At a time when my tween daughter is fully entrenched in texting and technology, some very strange words have been falling out of her mouth. “Dad, you promised we would have cucumbers this year, right?” “Dad, you are going to build that second vegetable garden bed like you said, aren’t you?” “I don’t think we planted enough carrots last year.”
She has been peppering me with these comments and questions for the last two months because she knows it is almost time to plant our edible garden. What could possibly tear a tween away from the Internet and all the ‘LOLs’ a smartphone requires each day? It is the draw of growing her own vegetables and it has captivated her ever since she planted those first cherry tomatoes when she was only 5.
If you have never planted a vegetable garden, now is the perfect time to start. And by involving the whole family you will gain more than just a bountiful garden. You will gain knowledge, togetherness and a true sense of accomplishment for your little ones. My daughter has told me many times that she simply will not eat tomatoes from the grocery store because they have no flavor whatsoever. Yet she picks and gobbles tomatoes from our garden each day after school as though they were ice cream covered in chocolate.
As nighttime temperatures begin to dip below 70 degrees, the season is right for planting vegetables. While the rest of the country prepares for freezing temperatures and a bitter winter, South Florida’s climate becomes just right for growing. Early November is the best time to plant, but you can start preparing your garden now.
A vegetable garden in South Florida needs to be planted in a raised bed, as our calcareous native soil is rocky and has a high pH. Make your bed about four feet wide so you can reach the center from either side and then you can make it as long as you like. If this is your first year making a garden, an eight-foot by four-foot bed should be just right.
You want to create a border for your bed that is at least 18 inches deep to hold in the soil. The border can be made of cinder blocks, brick, stone, plastic or non-pressure treated wood. Fill the bed with soil that is rich in organic material and drains well. If money is not an object, you can use some of the pre-mixed potting soils found in the home improvement stores. Just make sure they contain Perlite, as this is essential to help with drainage. A cheaper option is to use some soils that are not pre-mixed. Just be sure to add Perlite to help with drainage.
Over time, you can augment your soil with compost. Composting is easy to do in South Florida and you can make your own composting bin with just some wire mesh and zip ties. You can find out how to make your own composting bin on Fairchild’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/fairchildgarden.
Once you create your bed, start to plan your planting. It’s a good idea to make a list of what you want and then to map where you will plant everything. Much of what you plant will be from seed and if you don’t map it out, you won’t know what is what when the seeds germinate.
You can plant seeds of lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, spinach, bush beans (preferred over pole beans) and squash directly into your garden. Other crops such as tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, eggplant and peppers should go into your garden as seedlings. Herbs such as basil, oregano, mint, rosemary, cilantro, catnip, lavender and sage should also be planted as seedlings.
Seeds will come in different shapes and sizes and each type should be planted differently. Tiny seeds like carrots can be sprinkled on top of the soil and then dusted with more soil, while larger seeds like the bush beans should be planted just below the surface of the soil. Make you plant seedlings at the proper depth — not so deep that the stem is buried or so high that their roots are exposed.
Once the garden is planted, water with a hose. Be careful not to water too heavily as intense sprays of water can move your seeds from place to place.
Watering should take place each day. Watering in the morning is best as the garden will have time to dry its leaves before nightfall. Water so the garden is moist but not soaking wet.
You should begin to see germination in just a few days from some of the seeds. Use your map to see what is what. Be on the lookout for weed seeds germinating alongside your vegetables and remove them promptly.
Your garden will take several weeks to begin to produce. You will delight in seeing your stalks of broccoli and tiny tomatoes begin to appear.
Whether you plant your garden on your own or with your kids, it will be a fun and rewarding experience. I promise you, you will never have a better or more delicious tomato, cucumber or salad than what you get from your own garden.
My daughter and I look forward to planting our edible garden each year. Why not make this year the year you start your own?
For more information on planting your own garden, visit Fairchild’s Edible Garden Festival Sunday.
Jeff Wasielewski is an outreach specialist at Fairchild, an expert in South Florida horticulture and a professor of horticulture at Miami Dade College.