This is one in a series of occasional reports about South Florida gardens.
When you visit Beverly Montgomery-Williams at her Lauderdale Lakes home, you’ll get a big hug and an armful of cucumbers. Or, depending on what’s ripe, you may get a bag of fluffy lettuce, some jewel-toned eggplants or a pile of crisp beans.
“I’ve been growing things all my life,” she says. “I love it.”
As a child in Pensacola, she learned to grow veggies from her grandfather who had a field next to his house. She remembers helping him hoe around the collards and run a hose to water the tomatoes. Those were New Jersey beefsteak tomatoes, of course.
“I loved them warm, right off the vine,” she says.
Ever since, she’s been growing vegetables in the ground and in containers. “Just the idea that this tiny little seed turns into a nice little plant that brings out the bell peppers or whatever I’m growing is just amazing,” she says.
Today her backyard boasts a 400-square-foot plot that seems to get bigger every year.
“My husband complains but I tell him, ‘You can’t eat grass,’ ” she says as she turns more and more of it under to make room for cabbage, sweet potatoes, mustard greens and squash.
She also grows vegetables along the perimeter fence, and she has plastic bins from a grocery store that was going out of business in which she raises a field mix of lettuces.
Last year, she helped start the Community Garden Club of Lauderdale Lakes at Northwest 36th Street and U.S. 441. Here, on a quarter acre that was once a city parking lot, she helped build 32 boxes, each 5-by-10-feet, and filled them with dirt by so participants could grow vegetables.
She now volunteers in this garden up to 30 hours a week educating the novice and experienced growers about methods that work. She’s learned about vegetable gardening through trial and error as well as by studying research-based techniques. She was certified a master gardener in 2010.
She says that one of the most important lessons she’s garnered is that our growing season is different from that in other parts of the country.
“At first, I tried to plant things in the summer, and they never did anything,” she says. But she soon realized that the best time to grow vegetables is from fall to spring. So this time of year the dark, freshly turned earth of her backyard plot is filled with newly planted seeds and sprouting seedlings. She hopes to start harvesting by Thanksgiving.
She’s also discovered that like any piece of real estate, location is important. “If you are going to run out and grab some basil, you don’t want to have to catch the train to go get it. Tomatoes? You want to be able to grab and go. Want lettuce? Just run outside your kitchen door, if at all possible,” she says.
You also need a water source. Williams uses canal water as well as what she collects in a rain barrel constructed from a plastic garbage can with a screen on top to prevent mosquitoes from laying their eggs in it.
She waters her plants thoroughly two to three times a week. “Just stick your finger in the ground and see if it feels moist,” she says.
If necessary, hand water or use drip irrigation that saves water and doesn’t spread disease. And be sure to follow water restrictions in your neighborhood.
“It’s important to conserve water,” she says.
Next, be sure there’s plenty of sun; six hours per day is recommended. The rows in William’s garden run north and south so the plants all get an equal chance at the light.
Soil preparation should be your next consideration. A careful planter will have solarized the ground over the summer. That means sprinkling it with water, covering it with plastic sheets and letting it bake in the sun for four to six weeks.
Solarization helps kill weeds and the dreaded nematodes. Unless you are a vegetable gardener, you probably don’t know about these microscopic worms that can decimate your crops. There’s no way to safely combat them once they are in the soil except with the solar heat.
Now that it’s fall, it’s too late to solarize, so your other option is to use containers filled with soil that is guaranteed nematode-free. But after a year or two of using this soil, you will have to solarize it too.
“People ask me where the worms come from and I tell them they can be in the soil you are planting with your seedlings,” Williams explains.
The best way to be sure your soil has a beneficial balance of nutrients and the correct pH for growing crops is to run a soil test. You can do this by sending a sample to the UF/IFAS Extension Soil Testing Laboratory in Gainesville or you can purchase a home testing kit at a garden center.
In general, you will need to bring in topsoil or a soil mix and add lots of organic matter. Williams uses compost she makes from egg shells, coffee grounds and plant materials such as the part of her crop that might otherwise rot on the ground. She also mixes in bags of manure such as Black Cow, available at garden stores.
When deciding what to plant, choose things you like to eat and then try something new. “I didn’t even know I liked leeks until I planted them,” Williams says.
Now it’s time to plant both seeds and seedlings. If you are placing them directly into the ground instead of using containers, it’s best to plant them in mounded rows that promote good drainage.
Just don’t overplant. Instead, follow the instructions on the seed packages. “That’s one of the biggest problems. People want to put too much stuff in a little space,” says Williams. Then, if the shoots sprout too closely together, they compete for water and nutrients. Thin your garden by cutting the shoots at ground height with scissors.
Fertilizing when you plant is also important to a bountiful harvest. In general, an 8-8-8 or 15-15-15 fertilizer is what you’ll need. You’ll have to add it again when your plants blossom and when your veggies are medium sized. Be sure to follow the directions on the bag.
Then keep an eye out for insects. “But don’t get too excited about them. Just remember the food chain; everything has to eat,” Williams says.
You may be surprised the first time you see a bright green tobacco horn worm crawling on your tomato plants or leaf miners tunneling through the leaves. You may wonder if and how to combat these pests. But remember, you’ll be eating vegetables from these plants so you don’t want to spray them with toxic chemicals. Instead, simply remove large insects and leaf-miner-damaged foliage by hand.
To combat other pests such as spider mites and white flies, spray with a horticultural oil such as Organicide or an insecticidal soap. To save money, make your own soap spray by combining 1 tablespoon Castile or Ivory soap with 1 gallon water, suggests Williams. Do not use detergents that can harm the plants.
If you can only find bar soap, shred it on a grater and mix with a little water to make a concentrate that you mix with more water when applying.
Weeds, which compete with your crops for nutrients, water and sunlight, can also harbor pests and diseases. Williams believes the best defense against them is to “pull and pull and pull.” Then she uses fresh-cut grass laid around established plants such as peppers and tomatoes to keep away weeds.
“I tell people that a garden takes a lot more than just sticking things in the ground,” says Williams.
But there are benefits, of course. Williams never needs to purchase vegetables during the growing season. And, like her grandfather before her, she gets joy from sharing her knowledge and her crops with neighbors and friends.
“We have a lot of fun out here,” she says.
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.