Florida's vegetable gardening season begins during the fall months. Moderate temperatures make it easy to grow most familiar vegetables. In many areas of the state, residents do not even have to worry about killing frosts.
"There are nine months of great gardening ahead," says Tom Wichman, an extension agent with the Orange County Cooperative Extension Service in Orlando. "Summer crops are not always some of the favorites. Now we can grow what every gardener likes."
Fall gardens begin with the warm season plantings that include tomato, pepper, eggplant, squash and beans. Wichman says most have to be in the ground by the end of September to develop fruiting size plants before the arrival of cooler weather.
Many gardeners skip the hotter weather and wait until the cool season arrives in October to start the planting. According to Wichman this is a long season, lasting until the end of February. Some favorite vegetables that will not mind a little frost or light freeze include broccoli, cabbage, radishes, kohlrabi, carrots and spinach.
The cool season garden is followed by a repeat of the warm season plantings in March. It is another chance to grow the vegetables from early fall--- plus most of the melons, squashes and edible gourds.
When to Plant
Early Chinese farmers were quick to point out that timing of the plantings is important to the success of the crop. "Each vegetable has a season and it should not be missed," they said. That is an important point to remember today. Rule one of good gardening is learning when to plant the crops for the climate. Many gardeners rely on seed packets for this information, but in Florida these may not be the best source. Seed packet suggestions are often developed for planters in northern states.
A good source for Florida planting dates is the Vegetable Gardening Guide available from a county cooperative extension service office. The bulletin separates Florida into northern, central and southern regions, and gives relatively accurate planting times and culture instructions.
What to Plant
In our modern world of mixed cultures, it is sometimes difficult to determine what really encompasses Oriental crops. Traditionally these have been the edible plants cultivated by gardeners of Asian descent. But gardens of China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and neighboring countries today include both the old and new world crops.
Plantings of Chinese cabbage, daikon, kohlrabi and mizuna from Asia, grow intermingled with peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes from the Americas. All vegetables now grow in the Oriental garden; only the varietal names may differ from one country to another.
It is helpful to know that most related crops--- including all cabbages, broccoli and radishes--- are planted at the same time of the year. You sow their seeds or transplant them in the late fall and winter seasons. Many vegetable guides, however, list only popular crops and leave out classic Oriental favorites. For instance, you will not find mizuna listed in most guides. But if you can remember that it is a type of mustard, then your trusty Florida planting guide will rightly recommend planting dates of September through March for this vegetable.
This is not, however, a foolproof method. A few Asian crops can confuse you with their common names. For example: the Chinese spinach that is usually stir-fried or added to soups, is not a true spinach which thrives in colder months. In fact, it is an amaranthus and needs the warm to hot months of March through September to produce the tender leafy portions. Another vegetable, the winged bean, does not follow traditional spring season planting; it prefers the fall months of August through October. Your best bet, therefore, is to seek out and use specific planting
schedules, like the one provided with this article, for help with the crops most guides forget to include.
Today's harvests are a mixture of vegetables from around the world but some of the most popular planting techniques are totally of oriental descent. "Gardeners are rediscovering the very ancient methods of producing big yields in small spaces," says James Stephens, vegetable specialist at the University of Florida in Gainesville."You can call it square-foot or raised-bed culture, but it is really the century-old method of Asian intensive gardening. Oriental farmers plant every square inch of available space. They use square, block and patch designs to plant their crops. It is an age-old gardening technique for modern times."
Garden Space and Architecture
Urban gardeners do not have a lot of room and they are looking for an easy way to produce their crops. The size of the average garden nationwide has shrunk from 600 to about 200 square feet. Typical oriental gardens are three to four feet wide (just wide enough to reach to the middle to
plant, weed and harvest); and their lengths vary depending on the available space. These small, compact gardens are ideal for today's cramped backyards, patios, entrance areas and even for the walkways between adjoining properties.
Oriental gardens are usually constructed by mounding soil to produce six- inch (or higher) beds that ensure good drainage. The raised bed also helps put the crops in easy reach. Many gardeners today add landscape timbers to contain the mounded soil. The wide wooden edges keep the garden
neat and provide a place to sit while you work.
Other oriental gardens are constructed with a slightly concave bed, or ridge of soil around the edge, to help contain water during irrigation. This can be a valuable technique for local residents who find themselves watering every three to four days throughout the growing season.
"Enriching the soil is critical to traditional oriental gardens," says Stephens. "The ground is prepared with lots of organic matter like compost and manure, which provide the nutrients needed by most crops. Often these gardens are produced without additional fertilizer throughout the
Sandy Florida soils benefit greatly from the addition of organic matter. Decomposing plant portions and manure help hold moisture within the root zone of developing crops. This moisture conservation is particularly important during the drier times of the year, fall through spring.
Unlike the traditional oriental garden, many Florida gardens do need a little fertilizer worked in. A good balance of nutrients is ensured by incorporating up to two pounds of a 6-6-6 fertilizer for every 100 square feet of garden prepared for planting.
After tilling the organic matter and fertilizer with the soil, you are ready to plant. Oriental gardening techniques conserve space by planting crops close together. Seldom are wide rows left between vegetables--- instead plants are set next to each other with minimal spacings.
Crops are often planted in blocks. A planting of Chinese cabbage set eight to 12 inches apart, may abut winter onions with one to two inches between plants. Next to these crops might be plantings of edible pod peas trained to a trellis, and then some mustard. There are no rows between the crops, just between the beds.
Where possible, transplants are used to fill the beds. Starts of cabbage, broccoli or eggplant are usually four to six weeks old when they are set in the garden. They can be used to quickly fill a space vacated by a recently harvested planting of winter melon, yard-long beans or peppers. Using transplants helps keep the garden productive at all times.
Some crops are better seeded, either because they grow very quickly from seed or because they are just difficult to transplant. You might consider planting a block of carrots or radishes across the bed. Try to give the seeds a spacing of a few inches but don't worry if they land close
Carrots and radishes can be pulled for use when the roots begin to swell. The first harvests serve to thin the crops. The remaining plants should be left at a four- to six-inch spacing to produce the bigger roots for later harvests.
Raising a garden to feed the family does take a little time. Plan to spend at least five to ten minutes each day looking, tilling and guiding plant growth. Keep the vining crops up off the ground and trained to a trellis to conserve room. Also pull a few weeds and pick off the plant feeding bugs. Then do not forget to harvest the crops as they ripen to keep the crops producing.
Extension Agent Tom Wichman offers a few more tips to have a productive oriental garden over the next nine months:
- Replant the garden as soon as one crop ends.
- Try companion plantings of beans and corn, or radishes and carrots to make maximum use of
- Keep tall or trellised crops to the north side of the garden.
- Allow the surface soil to only dry to the touch between waterings.
- Maintain a two- to three-inch mulch layer of hay, compost or leaves.
- Feed the garden monthly with manure or a 6-6-6 fertilizer.
- Use soaps and other natural controls for pests.
The gardening season does not end when summer begins but many Florida residents find these few months a convenient time to take a break. The weather is typically hot and the almost-daily rains make pest control difficult. Remember, however, that some of your favorite vegetables like the
summer weather. Vegetables including bitter melon, Chinese okra, jicama and yard-long beans thrive during the summer. Finally, one last tip: grow the cherry tomato, sweet potato, chayote and calabaza squash to complete 12 good months of Florida gardening.