Vegetable gardening in Florida

 

If you are a new gardener or a new gardener in the state of Florida, you probably noticed that gardening in the Sunshine State can be complicated. The lack of harsh winters give many the perspective that we lack seasons, making it perfect to garden year-round nonstop. 

While vegetable gardening year-round is a possibility, the season outlook is not the same. Winters are mild, but summers are brutal. The humidity + excess heat for around half of the year make the sunshine less than ideal for cool season-loving crops.

The most important part of successfully gardening in Florida is understanding our weather patterns and soil.  Much of Florida was once underwater, part of ancient seabeds and coastal environments. Over millions of years, marine sediments, primarily composed of sand, shells, and coral fragments, accumulated and formed the basis of the state’s soil. Generally speaking, our soil is pretty much sand (of course, it varies throughout the state).

I have been gardening in Florida for about five years and finally feel like I got the hang of it. I wanted to write this blog to help new gardeners so they don’t go through the trials I went through when I started.

Understanding Florida’s Climate Zones

Florida is a massive state, and it takes almost 14 hours to drive from the southernmost part (Key West) to the northernmost part (Malone). This means that certain parts of Florida will never experience frost/freeze, and temperatures rarely fall below 70F – even during winter. 

Our USDA growing zones go from 8a-11a. A USDA Hardiness Zone is a geographic area defined by the average annual minimum winter temperature used to guide gardeners and growers in selecting plants that will thrive in specific climate conditions.

  • Zone 8a: Northernmost parts of Florida, such as the Panhandle region, experience average annual minimum temperatures of 10-15°F (-12 to -9°C).
  • Zone 8b: Also in the Panhandle and parts of northern Florida, with average annual minimum temperatures of 15-20°F (-9 to -7°C).
  • Zone 9a: Covers much of central and northern Florida, including cities like Gainesville and Orlando, with average annual minimum temperatures of 20-25°F (-7 to -4°C).
  • Zone 9b: Extends through central Florida and into some southern regions, with average annual minimum temperatures of 25-30°F (-4 to -1°C).
  • Zone 10a: Southern Florida, including parts of the Miami area and the Keys, with average annual minimum temperatures of 30-35°F (-1 to 2°C).
  • Zone 10b: Includes much of southern coastal Florida and the Keys, with average annual minimum temperatures of 35-40°F (2 to 4°C).
  • Zone 11a: The warmest areas, primarily the Florida Keys, with average annual minimum temperatures of 40-45°F (4 to 7°C).

To find your USDA growing zone, click here. Finding your USDA is important but you should not fully rely on this information alone to determine when to plant or what to plant. The USDA growing zone does not provide maximum temperature.  Like I said earlier, the humidity makes gardening in Florida totally different from the rest of the US. For example, many parts of California share the same zone as us, but their growing season tends to be different as their summer tend to be much milder than ours. 

Seasonal Gardening Overview

Gardening always starts in the prior season. You start planning fall during summer, winter during fall, spring during winter, and summer during spring. Most vegetables are produced within 60-100  days of seeding, so missing the planting date can make the difference between being successful or not (this is especially true for frost-sensitive plants, heat-sensitive plants, and daylight-dependent plants). I recommend checking the average maximum and minimum month-by-month of your area.

Plants such as garlic need vernalization – the process of exposing certain plants to cold temperatures to induce flowering and reproductive development – in order to bulb up, and they need to be planted around October or November. This means that you either need to buy vernalized garlic or you have to mimic the process yourself by keeping the garlic heads in the fridge for 6-12 weeks prior to planting. 

Onions are daylight sensitive ( also known as photoperiodic plants, are plants that rely on the length of day and night to trigger certain phases of their life cycle, such as flowering or dormancy) so they needed to be planted (from sets or bulbs) around October-November to bulb up to a decent size by harvest time.

Gardening in Florida in Summer

Florida’s seasons are not divided into Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. It is more like Refreshing temperatures with a hint of winter, the reason why you moved to Florida, the reason why you may wanna move out of Florida, and the reason why you may love Florida again. Summer heat is brutal not only for us but also for the plants. For this very reason, we have to work with species, varieties, and cultivars that will do well here. Usually, we can play with the season, but not everything can be grown here as not everything can be grown up north. There are advantages and disadvantages to living in an endless summer state.

I got used to the heat and loved to live here, but in the summertime, I questioned my decision to live here when the thermometer passed the 100 mark. The number of vegetables you can grow in Summer is very limited; not a lot can stand over 100 F degrees days. The high temperatures and humidity are also a breeding bowl for pests.

In my experience, the only few annual vegetables that thrive in summer are sweet potatoes, okra, yard-long beans, dent corn, everglades tomatoes (native to Florida), basil, and a few hot pepper varieties. Not a whole lot, but the summer season is also the season that I rest the most, as these crops don’t require a lot of my attention as some others, such as tomatoes and lettuce, and also because I can’t do a whole lot because of the heat.

We start to get summer heat around mid-April/May until late September/mid-October. These dates will vary a little if you are in North Florida, central Florida, and South Florida. So, about 4-6 months out of the year, it can be difficult to grow annual vegetables. But there are strategies that you can use to extend your season and plant species that normally don’t do too well in the summer heat. One of these strategies is looking for heat-resistant varieties/cultivars. Another strategy is to use a shade cloth because it reduces the number of UV rays reaching your plants, allowing you to have some vegetables a little longer than April/May.

 

Gardening in Florida in the Fall

The temperatures in Fall for Florida are very similar to the summer temperatures in other states, with lows in the 70s and highs around 90 (fluctuating depending on where in Florida you are). So I like to plan for the season by getting a head start at the end of the summer. I plan what I would like to grow, start the seeds indoors, and transplant them.

I normally plant the tomatoes and pepper seeds eight weeks before the beginning of October and pot them up as they grow, then transplant them outside. I do this so I can extend my growing season when temperatures are still not ideal. However, some crops do not do well when transplanted, so you won’t be able to use this tactic. The members of the cucurbit (cucumbers, zucchinis, watermelon, melon, and others) prefer to be directed sowed. Zucchinis could be planted inside and transplanted outside if directly started in a pot that is big enough (I like to use 6-inch pots).

For the members of the Brassica family (broccoli, collard, and kale), I would like to start indoors for 3/4 weeks before October and then transplant outdoors. Lettuces I start 2/3 weeks before October 1st; carrots and beets should be directed sowed. I like to wait until mid/late October to plant them; some varieties can stand the heat better than others. Bush beans and vining beans should be directly sowed. However, I have experienced starting bush beans inside and transplanting them outside, and I have had great success. I recommend starting the bush beans in 4-inch pots and not growing them inside for more than three weeks before you plan to transplant them outside.

Gardening in Florida in Winter

If you haven’t lived in Florida before and have not yet experienced your first winter, you will most likely say that winter doesn’t exist here. South Florida, for example, very rarely experiences temperatures below freezing, central Florida experiences some days every year, and North Florida has many more of those days. The bottom line is winter in Florida is very mild, and it is the favorite time of the year for many gardeners because you can grow almost everything (especially for those located in central Florida).

Winter officially starts December 21st, but usually, frost doesn’t happen before mid to late January (again, it will vary if you are located in central or north Florida, and every year is different). For the past two years, I have been able to grow frost-tender plants (I will get into that later) through winter in central Florida. I believe that I have been able to grow them due to having my raised bed garden in a good location that allows heat to protect those plants. Another fact about gardening in winter is that during those months, the precipitation is much lower than in other months, so extra watering will be necessary.

So, what can you go through in Florida during winter? As I said before, you can grow almost all the vegetables, but the ones that I grow the most are the ones that can’t stand the heat and can handle frost well. Some examples of frost-resistant plants are:

  • Carrots
  • Beets
  • Cauliflower
  • Kohlrabi
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Radishes
  • Brussels sprouts (long season veggie)
  • Arugula
  • Spinach
  • Cabbage
  • Collard greens
  • Snow peas
  • Lettuce
  • Winter squash
  • Cilantro
  • Onions (short-day variety. This is a long-term crop, so there is a very short window to plant as they are daylight-sensitive. It is okay to plant outside of the window. However, you are not giving the plant enough time to bulb up.)

Frost tender plants:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Zucchini

Gardening in Florida in Spring

Spring is my favorite time for gardening; the weather is perfect, everything is blooming, and it is just pleasant to be outside. The only downside of spring is that as temperatures warm up, rainfall is still lowered compared with May through October, so extra watering will be necessary. Gardening in spring is very similar to gardening in Fall with the twist that instead of going from hot temperatures to cooler, we are going from cooler to hotter temperatures. In my personal experience, plants seem happier at this time of the year than in the Fall.

Special varieties to grow in Florida

Some varieties are more resistant to the heat than others, and in my experience, prioritizing varieties/cultivars that will perform well in similar climates will save you a lot of frustration, headaches, and money. So I will talk about a few varieties/cultivars that are well adapted to Florida.

  • Lettuce: Jericho lettuce, Manoa lettuce
  • Tomatoes: everglades tomatoes, most cherry tomatoes (‘sungold’ and ‘sun cherry’ being my favorite cultivars)
  • Pumpkin: Seminole pumpkin
  • Onion: Florida Findley onion (Florida friendly variety). Regular onions: walla walla, Texas super sweet, yellow granex 
  • Garlic: growing garlic can be tricky and very difficult in Florida, so I recommend growing elephant garlic. This species isn’t true garlic, but when crushed, it produces the same flavor compounds as garlic with the advantage of being huge and easier to grow. The alternative is mimicking the vernalization (the process by which certain plants require exposure to cold temperatures to induce flowering or initiate reproductive development) process by putting the garlic heads in the fridge 8-12 weeks before planting (planting time is October-November) or buying from a vendor that does this process for you. A great variety to grow is inchelium red.
  • Cucumber: I haven’t had any difficulties with different varieties, but it is beneficial to pick varieties resistant to powdery mildew, as cucumbers tend to be prone to it. One variety that I did enjoy growing is called “quirky”.
  • Pepper: I haven’t had any big issue with peppers, but one of my favorite and bigger producers has been a variety called “biquinho pepper”. It produces this small pepper that has very little heat and can add a kick to any dish. My other favorite varieties are “Cheirosa” and “Cap 455”; both are available at Cody Cove Farm.
  • Broccoli: piracicaba broccoli. This has been my favorite broccoli variety so far, and even if I experience other ones, this one will always be my favorite. This variety can stand the heat a little better, allowing you to grow until the end of May/early June, and it is also a heavy producer.
  • Carrots: Nw Kuroda, Bolero
  • Beets: chiogga, detroit dark red
  •  Sweet potatoes: Tainung64 available at Cody Cove Farms

You must have noticed that I did not add my favorite varieties for every vegetable; the reason why is the varieties I’m trying to keep when it’s too hot to grow those species. When the temperatures are ideal (Spring, Fall, and Winter), you can experience almost everything.

Annual vegetables alternatives

The relatively short growing season made many people seek alternative plants that provide the same benefits as many common vegetables with the advantage of being more resilient. That’s where perennial vegetables come into play. These plants can withstand the harsh Florida conditions and last longer than one growing season. Let’s talk about a few options you may want to add to your garden.

Sisso Spinach
 

This is an edible ground cover originally from Brazil that can be used as an alternative to spinach. The leaves can be eaten raw or stir-fried.

Malabar spinach

This is a perennial vining alternative to spinach. This plant is native to Africa and Asia. It can be eaten raw, stir-fried, boiled, or steamed.

Longevity Spinach

This edible plant is native to southeast Asia and has proven to be extremely resilient to Florida heat. If you have a problem killing your plants I would definitely look into this plant as in my personal experience has proven to be resilient and easy to care for.

 
Jewel of Opar

This short-lived perennial with thick foliage produces small flowers that can be used in flower bouquets. But the interesting part for vegetable growers is the leaves that can be used as a spinach substitute added to salads and sandwiches.

Katuk

This is a shrub native to Southeast Asia. The shoots, flowers, leaves, and pods of this plant can be used but caution is advised as an excess of it can be detrimental to your health. The leaves have a nutty flavor and this plant should be grown in the shade.

Where to get Florida-adapted seeds and plants

Now that you know about some of the annual vegetable alternatives and what cultivars/varieties do well in Florida, let’s talk about where you can grab those plants/seeds.

I personally have met a small nursery grower that has a lot of the perennial vegetables that thrive in Florida. David from www.practicalplantfl.com is located in central Florida and has been gardening for over a decade. He has extensive knowledge in growing plants that thrive in Florida. Many of the plants we currently have come from his place.

Kelli from Seed the Stars is a local seed seller from central Florida, selling many varieties adapted to the Florida heat. She grows and harvests the seeds in her location. You can purchase her seeds by accessing https://www.etsy.com/shop/SeedTheStar

Another great nursery is Cody Cove Farms. Josh (the owner) has extensive knowledge of growing Florida-adapted plants, he was the garden manager at the HEART Village from 2013-2022. He offers monthly tours of his operation https://codycovefarm.com/

Choosing the gardening method

The weather is not the only issue when gardening in Florida, and the sandy soil does not make it easier for new gardeners. Sand does not hold nutrients and does not retain water. Native species are adapted to our native soil. However, most vegetables need somewhat rich soil to grow and thrive. If you are doing aquaponics or hydroponics, you don’t need soil; you need a medium that is nutrient-rich.

If you decide to garden in the ground, you will need to improve the soil quality by making some amendments, such as adding compost. My preferred gardening method for backyard gardeners is a raised bed. Most places does not have ideal soil; correcting the soil quality can be expensive and labor-intensive. Also, the vegetables in the raised bed do not need to compete with all the in-ground plants since all the soil in the beds is “reserved” for the vegetables.

You can purchase the right soil medium for vegetable gardening and only amend the soil at the end of every season. Another advantage is that it requires less bending, and depending upon the size of your vegetable garden, it can become very hard on your back, bending all the time to plant and weed your garden. Talking about weeding, a raised bed garden requires far less wedding than in-ground gardening. Raised beds can also be designed in a way that is pretty and efficient.

Choosing your location

Choosing the right place for your garden is one of the most important aspects of growing vegetables. Most plants require between 6-8 hours of direct sunlight, and a bright spot is not enough. When picking where your vegetable garden will be, think of your space in the long run; how are you going to use it? How close is your house? What kind of irrigation method will you use? Do you plan on building any structures on your property? If so, how would it affect your vegetable garden?

If a section of your garden is in a shady spot, you can still garden in that part, and you will only need to look for species that are more tolerant to shade and/or shade-loving plants. Typically plants that you grow for the leaves (collards, kale, and lettuce) are more forgiving of reduced sunlight. Other plants, such as ginger, love shade.

Pest Management

You will soon notice that having a pest problem is not a matter of choice but of time. Eventually, pests will find their way into your plants. It seems that they appear overnight and multiply by the second. The truth is that one of the biggest parts of managing pests is observing. If you can catch a problem early enough, it is very easy to address and protect your other plants. So, the first step to managing pests is scouting for and looking for problems.

The next step is proper cultural control by spacing your plants properly, choosing cultivars well adapted to Florida, and planting the right plant in the right place. Then, mechanical control is used to trim plants and clean debris. If neither of these methods works, we then use the help of other insects to control pests. Ladybugs, for example, are one of the gardeners’ best friends; the ladybug larvae eat aphids and mealybugs. Another (somewhat controversial) garden friend is wasps. I know they get a bad reputation, but they are essential as many prey on caterpillars and also aid in pollination.

When the other methods fail, we have to use chemical control to manage pests. Neem oil is my preferred pesticide as it is effective against almost every single pest. However, some recent research suggests that neem oil can negatively affect honey bees, so I recommend applying it after bees go back to their hive, which is right before sunset.

Common garden pests and pathogens

As soon as temperatures start to warm up, every single insect existing on earth will come to Florida (or it feels like that). Those insects will find their way to your vegetable garden and feast. Let’s talk about some of the most common garden pests and pathogens that can find their way into your garden

  • Grasshoppers – these insects will eat almost anything in your garden. Every single organic pest control is ineffective against them and even nonorganic methods can not be 100% effective. The best way to control them is to grab them any time you see one and add them to a bucket of soapy water. They are present from March through October and can become a big nuisance.
  • Leafhoppers – these little insects are a threat because they can spread many diseases and cause leaf curling and yellowing of the leaves. You can help reduce the amount of these insects in your backyard by using row cover, and beneficial insects, and if the number is too great insecticidal soap can be used to control them.
  • Aphids – If you have experienced gardening before, you most likely have encountered these little pests. Aphids suck the sap of leaves and usually prefer new shoots. A big issue with aphids is that they reproduce extremely fast and the secretion produced by them is farmed by ants that protect them. The good news is that there are many effective pest control against aphids. I particularly have a couple of trap crops to attract beneficial, and if the population is out of control, I spray neem oil in the afternoon.
  • Mealybug- these sap-sucking white insects measuring around 1/4 inch long feed on many different plants. They normally prefer new shoots, and the biggest problem caused by them is that their secretion (honeydew) can cause a fungal disease called sooty mold
  • Spider mites – are 1/50 inch long and normally present underneath leaves. They suck the sap out of leaves, and the damage can be seen as small spots in the leaves. Water sprayed underneath leaves can dislodge them. Many ladybugs and predatory spider mites feed on them. If an infestation occurs, insecticidal soap can be used.
  • Caterpillar/worms – different caterpillars will feed on different crops, and the line between beneficial and harmful can be a little blurry. For example, the swallowtail caterpillar uses celery, carrot tops, dill, cilantro, parsley, and other plants as its host plants. If they are feeding off your parsley, it can be a problem if you are looking to eat them. But if you are growing crops such as fennel and don’t use them, then it’s not a problem. Also, in my personal experience, the swallowtail never lays enough eggs that will cause significant damage to your crops. So I always leave them be. However, one tomato hornworm, for example, can destroy a whole tomato plant in a day or two.  And cabbage loopers can take over your brassicas in a matter of days. So it is important to know what kind of caterpillar is preying on your crops and if they are a pest or not. If they are pests, I recommend using BT to control them.
  • Powdery mildew – this pathogen is caused by a fungus covering the leaves of plants in a white powder. Humidity and wetting of the leaves increase susceptibility and the members of the cucurbit family are the ones most affected by this pathogen. Prevention is key, but if this disease becomes an issue, neem oil and organic fungicides (such as copper fungicide) can and should be used.
  • Rust – this is a fungal pathogen that thrives in places with moist conditions. This pathogen is often transmitted by water, so avoiding overhead watering is essential. Trimming infected leaves and copper fungicide treatment will help control this pathogen.

Improving soil quality

Most soils are less than ideal, lacking structure, nutrients, and many of the beneficial organisms to help plants thrive. Certain practices can increase life on your soil while others don’t. When transplanting every single seedling, I like to add a little bit of mycorrhizae fungi to the roots of the plant. This fungus forms a symbiotic relationship with the roots, increasing nutrients and water absorption.

Mulching your beds is another practice that is very important not only to help preserve soil life. Mulching also reduces weeds, reduces water usage, and makes it easier to find pests. There are a few different types of mulch that you can use. I recommend getting wood mulch dye-free (we do not want the dye leaching into the soil).

Composting

If you have the space and the ability to create your own compost, I highly recommend doing so. Organic compost is easily available at many big box stores and nurseries. However, it can be costly to add to your beds and/or soil, depending upon the size of your garden. Another benefit of doing your own compost is that you are getting high-quality organic matter that you know exactly what has been added to it (and it is also better for the environment).

My current growing situation does not allow me to have a big compost area. I have a small worm bin inside where I add food scraps. The compost the worms make is one of the highest quality organic matter that I can add to my beds, so I use it only when I am transplanting seedlings to the planting hole.

There are many ways that you can do outdoor compost. Many people do have a compost bin where they add food scraps, green material, animal manure, lawn clippings, coffee grounds, and other safe materials. It is important to always turn the compost pile to speed the process, minimize any foul smells, and deter critters.

Fertilizing

Ideally, a soil test should be performed prior to planting to identify any deficiencies, as it is impossible to know the nutrient composition of soil without it. However, I know that it is not feasible for most gardeners to perform a soil analysis prior to planting and at the end of every growing season. So, when it comes to applying fertilizer to your soil, I like to say that less is more (especially when it comes to inorganic fertilizer).

Remember, the back of the fertilizer bag is your best guide to determining how much to apply. Following the application, rates are very important to avoid applying more than needed. If an over-application occurs, fertilizer burn will happen, and removing the nutrients from the soil is detrimental to the environment and very difficult to do.

I only use organic materials in my vegetable garden as I believe it is the safest choice for me and for the planet. Depending upon what kind of soil you use, you may not need to mend your soil the first time before the first growing season. I recommend using organic fertilizer for your vegetable garden. At the end of every growing season, I like to reset the raised beds by adding 2-3 bags of organic matter (compost) and incorporating organic fertilizer into the soil.

The amount needed for each bed will depend upon the size of your raised bed and what kind of fertilizer you are using. Reading the label is very important to avoid misusage, and it provides very clear instructions on how to use the product

Irrigation

Overall, Florida is a state where precipitation is not a problem. However, as I mentioned earlier, between the months of October and May, the amount of precipitation is much lower. Between the months of October-December and march-may, when rainfall is down and temperatures are higher, plants will require more frequent irrigation.

Depending upon the size of your garden, hand irrigation can be an option, but even for small growers, I think it can be counterproductive to rely on a hose to solely irrigate your plants. As someone who postponed as much as I could installing a semi-automated irrigation system, I will tell you something: having to hand-water your plants almost every single day gets old very fast.

There are many different irrigation systems available, and what you choose will depend upon what you grow, your budget, your preferences, and others. However, I highly recommend investing in a drip irrigation system. Many may argue, “Why should I invest in an irrigation system when I can simply add a sprinkler to the end of my hose and achieve the same outcome?”.

While using sprinklers can be extremely easy and affordable, this is one of the most inefficient systems when it comes to water usage. It is believed that only around 60% of the water is used, and not only that, overhead watering contributes to the increase of many foliar pathogens.

There are many options available for raised beds and many kits that make it very easy for backyard gardeners to install. Depending upon how long you plan on staying in your location a couple of different options is available. I personally chose to do 1/2 inch tubing to run my main line, and I used drip tape with emitters every 6 inches. The system I use should last 5-10 years. If this current location was my forever setup, I probably would have invested in PVC for the main lines as it is more durable.

Taking notes

A very important practice that is not recommended enough in most blog posts about gardening is taking notes. Every single gardening season will be different every year. Sometimes, varieties that thrive from many people won’t thrive for you. The reasons behind that can be many (location, soil quality, amount of sunlight, etc). So it is very helpful to have notes every season of what you grew what location was, and how the plant grew.

You will find that this practice will help you along your gardening journey by narrowing down what vegetables will perform better in different locations and what varieties/cultivars are adapted to the conditions your garden provides.

Final thoughts

While gardening can be intimidating at first and a little frustrating when pests and pathogens find your garden, having fresh, quality food is one of the most rewarding feelings one can have. When planting part of what you consume, you know exactly what kind of food is going to your body, and your body is a temple! Not only that, gardening is good for the soul, for the mind, and, most importantly, good for the planet. If you want to start a raised bed garden and are lost, I have a free E-book available on my website that you can download by clicking here.

If you are looking for someone to consult and/or design an edible dream garden for you, I offer consultation and design services. You can learn more about me and my credentials by going here. If you want some extra inspiration, follow me on social media at @RaisedBedGuide. I hope that this blog post was inspiring and helpful

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