Greetings, and welcome to Pete’s Place, where I’ll be offering an ongoing series of columns on seasonal food-growing tips for west-central Florida. In a larger sense, this column will represent one of the Transition Movement’s central themes: that of helping people to become more self-reliant and less of a cog in the wheel of an unsustainable industrial agriculture and consumer culture. When you add the amount of waste, inefficiencies, and consumption in modern human society to the excessive amount of people, it equals the mess we are in as a species and as a biosphere.
For those who don’t know me, I’ve been growing my own food organically and selling the surplus for nearly 40 years in the Manatee-Sarasota area. I graduated from the University of Florida in 1976 with an agricultural degree in the specific major of vegetable crops. I am also the only vendor to have been at the downtown Sarasota Farmers Market since its inception in 1979. You can find other articles I’ve written on this topic in Edible Sarasota.
But as the saying goes: enough about me… let’s get on with the food growing.
It’s mid-April, a time of transition in food growing hereabouts. We are moving away from the cool season - fall, winter, and early spring crops - and into the warm season of late spring, summer, and early fall. Spring vegetable crops that are intended to finish up before the real heat, rain, bugs, and plant disease of summer set in should be well along now, so it is really too late to be starting things like tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, squash, and cucumbers. If you had good-sized tomato and pepper plants, they could be planted out and probably make something of a crop, but it would have been better to do this a month or more ago. The others I mentioned are generally direct-seeded, so it is definitely too late for that.
There are two basic choices at this point of the year for the vegetable gardener in this region. One choice would be to look at the limited choices vegetable-wise that can take the summer conditions and choose what appeals to you. The second would be to focus on soil-building and aim for planting in the late summer or early fall.
Eggplants are among the fruits and veggies that can tolerate the brutal Florida summer.
Keep in mind that, depending when one starts these crops, they could still be producing in September and thus delay your fall planting, especially if your space is limited.
The second choice involves a range of strategies to build your soil’s organic matter and nutrient content. The summer’s high temperatures and rainfall make it ideal for the fast breakdown of organic matter. One could work in compost, leaves, manures, or any other natural material, boosting the organic content that is lacking in almost all Florida soils.
Alternatively, one could simply pile on a deep mulch of such material along with hay, leaves, or grass clippings, and let it enrich the soil from the bottom as it breaks down slowly. This strategy also blocks weed-seed entry. So the second choice represents more of a delayed gratification by concentrating on getting your garden as ready as possible for the main fall-winter-spring growing season.
Many local commercial organic growers use summer off-season cover crops to crowd out weeds and serve as a “green manure” when tilled into the soil. Some examples for our area could be sesbania, Sudan grass, or Southern peas, the latter also providing some food if you care to pick them. The peas, however, are also known for being nematode-friendly, so not a good choice for sandy soils low in organic matter, unless you choose nematode-resistant varieties.
This time of year, mid-April, is a good time to start planting fruit trees.
Be sure to make up for any lack of rainfall by watering newly-set trees until the rainy season kicks in. Fertilization should start a month or so after planting and follow a regular schedule thereafter. Consult Sarasota County Extension’s literature and other successful growers for varietal selection and best care practices for your chosen fruits. The Tropical Fruit Society of Sarasota is also a good source for inspiration and growing help for novices.