Gardening in Florida is not as easy as you would think. Sure, being situated in the subtropics means our climate encourages lush plant growth, but that also can make it tough for familiar favorites.
Whether you’ve never tried gardening before, or you’re a seasoned pro with a green thumb — but you’ve only done it up North — you’ll find that, in Florida, gardening is a different beast.
“Our seasons are different in Florida compared to the North,” said Connie Willson, a certified master gardener with the Naples Garden Club. “You don’t plant for summer, but you plan for August.”
While summer isn’t the best time for vegetable gardening, there are plants such as herbs and pollinators that people can get started with. Plus, plants that are acclimated specifically to this region, such as some tropical plants or specific cultivars of familiar vegetable plants, can still be grown in the summer.
“With tomatoes, in the middle of the summer — once it gets past a certain temperature and too hot all the time — the flowers will not pollinate, so it’s only in the cooler times in fall, winter and spring that we get a lot of fruit,” said Josh Spall, a horticulturist with Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach. “There’re certain varieties that can do a little bit better, but not very many. There’s what people call the Florida Everglades tomato that’s kind of like a wild tomato, and those will be better in the heat.”
Kenna Pancamo, a home hobbyist gardener who owns Sinz Burritos in Key West, also recommended looking for plants specifically adapted to Florida’s climate.
“My first experience here in Florida trying to grow things, I planted probably 150 different types of plants,” she said. “And the following year I was like, ‘Well, that didn’t make it, that one did well in the summer, that one in the winter.’ I recommend growing local seeds, or at least plants that have been grown from the Carolinas down, a plant that has been seeded and grown in this warm climate because, if you get things from up North, the possibility is it will grow but not fruit down here. It’s an interesting climate, for sure.”
One way for novices to work around the challenges of learning to garden in Florida’s environment is to garden in containers.
In addition to being a fast-track method for beginners, containers also provide gardening options for people who lack yards but have access to sunlight with structures such as balconies. They also might provide gardening options for people whose property use is restricted by homeowners’ associations (but always check your HOA rules before starting even a container garden).
“In the beginning, just keep it simple by starting with containers,” said Robin Gretz, manager of the Pine Manor Community Garden in Fort Myers. “What’s so important is the soil. That’s why container gardens are more successful for the beginner, because our sandy Florida soil doesn’t have enough organic matter to be successful because, if you were planting in a raised box in your backyard, you would have to amend the soil with a lot of compost.”
Beyond the sand, Floridian soils present other challenges. Ms. Willson noted that the soil here tends to be alkaline, whereas plants prefer soil to be more acidic. Plus, the soil harbors an unwelcome pest — nematodes. She said even backyard-raised bed gardens require a specially formulated raised bed soil with a barrier underneath to exclude the parasitic roundworms. Ms. Pancamo and Ms. Gretz also mentioned that using formulated soil in raised beds was key to success.
“If you plant directly in the soil here, you lose a lot of what you plant,” Ms. Willson said.
Plants share common needs — sunlight, water, air, structural support, nutrition, temperature, space — but the astonishing varieties of plants differ as to the quantity of each of these ingredients they need in order to survive, much less thrive. (Notice that soil is not one of the needs, but it serves instead as a medium by which to convey needed ingredients such as water, structural support, nutrition and even air.) Container gardening provides immense control over these ingredients but also creates some additional quirks to address.
The root of the issue
“The difference between growing in containers and growing in the ground is the root system,” said Savannah Holmes, the community garden intern at ECHO, a nonprofit in North Fort Myers that experiments with and develops smallscale farming techniques to provide self-sufficiency to populations worldwide. “The roots don’t have as much room, so you want to make sure that you’re caring for the roots of the plants, and what the roots need are a constant supply of air, water and nutrients.”
It may sound odd to think of air as important to roots, given that most plants have roots that are underground, but air does permeate into the spaces between the particles in soil. Thus, it is possible to drown your roots with kindness through over-watering. Beyond having drainage holes in the bottom of containers, adding larger objects to take up space toward the bottom is a traditional technique to help excess water drain as well as cut down on the amount of potting soil needed for the container. Advice of years past had gardeners putting gravel or larger rocks in the bottom of pots, but in keeping with ECHO’s approach to experiment with materials at hand, Ms. Holmes suggested a different object — plastic bottles. Not only does this reuse waste objects, but empty plastic bottles also are lighter than rocks, which is important if you need to move the container after planting. Ms. Willson also recommended using plastic bottles, which she said could be used to fill containers from half to as much as three-fourths of the way before covering with potting soil.
“I crush the bottles first, since the weight of the soil would anyway, and that way my soil doesn’t sink, and then I put the lids back on,” Ms. Willson said.
Watering is best done in the morning. This provides plants with the hydration they need ahead of exposure to the hot Florida sun while allowing the soil some time to dry — so that it doesn’t provide a breeding ground for fungus in overnight humidity. Also to keep down fungus growth, as well as to prevent water droplets from serving as magnifying glasses to concentrate the sun’s burning rays before they evaporate, Ms. Willson said to make sure to aim the water onto the soil and roots, rather than standing and watering the whole plant from above. It’s the roots that make use of the water, not the leaves, so this also serves to conserve water.
How often do plants need to be watered? Ms. Pancamo recommended looking at the edge of the potting soil where it meets the container, to check for a crack where the soil is pulling away from the edge because of dehydration. Ms. Willson recommended testing the hydration level of a container by pushing a wooden pencil all the way down into the soil and then pulling it out.
“If any soil adheres to the pencil, put off watering for a day,” she said.
All of the gardeners favored organic fertilizers, both in terms of plant health as well as protecting the environment. Ms. Holmes and Ms. Willson both said slow-release organic fertilizers do the best with protecting the environment. This is because they dissolve a little at a time with watering over the course of some days to weeks, ensuring that the plants in the container use the fertilizer rather than having it run out the bottom, thus contributing to the nutrients already overburdening local waterways. That said, Ms. Pancamo advised it’s important to pay attention to a plant’s nutritional needs, particularly while it is fruiting, and fertilize according to its required schedule.
The gardeners also favored organic controls for pests, ranging from mechanical measures — such as elevating pots an inch off the ground to allow airflow that diminishes harmful fungus growth, or using screening to keep off larger insects — to organic pest controls such as neem oil. One organic fertilizer Ms. Pancamo uses doubles as a deterrent to a pest fairly unique to Key West — iguanas, which have proven skittish about the blood meal she uses as fertilizer.
Ms. Gretz uses rubber snakes to scare off squirrels and birds, although she now remembers to warn workers who come to her house after she heard a bloodcurdling scream when she forgot to tell her air-conditioning repairman about the rubber cobra she had standing guard in her side yard.
Another challenge with container gardening can be that people want to grow a grouping of plants together for convenience or aesthetics. The convenience of clusters
The convenience of clusters
Sometimes with a grouping, the individual plants differ greatly as to their water and soil mixture preferences. This often happens with herb plants or other theme container gardens containing multiple types of plants, such as a salad themed container or a salsa-themed container garden. However, cluster pots provide an equally convenient and aesthetically pleasing solution to this issue. These differ from the traditional pocket pots (also called strawberry pots) in that, with the cluster pot’s sections still connected and stacked, each plant gets its own little pot and drainage hole within the cluster.
“That’s why I like the cluster pots because you can water one plant less than another one,” said Debbie Slone, CFO of Pottery Express & Bamboo Farm south of the city of Punta Gorda. “They look like they’re part of one another, but each plant gets a separate pot. That’s probably the biggest mistake I see people do. When they’re trying to group different plants together in a big strawberry pot or in one long window box, it’s affecting everything in the whole container.”
While cluster pots solve the issue of plants’ differing water and nutrient needs, they don’t solve the issue of differing sunlight needs. Sometimes plants need to be in completely different containers for this reason, and moving containers also provides a solution for having selected a location for a plant that does not accommodate its specific light needs.
“The most important thing after you plant it is where you place it,” Ms. Willson said. “Lots of plants say ‘eight hours of direct sun’ — but that’s not eight hours of Florida sun. The plants will fry, and you’ll end up having to water them twice a day.”
The potential that container gardens might have to be moved after planting is another reason why Ms. Willson prefers filling the bottom of her containers with lightweight plastic bottles as well as purchasing containers with wheels. She said the screening on lanais and pool cages shades plants by 20% to 30%, as compared to full outdoor Florida sunlight, but that west-facing lanai can still provide more light and heat than some plants can handle.
The University of Florida IFAS Extension Service website provides additional information about the quirks of gardening in Florida, but with a little advice and experimentation, many people can successfully grow something at home in containers, whether its herbs, vegetables, miniature fruit trees or flowering plants to support vital pollinating insects and birds.
“Most anyone can grow a tomato in a pot on the balcony,” Ms. Willson said. “You don’t need as much sun as you think.” ¦