In a previous “Pete’s Place” column, I alluded to the two main choices for the vegetable grower during our sultry summers: try to grow from a limited number of choices or focus on soil-building for the fall.
Summers in Florida are best known for being a rainy season but may also include a dry stretch or two - or, more typically, they start off being quite dry. It is tough to prepare soil when it is as dry as this past June was, but after recent rains, there is ample soil moisture for tilling in organic matter or fertilizer. Weeds will also love the sudden surge of moisture, so stay on top of that with mulch or cultivation.
When dryness prevails, be on the lookout for spider mite damage on vegetable plants and fruit trees. Typical symptoms are yellow mottling or speckling of leaves and a fine webbing on the undersides of leaves. Take steps to control this highly-destructive pest with some combination of plain-water sprays, soap sprays, ultra-fine oils, or predator mites.
Let’s look at some specific choices for summer vegetable growing in central Florida. The two most commonly cited plants are okra and eggplant. Both not only tolerate the heat but prefer it, especially okra. The downsides are that they aren’t the most exciting of vegetables for many people and they can still be taking up space in the early fall when you may want that space for other things.
You can stretch the spring pepper crop into and even through summer with some varieties. Hot peppers seem to hold up especially well, as long as they do not get diseased. Container-growing some of your peppers is a good plan, whereby both overly dry and overly wet periods can be buffered. They love liquid kelp, by the way.
Any of the southern peas, the most common of which is the black-eyed pea, are easy to grow and are productive in the summer. There are many other interesting varieties to choose from and all are tasty and nutritious. They can also be dried, shelled, and stored for menus in cooler months when such things may hold more appeal.
Peas also help soils by fixing nitrogen, but they can be attractive to nematodes. Ways to deal with that problem are planting nematode-resistant varieties or a rotation strategy that makes your next planting a crop that is not susceptible to nematodes. (Click here for a good summary of the nematode issue, including resistant pea varieties.)
Another legume choice would be any of the "yard-long" or "asparagus" beans. To my knowledge, these all need staking. They can be highly-productive when happy. Don’t feel that three feet long is your goal. In fact, some types will get fibrous if not picked fairly young.
There are a number of tropical spinaches, or better termed “spinach substitutes", that can grow well in the hot months. These are typically vining plants of considerable size that can either sprawl or be staked. Malabar spinach (Basella spp.) is probably the best known and is quite tasty. There are others that come from the Amaranthus and Celosia families. Sweet potato (Ipomoea) leaves are edible, as are those of its relatives known by some as "water spinach", one form of which grows in water (the other is upland).
A research facility that has many such hot weather greens growing is ECHO in North Fort Myers. In fact, they have one of the largest collections of tropical food plants in the state. A tour is highly recommended!
Sweet potato grown for its roots is another choice. While home-grown sweet potatoes are wonderful, this plant will take up a large area for both summer and fall. It will also come back on its own next year from any missed pieces of root, becoming a potential problem.
Some home gardeners continue to try and grow tomatoes, particularly cherry tomatoes, in the summer. These small-fruited types are the only ones I can recommend right now, and even those do better in the spring or fall.
For your herb garden, basil is a good choice. I would recommend that basil-lovers utilize the warm to hot months for socking away all the pesto they need to get through the cool months, when basil growing is a much bigger challenge. Pesto can be the basis for many wonderfully tasty and nutritious feasts. We like to sauté veggies like zucchini, onion, pepper, and tomato to top off a plate of pesto-coated noodles. Add a sprinkling of toasted pumpkin seeds for something no five-star restaurant can match, especially if you grew everything yourself!
You could also take a break from planting in the summer and use this period of high biological activity to make compost and build up your soil’s organic matter, practices that will pay high dividends when you plant crops in the fall. Soil solarization is another practice best done in the hottest months. We’ll address the exciting fall gardening season in my next semi-monthly column, when it’ll be right around the corner.