MARCH 7, 2010

There’s a lot to be said in favor of cool weather vegetable gardening in North Florida, and boy is it a welcome change following our hot, humid summer months. But for those of us that get our kicks digging in the dirt and eating what we grow, no other time of the year measures up to the pleasure of springtime, and those sunny, warm days when vegetables grow nearly as fast as the federal deficit.

Gotta Have It Sweet Corn growing in Niceville, Fla.
Gotta Have It sweet corn growing in my
garden in Niceville in 2009.

If you are considering growing a vegetable garden this year, your timing could not be more perfect. Mid- to late March through April is when we plant most of our spring vegetables here. Planting in that 30 to 45 day window is the principal key to spring vegetable gardening success in North Florida. Doing so allows the plants to grow and mature before the onset of higher temperatures and increase in pressure from pests and disease which, like baseball and fireworks, come with every summer.

Given last year’s late spring and the cold weather we are experiencing this year, I will be adhering to the advice of old timers’ from around these parts who say Easter is the right time to plant spring vegetable gardens in North Florida. Easter is April 4 this year.

So, if April 4 is our start date, now is the time to finalize our garden plans and get started preparing the soil by working in some compost or other organic material, such as dried, chopped leaves and dried grass clippings. This should be done about three weeks before setting out transplants or sowing seeds (next weekend?).

Here’s a list of commonly grown spring vegetables in North Florida that should be planted before the end of April:
• Bush & Pole Beans
• Cantaloupes
• Sweet Corn
• Cucumbers
• Peppers
• Pumpkins
• Summer Squash
• Tomatoes
• Watermelons

Other commonly grown vegetables in North Florida can be planted beyond April and in to the summer months, such as:
• Lima Beans
• Egg Plant
• Okra
• Southern Peas
• Sweet Potatoes

For planting dates, recommended varieties, spacing between plants and distance between rows, please see my North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide.

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Clyde from DeFuniak Springs, Fla. writes:     
What can I use the mulch that I have been making over last fall and this winter on?  Mulch is made from oak leaves, garden leftovers, lawn and grass sweepings. Horse and chicken manure added. I have been told manure would make potatoes have a rough skin. Is there anything to this? Can I use the manure mulch on my sweet corn, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, squash and cuks. Or would it be easier to ask what not to use the mulch on?  I love Your "Front Yard Farmer" web.

Hi Clyde, good to hear from you. Sounds like good stuff to me! I would be tempted to use it on all types of vegetables, though I would probably only use it on about half of what I planted just in case it carries a disease or is full of seeds that will sprout. Then, next time, you can use it on everything -- or nothing, depending on your results.

 I don't think fall- and winter-made compost in North Florida gets hot enough to kill seeds or disease, so it is probably a good idea to play it safe. Personally, I would dig it in to the soil about three weeks before planting and not apply it as a mulch on top the soil. I don't mulch my vegetables because it provides safe harbor for insects.

I don't know about manure and potatoes. Grow some with and some without and let us know!

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Lee writes:
Thank you for all of the good info.  I've had a terrible time trying to grow tomatoes in the ground.  I'm going to try your container method.  Do you change the potting soil every time you re-plant?

Hi Lee, thanks for reading my blog and for your email. I think EarthBoxes are perfect for tomatoes. The potting mix should be changed following your fourth planting. I generally scoop out what's left of the old fertilizer band, add additional potting mix if needed, and it's ready to go for the next planting.  I mix the used potting mix in the garden.

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Cathy from Kansas writes:
I stumbled across your website looking to see if people could actually have vegetable gardens in NW Florida without attracting bears. (I'm from Kansas) We are moving to the area in late May and can't imagine not having a garden with my favorite veggies. What sort of vegetables can I plan on with such a late plant date? 

Hi Cathy, yes, we do grow vegetables, berries and fruit trees in North Florida but gardening is very different here compared to most parts of the country -- especially places like Kansas, I suppose. By the time late May arrives, the window has closed for planting and successfully growing most warm season veggies. But I do have good news for you: you won't have to wait until next spring to plant spring vegetables. We plant them again in August and September.

Until that time, there are a few vegetables that you can plant in May and June, such as Lima beans, southern peas, okra, egg plant and sweet potatoes.

For planting dates, recommended varieties, spacing between plants and distance between rows, please see my North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide.

Bears are generally only a problem if you live close to the reservation. I do have people ask me what they can grow that bears don't like but, as far as I know, they like most everything we grow here!

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Suzanne from Orange Park, Fla. writes:
Thank you so much for making your useful experience available to everyone. It is very helpful. I utilize several different websites regularly (including the UF extension service of course) and I now return to yours. I have a question about squirrels that I have already asked the extension service master gardener. What types of natural "repellent" could you recommend? I can't afford to buy any structures/netting, etc. right now....I tried ground red pepper but that didn't work. He has obliterated my swiss chard and lettuces. And it's definitely a squirrel because I watched him doing it. (And I do have a cat, but she doesn't care). I ended up replacing the swiss chard today with green onion seedlings hoping they don't like the onions. I know you're probably quite busy but I'd greatly appreciate any tips. Thank you again! (I am growing broccoli because of all the info in your broccoli post :)

Those darn squirrels! I wish I knew of some sort of natural repellent that would work for you but I have not found one yet.

But I have had great success using a nylon net that cost me only $9.99. I cut it to fit rows and use it over and over again. Here's how:

Squirrels can be a real pest in the garden when young transplants are first put out, and especially when seeds are newly sown, because the little guys are drawn to the newly dug soil. I have few problems with squirrels nipping at or eating the plants or fruits in my garden; rather, it is their digging, as they bury and search for food, which can be destructive.

Despite lots of squirrels calling my yard home (not unusual to have 14 or more roaming the yard at one time), I have had good luck using nylon garden netting to protect newly sown seeds and transplants. If squirrels dig around new transplants, I simply drape the light netting over them.  If the netting is too heavy for the seedlings, it easily can be supported using a few stakes or strategically placed buckets. The net can be removed once the transplants take hold; usually no more than a week or two is needed.

To protect newly sown rows of seeds, I shovel out the soil to create a row that is about an inch lower than the surrounding soil, sow my seeds, and then place the netting over the row using garden staples to hold it in place. I remove the netting once the seedlings begin to grow through it. By this time, the squirrels are no longer interested. If the fuzzy-tailed critters are actually eating your plants or fruit, simply leave the netting draped over them. I have to do this with my strawberries to protect them from the birds -- and sweet-toothed squirrels!

Hope this helps and good luck with that garden this year.

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Ron from Baker, Fla. writes:
Does anyplace around this area carry the Ameila tomatoes? I thought with the success some stores or nurseries would start to carry them. I live in Baker and was wanting some of these tomatoes to grow. I waited a little too late to order seeds.

Hi Ron, there were plenty of Amelia tomato plants to be found last year, so they should begin to show up very soon at the usual locations. I will be on the lookout for them.   Perhaps other readers can also participate in our Amelia tomato watch and report any sightings.


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