Question: It looks like ants ate a hole in my tomato! And something’s
chewing up the leaves of my zucchini. Help!
Answer: Hi there. I really doubt that ants at a hole in your tomato. Most likely another creature (probably a hornworm) ate a hole in the tomato and now the ants are enjoying eating from the hole that other creature made. Since the first creature that made the hole damaged or removed the protective skin, smaller creatures like ants now have easier access to the sugars of the tomato.
It is important to keep a lookout for signs of worm damage on leaves, flowers and fruit. If you notice something eating your tomato plants there are a couple steps you can take.
- If you notice big worms remove them by hand.
- If you notice small worms (usually under leaves or within curled leaves) cut of leaves or parts of the plant that are affected.
- Spray with organic pesticide BT (bacillus thuringiensis)
As for the zucchini, it is probably also worms and repeat the same steps for worms on the tomatoes.
Also when watering both tomatoes and zucchini it is best to use a drip irrigation system without overhead watering or if using a hose, to water the soil and avoid getting water on the leaves. This will reduce unwanted diseases, pests, mold, bacteria and fungi.
As a general rule for dealing with any pests creating problems in your garden, I recommend starting with manual methods of control such as rubbing off pests by hand, removing affected leaves (or parts of plants), or spraying off with a hose sprayer. Most garden pests never really become a problem if they’re noticed early and dealt with before they get beyond control.
In our experience, the most noxious veggie garden pests in South Florida are caterpillars, aphids, whitefly, snails and leafminers.
We use an organic pesticide call Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) for caterpillars and other foliage-feeding worms. The agent is a bacterium that infects the pests and kills them. This pesticide can be sprayed weekly on plants such as tomatoes, eggplant, mustards. Spraying early morning or late evening is best as it evaporates quickly. It is also helpful to regularly examine tomato plants closely to see if there is damage being done by caterpillars. Look for folded over, eaten, or missing leaves. As your gardening experience increases, these observations will come easier. Always remove a caterpillar by hand and destroy or relocate it when discovered.
For aphids and whitefly we use an organic pesticide called M-Pede. It is especially designed to kill soft-bodied insects, but you must spray it directly on the pest. It will not work preventatively like the Bt. Usually whitefly and aphids reside on the undersides of leaves and in the center of the growing tips so that is the where one should focus the spraying. For white fly, which will be on peppers and tomatoes, it is best to spray in the early evening or early morning when they are less active and hanging to the leaves.
For snails we use and easily obtained bait called Sluggo. We have already sprinkled it around the garden, but should a snail or slug problem arise, organic snail baits are usually easy to find at the amazon.com, Home Depot or gardening stores, as well as BT.
Question: I’m getting a late start on my backyard garden. What can I plant
now that it’s cooler? And what can I plant in the springtime that can grow
when it gets warmer?
It isn’t too late to get a good season of cool weather veggies and herbs now. Sometimes planting cool-weather crops in September or October can be too early as there is still a significant threat of extreme heat and hard rain. Often planting for cool weather in November, December or January is a safer time with less risk of failure. It is a good time to plant almost all crops planted in the cool season here, including most herbs, leafy greens, fruiting veggies (like tomatoes, peppers, beans and eggplant) and root veggies (like carrots, radish and turnips).
In the springtime when it gets warmer you can still plant a lot but the options are more limited. It is good to try cucumbers, melons, sweet potato and other tropical/heat tolerant veggies and herbs. Many off the cool weather plants can grow through spring and sometimes through summer if established and healthy.
In the warm season it is a good idea to plant cover crops to enrich the soil and suppress weeds in the veggie gardens and to focus on tropical fruit trees and heat tolerant perrenial greens (katuk, cranberry hibiscus, Okinawa spinach, calaloo etc) outside of the main veggie garden area.
What are the specifics of how to start a food forest?
Like with all edible gardens, usually the starting point of installation lies in choosing the location. Ideally the food forest will be planted in a space with full sun, rich-well draining soil, and ideally away from large trees with aggressive root systems (banyan trees as an example). If the soil isn’t rich it can later be improved with the addition of compost, organic fertilizer, and mulch, however, it is important that the site receives at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight throughout the whole year. Trimming trees that make shade is one way to create more light for a site. Also bear in mind that once fruit trees become taller they will receive more light.
Once the site is chosen, one should decide on the overall size and shape of the food forest, particularly the outer edge. It is often a good idea to mark the edge on the ground using a shovel, hoe, or a hose (particularly helpful for planning large curved edges). At this point, it’s good to decide the placement of the fruit trees and larger growing plants. As a general rule, the tallest plants should be positioned on the north side of the food forest. Often the size and shape of the food forest will be determined by the amount and type of fruit trees planted, and the amount of space one would like for growing the other edible plants by the fruit trees.
The next step is preparing the soil for planting. There are multiple approaches to doing this. Often the sunny areas of sites will be lawns or have non-edible, ornamental plants planted on them.
When it comes to the existing lawn on a food forest site, one has the option to physically remove the grass (using heavy duty shovels or hoes) or sheet-mulching, a process of killing the grass by covering it with cardboard or paper (non-glossy). It can also be a combination of these, manually removing the grass in areas where fruit trees are to be planted and sheet-mulching the areas in between.
When in comes to existing non-edible plants on an existing food forest site, one needs to decide whether to remove all of them or to leave some to be integrated with the edible plants of the food forest. Non-edible ornamental plants can enhance the overall aesthetics of a food forest but they also take up space that otherwise could be used for edible plants. Also consider integrating plants that may not be edible for humans but are edible for wildlife (many of which are “native” plants).
The next choice one has is whether to till the soil or not. Either choice has its advantages and disadvantages. Tilling is particularly useful in areas where the soil has a lot of roots, is rocky, and/or compacted. Manual tools used for this are pick axes, shovels and heavy-duty hoes. Roots from nearby trees can compete for nutrients with the food forest’s edible plants, so it is often nice to reduce this competition by removing roots in a food forest site. Another option for those that would rather not till the entire food forest site would be to till the perimeter and the areas where the fruit trees are planted. Tilling too much can also disturb the existing biology of the soil.
The next step is to bring in additional compost/organic fertilizer, particularly for sites that lack fertility which have usually sandy or rocky soil. When planting fruit trees, a good idea to make a hole a bit larger than the existing root ball of the tree. This is usually done with a shovel and a pick axe, and sometimes a digging bar (when particularly rocky). If adding compost to the hole for the tree, it is a good idea not to add too much, generally 50% or more of the mix in the hole should be existing soil, and 50% or less should be compost. Additional compost can also be added in a ring surrounding the fruit tree, typically at a distance reflective of the fruit trees dripline.
Now its time to plant, usually a food forest consists of a selection of fruit trees, perennials, annuals and cover crops. I recommend starting with the largest plants first, then the medium plants. After the large and medium plants are in the ground, it is a good time to mulch the site. After the site is mulched, it is easy to plant small plants, seeds, and cuttings moving the mulch out of the way when necessary. Watering both before and after planting is recommended. Now the installation is complete!
In terms of caring for the food forest in the time immediately following the installation, the main task will be to make sure the food forest receives enough water. In our rainy summers, many days one may not have to water their food forest. However at least for the first month after planting the food forest will still need to be watered on days when it doesn’t rain or doesn’t rain much.
Besides watering, the main care that the food forest will require will be pest management, harvesting, pruning and periodically adding mulch/organic fertilizer.
Sources for food forest plants:
Plant Matter – (sold at Upper East Side Farmers market, Sat., 9-2 at Legion’s Park) – plantmatter.net, firstname.lastname@example.org, 305-336-0722
I’ve been reading about food forests. What does that mean for us in South Florida?
In South Florida we are blessed with the ability to grow food all year long. Gardeners are able to shift their focus from planting cool weather veggies and herbs in fall, winter, and early spring to planting tropical edible plants in our late spring and summer.
Our late spring and summer is very rainy, hot and humid. It is a time when most cool weather greens and herbs don’t grow very well, if at all, but gardening can still go on. South Florida is one of the few places in the U.S. where tropical plants thrive. Food forests are a way of gardening which allow tropical plants (mostly edible ones) to coexist in a garden design that is closer to nature than traditional edible gardens.
In nature there are many ecosystems, and many are found in forests. Forests have plants of many shapes and sizes. There are also microclimates within forests which can favor or disfavor species through variations, of sun, wind, temperature, and moisture.
Food forests have plants of many shapes and sizes too. Big trees, small trees, bushes, climbing vines, sprawling ground covers, exist in food forests but mostly as edible fruit, vegetable and herb plants. There are also plants that are edible to insects and other wildlife as well as plants that feed the web of life in the soil.
Food forests are food-producing systems that generally require less maintenance, mostly due to the fact that most of the plants are perennial and don’t need to be replanted every year as you find in annual veggie/herb gardens. Also as food forests mature, they shade the ground more so there is little weeding and less of a need for irrigation.
For those of you that are interested in starting your own food forest in South Florida, I recommend learning about different tropical fruits if you don’t already know. My favorites are banana, papaya, passion fruit, mango, avocado, lychees, star fruit, star apple, custard apple, white sapote, black sapote, guava and mulberry. Citrus are prone to getting problems with citrus greening, so I recommend not planting citrus, or at least not a lot. Once you know which tropical fruit trees you want to plant, it is time to lay them out.
The tallest-growing fruit trees should be positioned to the north of the space, and the lower plants toward the south end. Vines should be planted along fences, arbors, or trees that can be used as a trellis. Next, there should be thought into what gets planted in the spaces in between. I really like sweet potato as ground cover in the sunnier parts of the food forest, tropical spinaches/greens in the shadier areas, and nitrogen-fixing cover crops in areas that are marginal or with soil that need improvement.
Food forests are often larger in area than annual gardens. Mulching becomes very important as a way to control weeds and build the fertility of the soil. Pruning, harvesting and mulching is the main work required in maintaining food forests. Limestone rocks and logs can be used to define paths and planting beds. If you want an automatic watering system for your food forest, sprinklers on tall risers are the way to go, as they don’t get in the way as much and can cover large distances.
Once established, food forests become very productive and are a wonderful addition to the landscape.
This fall, I’m planning to do my first edible garden. I have a sunny space in my backyard. Is there anything I can do now to prepare my garden?
First of all, you write that you are “planning” on doing your first edible garden, but have you “planned” your garden? It is one thing to say that you are going to do an edible garden, and another to say HOW you are going to do your edible garden. Many gardeners jump right into gardening without a clear plan for their garden. This can be ok for some, and beginner’s luck is a phenomenon that exists in certain gardening situations, but by and large it is helpful to generate some sort of plan, even if it isn’t a plan executed at once. Developing the right plan for your edible garden depends on the amount of space (soil, sun exposure, proximity to kitchen, etc) and the amount of work that you want to invest into its installation and maintenance.
As I mentioned earlier, summer is an excellent time to improve your soil and have it ready for fall planting. I recommend doing this by adding compost, mulch and planting cover crops like buckwheat, sunn hemp and pigeon pea. Remember, NOW is the best time to plant fruit trees, so if you want to include fruit trees in your edible landscape consider planting them while we have the rain and warmth of our summer weather.
Consider having your bed(s) for annual vegetables and herbs in an area close to your kitchen door, or for those of you with shady backyards but sun up front, consider having a garden close to your front door. Placing your veggie/herb bed(s) in areas that you’ll see on a daily basis will result in you using your garden more, as well as taking better care of it. Also, having your garden in front makes your garden into more of a social experience, and can lead to other neighbors gardening more and having great produce trades.
For everyone who goes out of town on a regular basis, or just doesn’t have the time to water their garden sufficiently, it can be wise to consider having an irrigation system, particularly for your annual bed. Systems of drip lines and micro-sprayers are particularly water-wise for annual garden beds. Setting up rainwater collection systems are also well worth considering. Having an irrigation system ready for the dry part of the year in late fall-early spring will generally make your garden more productive, especially in planted areas that receive full sun for most of the day. Both under-watering and over-watering gardens can lead to unhappy plants. Irrigation systems can help provide regularity to your watering schedule.
I live in a condo that has a terrace with plenty of eastern exposure. What would grow best in containers?
In condos, the main limiting factors are the amount of light, the amount of wind, irrigation, and the amount of soil that your containers can hold. If your patio only receives eastern exposure (morning light) I would only recommend leafy greens and herbs. Fruiting plants are much more productive when receiving sun for the majority of the day. For people with balconies with longer sun exposure, consider also trying fruiting crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Citrus and figs are fruit trees that can do pretty well in appropriately sized containers, whereas most fruit trees really need to be planted in the ground to be productive. If you are not having luck growing certain edible plants on your balcony, you likely have inadequate light, too much wind, inadequate irrigation and/or containers that are too small. I would start with Mediterranean herbs (rosemary, oregano, sage, etc.) and add on from there.
Whenever I plant grocery-store herb plants, they last a week or two before withering and dying. What am I doing wrong?
You might be doing one or more of the following:
- Not planting is soon enough.
- Not watering correctly (too little or too much)
- Not giving them enough light.
- Not buying plants that are in season (many grocery stores and places like home depot have plants for sale during times of the year that are improper for planting them.
My backyard just doesn’t get enough sun for a garden. Are there any low-light edible plants I can grow?
Yes, generally plants that are grown for the leaf can tolerate more shade than plants that are grown for the fruit. Remember, if your backyard isn’t an ideal spot for your garden, maybe your front yard would be better! Also, if trees are creating the majority of the shade, consider trimming them to increase sun exposure.
Q: What are the benefits of edible gardening?
A: Through edible gardening, one becomes connected to where food comes from. This fights against a trend that has dominated the globe. By-and-large, people don’t think about where food comes from, or they see food as coming from a factory away out of sight rather than from their everyday surroundings. Being connected to where food comes from gives people a sense of trust and a newfound appreciation in what they eat. It is no secret that homegrown food typically tastes better.
I feel comfortable assuming that most people that garden end up eating more fresh produce in their diets than non-gardeners. The nutritional benefits of high vegetable and fruit diets are well known. The more varied the selection of food, the wider the range of nutrients consumed. Gardeners also tend to eat a wider variety of fruits and vegetables than non-gardeners.
Most of all, growing food is fun. In addition to connecting people to nature, it creates community and celebration. There is the rejuvenation of being outdoors and getting your hands dirty. There is the anticipation of harvests, or the triumph over a garden pest; or the pride of growing your own. For many it is the bountiful beauty of a healthy organic garden.
Since most food we buy travels an average 1500 miles to get to our table, an edible garden in our backyard can save a lot of fossil fuels. Edible gardening is often the best and simplest way to reduce your impact on the environment.
Q:If I want to create a landscape reduces my impact on the environment, shouldn’t I just plant natives?
A: Native plants are planted to primarily create habitat for wildlife and reduce the need to water. However, most yards are so small that there is often little benefit by planting only natives. The real environmental damage is not by the native habitat displaced by cities and suburbs themselves, but by the habitat displaced by the support network of cities such as monoculture farms, industrialized forests, grazing land, mines, factories, and military bases. Reducing our dependence on these supports of modern society can benefit natural habitats far greater than planting a yard made up entirely of natives.
Growing a large amount of one’s produce is one of the best ways of doing this. Its even better if one can grow the majority of their produce while providing habitat for wildlife simultaneously. Also, remember that plant species are constantly migrating to an extent, and that almost every species that we consider to be “native”, wasn’t “native” at one point in time. Also, remember that “exotic” plants aren’t necessarily invasive.
Q: What is the best way to protect gardens from the cold?
A: When the weather forecast is predicting temperatures in the low forties or thirties (deg F) you’ll want to provide cold protection for certain types of edible plants. One might not expect this, but watering well the night of cold temperatures is one of the most effective ways to protect plants from cold. Watering thoroughly allows the soil to hold its heat for longer than dry soil.
Also, if your crops are together in a raised bed it is easy to lay a cloth or blanket over a frame. Frames can be simple, using slender pipes or branches to create a domed frame over your garden is often the easiest way to protect your plants from the cold. You want to avoid crushing or bending the plants with the fabric, but the closer it is to the soil and plants, the better the insulation effect. Fruiting vegetables, such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and cucumber are the most frost susceptible. Of herbs I find that cilantro and basil like the cold least.
You might also want to protect tropical fruit trees from the cold. These can similarly be watered thouroughly the nights of cold temperatures, and covered in fabric. If the tree is too large to cover, it can be helped by wrapping fabric around the trunk.
Q: Why do people grow gardens in raised beds?
A: Raised bed gardens are ideal for growing vegetables and herbs because they help to contain the soil (prevent erosion), are easier to keep free of weeds and being raised, they make it easier on the back. Since you don’t usually walk inside of them, not only will you not compact the soil, but you can use every square foot for planting plants instead of having paths. The sides also help to keep pets out of the garden. In addition, raised beds allow soil to drain better, which promotes healthy root growth in many edible plants.
Q: I want an edible landscape that requires little work from me but provides a lot of food, what approach would you recommend? Is this possible?
A: Yes, this is definitely possible, but it requires an approach that contradicts almost everything done in conventional landscaping. The key for this is to strive to have a garden that mimics natural ecosystems… Our planet’s pristine natural habitats, though changing some over time, generally don’t require maintenance from people to thrive. The soil stays replenished and full of life, predators control pests naturally, and there are a plethora of microclimates that offer near perfect conditions for a wide variety of plants.
Now how can this apply to a garden in an urban or suburban area? No matter how hard we can strive for this, one isn’t going to create true wilderness in their backyard. Nor is a true backyard wilderness able to produce much in the way of food, though there are quite a few edible wild plants. What is important are the principles learned from observing natural ecosystems. These principles can be applied and adjusted to reduce the amount of work needed for an abundant edible garden.
First of all, try to reduce the amount of organic matter leaving your landscape. In nature, mulch occurs naturally from falling leaves, twigs and branches. In your yard, one can do the same thing. Also, try to not have your entire edible landscape in full sun. There are plenty of edible plants that will prefer to grow in shadier conditions. For instance, one can plant many fruit trees in sunny parts of their yard and grow a wide variety of vegetables and herbs underneath them. Fruit trees also don’t have to be replanted every year like many vegetables and herbs, so it is wise to consider making them a part of your landscape in a more permanent way.
Generally speaking, the more perennials rather than annuals planted in your edible landscape, the less replanting one will need to do. Also, the better the soil is protected from the sun, wind and rain, the better it will keep moist. Planting plants that improve soil fertility can lessen the need for fertilization. These practices among others can reduce the amount of work considerably.
Q: How should I arrange my edible landscape?
A: It makes most sense to have the most labor intensive plants, such as annual vegetables and herbs as close as possible to your home, followed by the more low maintenance perennials and trees further from the home. Also, remember that one can make better use of sunlight by having taller trees on the north end and smaller plants on the south end of the property. Also remember that the understory of trees is the perfect environment for planting more shade tolerant plants, especially in the middle of summer when many plants are stressed or killed by full sun exposure.
Also, although we don’t have too much change in elevation in South Florida, there definitely is some, and changes in elevation allow for water to flow from the higher points to the lower points. If a yard has a continuous slope to it water will tend to flow from it to the next yard, or into the street, wherever the elevation is lower. What is very exciting is that the land can be shaped in certain ways that will collect water, which generally results in more nutrients and a healthier soil. One can do this by digging swales (lower trenches to collect water) and berms (higher ridges to stop the water from flowing and allow it to percolate in the soil. These are generally created linearly and perpendicular to the slope of the land. In these mini water reservoirs in one’s yard, one can plant a wide variety of water loving edible plants. Another good idea is to create a pond for aquatic plants and fish. One can naturally replenish the water for the pond from a rain barrel connected to a gutter with a hose running from it to the pond.
Q: Should I till my soil?
A: Tilling soil improves soil fertility in the short term, but over the long term it reduces fertility. It is also very labor intensive. I recommend tilling areas that haven’t been cultivated for a while primarily for removing tree roots and for breaking up larger rocks. Once this has been done I recommend to not till, or to till as minimally as possible mainly for the purpose of removing weeds. If a large tree’s roots are encroaching into your garden, one option is to do a deep till in a narrow straight line to break the roots, while allowing the majority of the gardens soil to remain untilled. If one incorporates plenty of organic matter (compost and manure) into the soil, and mulches well, worms and other beneficial microbes will do a great job of improving soil fertility and the garden will require very little additional fertilization. Also planting cover crops helps create organic matter for the soil, returns nutrients lost and can help to aerate soil with their often-deep root systems.
Q: What is the best way to get organic matter for my garden?
A: Rich compost can be bought from various companies in Miami, and can be obtained for free from the City of Miami Composting Facility on Virginia Key. Horse manure can be loaded directly into your truck at various horse farms around Miami (check horse country). Also, mulch can be obtained for free or cheaply from different tree trimming services that’d gladly deliver it right to your home. In many neighborhoods it is easy to find large bags of leaves in trash piles. These are very easy to pick up and make great mulch. What are all those people thinking raking up those leaves when they can have it as mulch for free!
Q: If I want to create a landscape that mimics nature, shouldn’t I just plant natives?
A: Native plants are planted to primarily create habitat for wildlife and reduce the need to water. However, most yards are so small that there is often little benefit by planting only natives. The real environmental damage is not by the native habitat displaced by cities and suburbs themselves, but by the habitat displaced by the support network of cities such as monoculture farms, industrialized forests, grazing land, mines, factories, and military bases. Reducing our dependence on these supports of modern society can benefit natural habitats far greater than planting a yard made up entirely of natives. Growing a large amount of one’s produce is one of the best ways of doing this. Its even better if one can grow the majority of their produce while providing habitat for wildlife simultaneously. Also, remember that plant species are constantly migrating to an extent, and that almost every species that we consider to be “native”, wasn’t “native” at one point in time. Also, remember that “exotic” plants aren’t necessarily invasive.
Q: What are your favorite edible plants that can be harvested in the summer?
A: Fruits: mango, papaya, lychee, banana, carambola (starfruit) and passionfruit. However, there are many others that I know I like but haven’t been able to plant much of yet to eat with regularity.
Vegetables (annuals and perennials): Cranberry hibiscus, chaya, ginger, Haitian basket vine, katuk, hot peppers, sweet potato, Malabar spinach, Okinawa spinach, calalu, and yard long bean.
Herbs: Basil, chives, epazote, oregano, Cuban oregano, rosemary, sage, and stevia.
Cover Crops: Comfrey, Sunn Hemp, buckwheat, cowpea, and pigeon pea.
Q: What are the main considerations when starting an edible garden?
A: There are many things that should be well thought over prior to starting an edible garden. Here are some:
- The amount of time one can dedicate to the garden – It is a waste of time, energy and resources if one chooses to plant high maintenance edible plants and cannot properly maintain them. If you are one of those people that cannot commit to regular watering, weeding, mulching and fertilizing consider crops that require very little care. You can also hire Ready-to-Grow Gardens for maintenance help and install an irrigation system to limit the need for manual watering. There are many edible perennials, herbs and fruit trees that are low maintenance. As a whole, traditional vegetable production is high maintenance.
- Sun exposure in one’s garden site – Most edible plants grow best with as much sunlight as possible. Many will tolerate part sun or filtered light, but won’t grow as successfully. Only a few prefer less sun. For a late fall to early spring garden, it is particularly important to have sun exposure from the south. If you don’t know how to find this, get a compass or map, find where south is in relation to your property, and look for a site where you can see a lot of open sky in that direction.
- Growing what one wants to eat – Through the edible garden experience one often discovers an affinity to many tastes not appreciated or never tried before, such as sorrel, collards, kale, lemon balm, lemongrass, boniato, calalu, tropical spinach, okra, and nasturtium. For someone just starting out with gardening, I recommend growing crops that are definitely going to be appreciated at the table like basil, cilantro, dill, parsley, celery, eggplant, lettuce, and tomato. Eventually one can increase the variety in their garden but it is almost always recommended that one try a plant before deciding to grow it, unless of course one is like myself and enjoys eating nearly everything.
- Soil Fertility/existing competitors – There are some edible plants that thrive in infertile soil, but by far most prefer to grow in soil rich in organic matter, with a balance of good drainage and water holding ability. Most soil in south Florida is sandy and largely infertile, and greatly benefits from incorporating compost and mulch. If one is planning a garden close to large trees, I advise checking for the presence of large roots, and if found, removing them. Roots from large trees can be very aggressive and make the health of your garden suffer through competing for nutrients and water in the soil.
Q: How does one control garden pests?
A: In the cool part of the year, pests are a relatively minor issue. But with the onset of warmer weather, they can wreak havoc on gardens. As a proponent of organic gardening, I strongly advise others to resist the temptation to use chemical sprays. Organic sprays can be used, many of which are made up of natural soaps, onion, garlic, and/or hot pepper. Some insects can be effectively removed by hand, or by spraying with a hose forcefully.
However, more so than medicating your plants once they have problems, I strongly recommend on focusing on growing as healthy plants as possible through providing excellent growing conditions and choosing plants well adapted to our climate. Healthy plants tend to be much more resilient to insect attack than ones that weren’t growing well to begin with.
Planting polycultures, or a variety of plants planted together can also help to keep insects at bay. Many fragrant herbs help to deter pests, as do marigolds. But most importantly, having healthy soil full of microbial activity is the key to preventing pest problems. This also goes for nematodes, microorganisms than eat the roots of plants. There are actually good types of fungus that trap nematodes before they can get to feast on innocent plant roots. Another way to prevent nematode attacks is to grow in containers.
Q: Lately its been getting really hot. Is it possible for my South Florida garden to be productive into Summer?
A: Both yes and no. Yes if you are open to growing heat tolerant plants but no if all you want to grow are cool weather crops. The use of shade cloth draped over your garden can help to extend the season for some of the heat-sensitive cool weather crops. There are plenty of tasty heat tolerant plants, its just a matter of being open to learning what they are, trying them, and planting the ones you like most.
Some gardeners opt for the low maintenance approaches of planting cover crops and solarizing their gardens in the warmer part of year.
Cover crops are plants that are planted to increase the fertility (nutrient/beneficial microbes content) and tilth (physical structure) of the soil, and to suppress the growth of unwanted weeds (see below for more info). Solarization is basically covering gardens with plastic to trap heat, and essentially “cook” the soil. Although this is effective for controlling the growth of weeds, it also disturbs or kills beneficial microbes, which can be very helpful for plant growth and fighting diseases and certain pests.
Q: What can’t I grow in the heat?
A: Definitely not any of the “cool season crops” and the less heat tolerant “warm season crops”. These included arugula, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cilantro, cucumbers, dill, kale, lettuce, nasturtium, parsley, snow peas, most sweet peppers, most types of tomato (large varieties are less heat tolerant than small varieties), etc. As mentioned earlier, some of these could be grown for longer than usual if planted in a location with more shade. The use of “shade cloth” can be effective for this.
Q: What can I grow in the heat?
Vegetables/Herbs: Surprising to some, a wide variety of vegetables and herbs thrive in South Florida’s very warm part of the year. These include basil, chayote, chives, cranberry hibiscus, eggplant, epazote (reduced gas from eating beans), Everglades tomato (small heat-tolerant native cherry tomato), ginger, hot peppers (many kinds), jicama, melons, okra, oregano, rosemary, sage, Seminole pumpkin, sorrel, stevia (natural sugar subsitute), sweet potato, tropical spinaches (Malabar, Okinawa, and New Zealand), vegetable amaranth (calalu is my favorite), vitamin greens, and yard long bean just to name a few.
Fruit Trees/Plants: For many South Florida gardeners, fruit trees become a strong focus in the late spring and summer as it becomes more difficult to grow many of the more popular vegetables. Most fruit trees love the heat, ample water, and grow considerably faster in warm weather. Some recommended fruits to plant are avocado, banana, Barbados cherry, black sapote (chocolate pudding fruit), canistel (eggfruit), carambola, dragonfruit, grumichama, guava, jackfruit, key lime, lychee, mango, mulberry, muscadine grape, monstera deliciosa, mysore raspberry, papaya, passionfruit, pineapple, sugar apple and white sapote.
Other Edible Perrenials: The warm season is also a good time to be planting other edible perennials, such as cassava (yuca), chaya (must be boiled), comfrey, ginger, Hatian basket vine, hoja santa (root beer plant), Jamaican Dandelion, lemongrass, malanga, moringa, katuk, nopales cactus, pigeon pea and taro.
As many fruiting plants and other edible perennials live for many years, it is strongly advised that you consider their placement in your landscape before planting and have a clear understanding of the growth habit. As a general rule, it is best to plant the tallest growing plants and trees on the north end of a property and the short growing ones on the South end. If done correctly, this rule should maximize sun exposure and allow for a more abundant edible landscape.
Cover Crops: Some that have proved successful in South Florida gardens are Sunn Hemp (not related to other hemp), Cow Pea (commonly known as “black-eye pea”), buckwheat, and velvet bean. Pigeon pea and comfrey are perennials (living multiple years) and can be treated like a cover crop in a more localized and permanent way (around base of fruit trees works well). Instead of tilling the entire plant into the soil, more often a “chop and drop” approach is used in which portions of the plant are cut down or “chopped” and then “dropped” to the soil to decompose to increase fertility, while also behaving as a mulch.
Q: Besides shade cloth and making wise choices of plants, are there any other tips for improving my garden in the warmest part of the year?
A: Yes, you should have plenty of organic matter in the soil. Mixing nutrient-rich organic matter (compost, manure, etc.) into soil is helpful for improving fertility in a number of ways. The two main things it does (besides adding nutrients) is that it minimizes the leaching of nutrients into the aquifer and improves the soil’s ability to hold water. Yes, the physical structure of soil high in organic matter holds both water and nutrients better than soil low in organic matter, such as the sandy soil commonly found in our area.
Also, adding plenty of mulch helps in a variety of ways. It help protect the soil from hard rain, which can cause both erosion and compaction. It promotes the growth of beneficial fungi called mycorrhiza in the soil, helps to maintain moisture and eventually breaks down into compost and fertilizes soil.
The easiest way to acquire mulch it to collect bags of leaves from neighborhood trashpiles (easy to transport) or having a tree service dump the mulch they make from chipping branches and leaves. Though I still haven’t tried it, seaweed can be used as a mulch, though I think its best to rinse it well beforehand to get saltwater off. Hay can also be used, and is found at horse farms and feed stores. Though pretty and smelling nice, I advise against buying cypress mulch for environmental problems it causes, and red mulch as it has a dye that I wouldn’t want in my garden.
Occasionally, adding mulch can have the effect of “locking up” nitrogen from the soil, as the carbon-rich mulch matter naturally absorbs nitrogen from the soil below to aid in its decomposition. This problem can be fixed by adding extra nitrogen to the soil. Nitrogen can be added in a number of ways organically. I recommend fish emulsion fertilizer for this.
Composting is a great activity for all year, but especially summertime, as organic matter decomposes at a faster rate and there is often more organic matter to be composted. Remember that all plant waste and most of our food waste can be composted over time and be returned to soil thus completing the web of life. Any yard waste and food waste that you send to the dump are essentially wasted energy and nutrients that could otherwise be put to use for improving the well-being of our planet.
Q: How does one protect their gardens from the cold?
A: Cold damage is a relatively minor issue in South Florida, especially for those that live close to the coast. Most vegetables and herbs grown in the cool season here fair well in our occasional cold snaps, but still precautions should be taken to ensure the vitality of our edible gardens.
Firstly I’d recommend finding out which plants that you are growing are cold sensitive. To name a few, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil and many tropical fruit trees are cold sensitive.
The main precaution I prefer is to water heavily the night before, and the morning after a cold snap. Moist soil retains heat more effectively, and most likely the water from the hose will be much warmer than the air temperature. Putting extra mulch or hay around the base of plants can also help retain heat and protect roots and stems from the cold.
The next precaution one can take is to move potted plants indoors, or into protected areas. Plants that cannot be moved inside can be covered by sheets, blankets, tarps, paper bags or cardboard boxes. Remember though that covered plants will likely need to be uncovered later the following morning to prevent overheating.
Q: Why raised beds?
A: Planting in raised beds is helpful as a way to prevent erosion and build a thick soil ideal for growing edible plants. Our ground in South Florida is typically very rocky, sandy and low in organic matter, making it hard to cultivate.
Raised beds are also helpful in controlling invasive weeds and nematode attacks.
Q: What goes on the bottom?
A: Usually nothing. Gardens are usually planted on a porous surface like a lawn, decking or mulched area. Gardens can also be planted on non porous surfaces like concrete, but a layer of gravel must be added to give the garden adequate drainage. Most plants thrive in moist soil, but very few like sitting water.
In cases when weeds are a problem the bottoms of gardens can be lined with a weed-cloth, cardboard, or thick newspaper barrier.
Q: Why do you use mulch?
A: Mulch is extremely important, especially considering South Florida’s extremes in temperatures and hard rains.
Mulch has multiple purposes, including:
- Controlling weeds.
- Controlling soil temperature.
- Maintaining moisture in soil.
- Preventing soil compaction/erosion from hard rain.
- Preventing soil from being splashed onto leaves (which causes rotting).
- Supporting weak plants by propping them up.
Q: Can you help to maintain my garden?
A: Yes, if you would like help maintaining your garden we can schedule maintenance visits. We typically come every 4 weeks. Visits include weeding, pruning,mulching, harvesting, adding organic fertilizer and adding new plants.
Q: Will you give me a quote and visit my site?
A: In-person consultations are usually $50-$75 (depending on location). We also provide free consultations over the phone using photos and google maps.
Q: Can I buy just plants or materials like soil, organic fertilizer and mulch from you?
A: Yes, with an appointment items can be purchased from us in South Miami ($50 minimum). We can also deliver for free for orders $100 or more (20 miles or less from the Grove)
Q: How often should I water?
A: For newly planted plants I would recommend twice a day, morning and evening. However, this can change if it is cloudy or rains. Most plants can typically do well watered once a day once established.
Q: How much water?
A: I recommend a gentle shower, not a jet stream or uncovered hose on full blast. If you water too much you will drown plants, wash away soil, compact soil, get dirt on plants and damage leaves. This is particularly important with young plants. Soil should be moist, but not muddy with puddles.
Q: What are those brown spots on the basil leaves?
A: Bacterial leaf spot, which occurs when infected soil is splashed onto the leaves of the basil plant.
While there is no fix for bacterial leaf spot, but you can minimize the damage by making sure that your basil plants have plenty of air circulation and that they are watered in a way so that the bacteria is not splashed onto the leaves.
Q: What do I do about the snails?
A: Go out to your garden in the night after a late afternoon or evening rain. Bring a flashlight, look for snails and remove them. They will eat your seedlings as well as many other important plants. If you think they deserve to eat your seedlings, basil and calalu, by all means coexist…
Q: What about aphids?
A: Remove aphids by hand, with a sharp stream of water or by removing infected plant matter.
You can also make a nontoxic pesticide by mixing 1 c. vegetable oil with 1 tbsp. liquid dish-washing soap. Add 1 1/2 tsp. solution per cup of warm water to a hand-held spray bottle. Hit the aphids directly with above mixture and spray entire plant thoroughly.
Diomataceous earth, neem oil and fish emulsion are all helpful too.
Q: What about nematodes?
A: Garden can be solarized or planted with nematode resistance plants like marigolds, but the best practice for preventing nematode attacks are high levels of organic matter in soil and mulch. Gardening in raised beds and containers also helps.