Pete’s Place: Let the Planting Begin!

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As we welcome the gradual lowering of summer’s heat and humidity, it's time to get in your fall and winter crops. The longer-lived items will also spill over into spring. For newcomers to this area, this is our primary growing season - or seasons - of the year.

Hopefully, your summer crops are winding down, or you saved space for all the goodies that can be planted now. Let’s specifically itemize these crops. Think first of salad greens: lettuces, arugula, chicories (such as escarole, endive, and raddichio), or any of the baby mesclun-type greens, usually species coming from the mustard family. The mustard family itself is wide-ranging and includes regular mustard greens, turnips, and most oriental greens like bok choy, tat soi, and Chinese cabbage.

Be sure to leave room for the healthy and tasty cabbage family, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, kale, and collards. Spinach, chard, and beets are part of another popular family. Other root crops are carrots, radishes, and onions. Anything in the onion family (such as scallions, leeks, and sweet onions) also works - except for garlic, which is tough to grow in our climate. Be sure to choose short-day onions for sweet onions or any onion that you want to bulb here in the winter. Potatoes will work, but do not plant them after about mid-October. Peas - from the regular shelling type to snow peas and snap peas - are gourmet treats that are not hard to grow in cool weather.

Don’t forget the culinary herbs! Most of these prefer the cooler and drier conditions of fall through spring. A notable exception is basil, which will do fine as long as it is reasonably warm, but will falter in cold weather. If you grow your winter basil in a large pot, you can easily shelter it on cold nights and have basil year-round.

Strawberries deserve a little space if you can obtain good quality plants of Florida-adapted varieties. One called “Festival” is probably the most common these days. Get your strawberries planted in October or early November, and be sure they get ample water to get established. They will also need extra-high fertility to produce well through their many months in the ground.

Direct seed or transplant? Looking back at everything I mentioned above, the only ones I would direct seed are peas, radishes, and carrots. The potatoes, of course, go in as pieces of potato or small potatoes, and the strawberries as plants. Beets can be done either way. If you plan to grow a lot of your own food, it really pays to have a seed starting area and the materials and know-how to grow your own transplants. (This may be the subject for a future “Pete’s Place" column.)

So we’ve learned what to plant now, but I haven’t said much about technique. To cover that, I’d like to reprint here my popular “Most Common Mistakes of Florida Food Gardeners” article. Until next time, happy and productive gardening!

Most Common Mistakes of Florida Food Gardeners (In No Particular Order)

  1. Insufficient Sun: Most food crops require at least a half-day of direct sun in order to produce normally. You may need to do some removal or trimming of competing vegetation, or look for a more open spot. Be sure to take into consideration the lower winter sun.
  2. Insufficient Nutrients: Most Florida soils are highly deficient in the nutrients that food crops need. It is up to you to add ample major and minor plant nutrients, and then continue to do so for every future crop. Start by getting your soil tested and knowing the nutritional value of everything you amend the soil with. New cropland will need to be mineralized (greensand, granite dust, seaweed products, Fertrell, minor element mixtures, etc.) in addition to being fertilized in the conventional sense with N-P-K. Regarding the latter, all manures and composts are NOT equal, so learn and try to find the most potent.
  3. Insufficient Organic Matter: Most Florida soils are also highly lacking in organic matter, essential for many things, including holding onto and slowly releasing nutrients and water. By fertilizing with manures and/or quality compost, you are taking care of both nutrients and organic matter simultaneously. Building organic matter is a cornerstone of success!
  4. Ignorance of pH: You must get a soil test to know the acid-alkaline balance of your soil. Sample the area randomly and mix that all together. If it is not ideal (slightly acidic, for most food crops), there are easy ways to fix that. Further, by knowing the pH preferences of various crops, you will have a good clue as to what will grow the best in whatever pH soil you have.
  5. Not Mulching: An organic mulch works wonders for water retention, weed control, gradual nutrient and organic matter improvement, and general appearance. At least put down mulched pathways between beds. You may want to go a step further and mulch around all the plants in the beds or rows.
  6. Improper Watering: Learn the varying water needs of whatever crops you are growing and provide the right amount. Too much is as bad as not enough. Further, some crops prefer overhead and some prefer a drip method. Take maximum advantage of rainfall by closely observing weather forecasts.
  7. Insufficient Attention to Pests and Diseases: Best practices in other areas can minimize but not eliminate the need for pest and disease control. Be vigilant and learn to recognize the likely problems and their tell-tale signs. Learn to recognize the presence of beneficial insects and avoid even certain natural sprays if beneficials are numerous. When intervention is called for, know what natural sprays or other controls to employ and do some on a timely basis. If a disease strikes, identify it, then look for built-in genetic resistance in the varieties you choose. Rotate where you plant what, with special attention to rotating tomato family, cucurbit family, and cabbage family crops.
  8. Poor Weed Control: Weeds can and will result in major yield reductions if not controlled. Remember, mulching is a big help here.
  9. Planting Too Close: To maximize yields, know the proper spacing for whatever you are growing and provide it. It may look like a lot when the plants are tiny but visualize them at full size.
  10. Poor Calendar Management: Especially for those new to Florida, learn the proper planting times for the various crops by consulting Sarasota County Extension pamphlets or experienced gardeners.
  11. Not Making Repeat Plantings: Especially for the cool season, the practice of making repeated plantings can enable you to have your favorite crops for months on end, as opposed to just for a few weeks.
  12. Not Protecting From Frost: Here in central or south Florida, it is tempting to try and grow cold-sensitive crops year-round. If you do, you must protect them on nights when frost is likely. Either grow only cold-hardy crops or make the effort to cover them up (or bring them inside, for container plants). This also applies to tropical fruit trees, of course.