes in Florida. I have harvested fifty pounds from a small plot.

I think of June through August as a time to let my garden grow wild. I make sure it's watered during our droughty periods, and I fertilize regularly, but, let's face it, Florida can be pretty miserable this in late summer. Better to spend my free time fishing in the Lagoon or working in the cool comfort of my office.

Later, rinse, repeat... August sowing/reaping is right around the corner.


sarahgoff said...

Thank you so much for this post! And for the whole blog, for that matter. I've been reading for months now and giddily anticipating beginning my own garden in our new home, in Temple Terrace (with much the same garden zone issues as you). I appreciate you sharing your experiences!

Backyard Urban Gardening said...

I need to try some peanuts. Until you wrote about it, I never thought you could grow them in Florida. Then I found that the Ocala area even has some commercial growers. I always associated peanuts with Georgia.

Sunny Patch said...

This is incredibly informative and very helpful.
I'm a beginner and also live in central Florida (zone 9). I'm starting a container garden on my 2nd story patio.
You're blog helps me a lot. It's so nice to have useful tips and regular garden updates.

toni said...

This has been a very helpful amount of information for me. I just started growing veggies again this year after a period of a 20 year lapse. I started a garden here in Dunnellon this spring and am doing a lot of experimental crops. This info will help me with when to plant and what is best int his area.. thank you very much

Julie said...

Good enough to live on it's own tab!

Unknown said...

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