Green Thumb in the White Sand

The key to successful gardening in Florida is to cooperate with nature

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Begonia can thrive in shade all year.
Begonia can thrive in shade all year.

When I returned to Florida in 2016, the first thing I did was touch the soil. Letting that sugar sand run through my fingers brought a smile of familiarity to my face. Then, looking at my dirty hands and feeling the residual soil on them confirmed I was not in Alabama anymore. It is very common for natives and transplants alike to complain about the quality of our soil—the immature formation that will not hold moisture or nutrients for the roots of the plants we want it to support. 

Why trust me for gardening advice? One month after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture, I started working as the environmental horticulture agent and Master Gardener coordinator here at University of Florida’s IFAS Indian River County Extension. Since then, I have done a lot of gardening in Central Florida. Even with my knowledge of how plants work and what their needs are, I still find many aspects of Florida gardening difficult. My work allows me to help others with their own gardening pursuits. 

Let’s begin with the issues associated with gardening in Florida. 

Celosia plants are great to use for temporary color in the summer when Florida gardens look bare
Celosia plants are great to use for temporary color in the summer when Florida gardens look bare.

Our soil is just the beginning of our troubles. There is an excess of salt that most people from the interior of our country have never had to deal with. Then there is the sun that reminds us with its powerful light and stifling warmth of why Florida is called the “Sunshine State.” Of course, let us not forget the seemingly random abundance and scarcity of rainfall we receive annually. And where do we begin with the insects, diseases, and other threats that attack our precious plants? There is a lot going on in our environment that would discourage the most diligent gardener. Avid gardeners may relinquish their desires for homegrown tomatoes and the bright, colorful beds seen in magazines, but it is not necessary to admit defeat. Florida is different from all the other states, and we must work with our environment to achieve the desired outcomes. 

The answer to most of these issues is Florida-Friendly Landscaping management techniques. It is a very practical system based on selecting the right plants and putting them in the right places. For example, the common complaint is the “backward” nature of vegetable gardening down here. Gardeners in more northerly states enjoy a bounty of crops during summer months, while we generally limit our food growing during those excessively hot months. 

In our part of Florida, tomatoes are best planted in August, on the cusp of fall. Then a second rotation can be started in January, with enough time for a crop before our weather becomes too hot again. If you follow the national magazines or other popular gardening media, you will think yourself a failure. The reality is that you can achieve your desired results if you adjust your plans to include the vagaries of Florida. 

Zinnia are great to use for temporary color in the summer when Florida gardens look bare
Zinnia are great to use for temporary color in the summer when Florida gardens look bare.

Wondering what to do in your September garden? Here are a few Florida-Friendly tips: 

If your summer beds are looking peaked, plant celosia, marigolds, and zinnia for bright temporary color. For more permanent color, penta, plumbago, and begonia (in shade) are great options.

Marigolds are hardy plants that will bloom in the summer
Marigolds are hardy plants that will bloom in the summer.

You may restart the kitchen garden with leafy vegetables, tomatoes, squashes, and beans. Cool-season and warm-season crops generally overlap. We can grow all kinds of things down here! Start small and grow items you want to use. 

Several herbs that will tolerate the remnants of our summer heat can be included in kitchen gardens as well. Mexican tarragon, mint (keep in a pot), basil, and rosemary (totally a perennial down here) are excellent choices.

Be on the lookout for insect damage on your turfgrass. The sooner you notice, the better it will be for your landscape. 

Adjusting to gardening in Florida takes time. Speak kindly to yourself and to your plants. 

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