I've sort of been obsessed with becoming as self-sustainable as possible, striving toward growing or catching as much of our own food as we could as a family. It all seemed like another one of the crazy ideas, or high ideals that often plague me, until suddenly we found ourselves in a global pandemic...
I'm writing this blog post mostly for other first- timers, (especially other South Florida, zone 10b locals) just to share my recent experiences, and provide a platform to share. This was only my third or fourth time in my life attempting a garden, so I am by no means an expert. These are just the things that worked, what didn't, which varieties I liked best, etc. I'm making it thorough to look back on for myself, but I'm also breaking it down into sections, so feel free to jump straight to your areas of interest.
1. Favorite Resources
2. My planting times and chart for last season
3. Plants and varieties I liked best
4. Pests and Problems in order of appearance
5. Summer plans
6. Reflections for Next year
1. Favorite Resources
Square Foot Gardening was a game changer for me. I loved that I could make my chart into little square feet to easily keep track of what was in each bed, and rotate without getting confused. I highly recommend it, especially if you have a big bed. Mine was 4'x7'. Rotating is a must for an organic garden, because it keeps the pests from finding the plants over and over. I've read that sweet potatoes, for instance need a 2 year break before putting them in the same location!
The problems I found were that "Mel's mix" was made of compost, organic soil, peat moss and vermiculite. Vermiculite is way too hard to find, and it's a non renewable resource. It's suppose to help with drainage, but I thought maybe with a little local, sandy soil, it would provide enough drainage... I think I needed something else.
That brings me to my current favorite resource, Homestead and Chill. I am actually redoing our bed exactly to her specifications this time around. Though her zone 10 in California is not really like ours, many of the same varieties thrive there, and she suggests lava rock as the "drainage" component for the soil mix. Deanna also has a post about how to build the beds to last, and how to build trellises. We were inspired by her side yard garden that keeps out her chickens, and plan to do kind of the same thing for our little homestead section of yard. Side note: I also found this stuff called UV TimberPro wood stabilizer that waterproofs your wood without any toxins. I'm using it on the chicken coop and the new beds to make it last for many more years. Hoping not to have to build the beds again after this set up. As a bonus, her Spring playlist inspired by Covid-19 and home quarantine is pretty great!
I decided on most of my varieties of plants based on the recommendations of the University of Florida. Their comprehensive website shows the best planting times by zone, companion planting, and common pests. I highly recommend checking out this site for any problems first. I've also taken to instagram via #floridagardening to find more people in our zone because it seems like the thorough resources just don't exist for 10b!
Update: Check out this post on my Sustainable Summer Series for more Florida locals that are truly valuable resources for gardening here!
(Early in the season with green beans and brussel sprouts in the foreground)
2. Planting times and charts
I was getting pretty overwhelmed with the planting charts and just wanted something that told me what I could be planting or harvesting each month based on growth periods and the recommended planting times, so I put it all together in my own monthly chart (below).
I'm starting with the next month I plan to plant, and this is a working list as I experiment. I put everything that can be planted in each month for my rotating purposes, but it doesn't mean that I planted them in that exact time- just that I could if I had an empty square after a harvest. Also, the month in parentheses is the time it should be harvested, but with less drainage in my soil, I found things took much longer than the seed packages said they would. This year I started in October directly sowing seeds into the bed, so I don't have a lot of experience with summer planting or harvesting yet. Please feel free to comment with what worked or did not for you.
June- Plant Luffa (Nov), Sweet Potatoes (Oct), malabar spinach. Harvest watermelon, carrots, summer squash, winter squash
July (end)- Plant pumpkins (Oct)- update: only if you have time to baby them, we did not and it didn't go well. I think they are more of a spring crop in Florida, but I had to try!
August- Plant peppers (Nov), eggplant (Dec), tomatoes (Oct), basil (Oct), radishes (Sept), summer squash (Oct)
September- Plant lettuce (oct), parsley (dec), arugula (oct), radishes (oct), carrots (nov). Harvest radishes
October- Plant tomato (feb), cucumbers (dec/jan), beans (dec), beets (dec), carrots (dec), cilantro (dec), eggplant (march), broccoli (march/Apr), lettuce (dec), radishes (nov), peppers (jan), strawberries (feb/march), kale (dec), arugula (dec), onions (march), garlic (march). Harvest arugula, lettuce, squash, pumpkins.
November- Plant beets (jan), lettuce (dec), beans (dec), radish (dec), carrots (jan), tomatoes (feb), cucumbers (feb), lettuce (jan), kale/arugula (jan). Harvest peppers, radishes, beans, kale, carrots, basil, lettuce.
December- Same as November. Harvest Eggplant, Parsley, Cucumbers, Beets, Carrots, Cilantro, lettuce, kale and arugula. (***my neighbor planted cucumbers later than I did and had more trouble with powdery mildew, so I think I'm sticking with Oct. for cucumbers and leaving it at that because by the end of my harvest, my poor plant had no leaves yet, because I was trying to stop the spread!
January- Plant same. Harvest eggplant, parsely, cucumbers, beets, carrots, cilantro, lettuce, kale/arugula,.
February- Plant same, add watermelon (may), canteloupe (may). Harvest strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers (if you're lucky)
March- No more lettuce! Plant watermelon (june), cantelope (june), beans (apr), radishes (apr), swiss chard (may), summer squash (may). Harvest eggplant, onions, garlic, peppers (others planted in dec/jan
April- No planting (there are some you can plant, but it gets pretty hot and I want to open up a lot of beds for the sweet potatoes in June).
May- Harvest watermelon, cantelope, swiss chard, summer squash, eggplant
(End of spring with 2nd broccoli head forming on the left and two tomato plants completely taking over the trellis after the cucumber season ended)
3. Plants and Varieties I liked best
Family favorites were definitely Bushmaster Cucumbers, Sweet Charlie Strawberries, Astro Arugula, and White icicle radishes. I got most of my seeds from Eden's brothers, and the strawberries from Etsy, haha! The owner was really nice and answered all kinds of questions via text even!
I had a lot of success with the broccoli, and thought I was heading for a good harvest with my brussel sprouts too, but it fizzled out toward the end and each sprout bolted. I might try again next year a little earlier and see if I can catch a cold front for them to mature during, but I'm not sure if it's worth that long growing season for just a few sprouts. At least we get one big head and a few smaller ones from the broccoli plant.
For tomatoes, I've heard the smaller the better in our heat, and I think that's true because I had a HUGE harvest of the little cherry tomatoes. For peppers, I wasn't quite as lucky. I was going for sweet, red, bell pepper, and I think they needed to be started earlier, I'm going to try some more hot peppers next year and ferment some hot sauce or something maybe?
Update: My new favorite resource for seeds that know how to handle Florida climate is NuGen International. They breed seeds to be naturally pest and disease resistant. All organic and Non-GMO.
(First ripe strawberry to match the first sunburn of the new year, oops!)
4. Pests and Problems in order of appearance
Leaf miners- These little suckers start small and then increase quickly. Once we got a handle on picking the little yellow larvae out of each leaf it killed the life cycle and they didn't return, but my kids and I spent a good part of the fall on this... I've heard you can buy the predator wasp that will destroy the larvae, but I could only find it by the 100's on ebay for like $250, so we became the predators! I recently heard someone say lemongrass mulch helps ward off the little flies (parent of the leaf miners), so I will try that near the beds this coming season.
Melon worms- at one point in December, I left for a long weekend and came back to all kinds of eggs on every leaf of my cucumber. Some were ladybugs (yay) but some were melon worms! I used soap and water and scrubbed them all off gently, which worked, but soon after the cucumbers had a new problem...
Powdery Mildew- this stuff sucks. I picked every leaf or part of leaf that had it on the cucumber until there was nothing left. I looked at other alternatives, but didn't want to go too extreme and wanted to keep it organic. I am going to keep researching and try again next year. I still had a full harvest of cucumbers, but one of my neighbors that started later than me, couldn't even get off the ground. It was a very rainy season and it thrives in moisture, so I think starting while it was dryer helped a lot. I don't dare try it now, because April showers...
Tomato Horn Worms- These giant, juicy looking things are everywhere all of the sudden. Even though they are huge, they blend in so well, you don't notice at first! All of the sudden, the leaves on the top of my plant were missing, and then we started noticing. I heard you can shine a flashlight on the leaves at night and the eggs glow. I didn't try it, but Teddy really enjoyed picking them off as a little stress relief/wind down after work. He enjoys hunting for shark teeth on the beach, so this wasn't too far off for him. I'm excited for next season when the chicks are older, because you can feed them to your chickens. We put them in a bowl on top of the kid's playhouse hoping a bird would find them, but they just dehydrated and died and nothing came for them...
(Leaf miners, melon worms, and horn worm damage)
5. Summer plans
As I mentioned before, I plan to expand this summer. We are trading out our one 4'x7' raised bed for a better, more waterproof option (using the wood stabilizer). We will have two 3'x8' beds, giving us 48 square feet of growing space. The saying is 4 square feet per person, per meal. This gives us some extra room for experimenting, and for some longer season plants to grow without wasting space that could be harvested more continuously. Also, extra room in case the boys have another big growth spurt!
I am planning on growing luffa and pumpkins in our own soil on the ground to climb an arch between the two beds, (See picture below). We shall see, maybe after amending the soil, and chickens pooping all over, it will work!
(Simple summer plan above: haven't really decided where to put them yet, but trying to keep in mind that sweet potatoes vine and they shouldn't be in the same location in the garden for two years...)
6. Reflections for Next year
My first attempt failed in the fall of 2018. I decided to research everything I could, build a raised bed, and like with most things I do, went all out. I had all my seedlings starting indoors, but because we had to go out of town for an art show, everything died after 3 days on their own... I was so discouraged, I gave up and let the weeds take over the bed that year.
This past fall, I decided to approach it with a different attitude. Instead of making too many plans (seems it's hard to plan in this zone anyway) I was just going to experiment and document. It was a much more rewarding experience, let me tell you. I gave up on the seedlings indoors all together, directly sowing most of my seeds on Oct. 6. It was a little later than most, but I was waiting for that summer heat to let up a little and for the rain to take over some of the daily watering requirements. It worked well for me, and it gave me a confidence boost to add on and continue next year.
I know it will take a long time to really get the hang of, but being outside daily actually relieved stress for both my husband and I. I didn't ever really look at it as work, because it was so much of an experiment and mystery instead of something to tame. That's my first bit of advice to myself and anyone for next year. Never to let it be something that you're planning too hard that you miss out on the fun of it. I did that my first year, and it was devastating. Life keeps trying to teach me that lesson though... God laughs at our own plans, because he always has something better if we are open-minded and listen.
Another thing I want to work on next year, is to have a more obvious turnover from fall to spring to summer. This will help me add enough new compost, and turn up the soil again in between plantings. I think part of my problem with peppers was because I didn't feed the soil in between crops as much as I should have. Having set seasons will also relieve me of trying to come up with what to plant after a harvest. I have some plans on how to change out two short period plants like beans and radishes, for instance, to keep the rotation going, but I will know the rest will be replaced in February or March for instance.
Next year, I also plan on adding more flowers now that I have 2 beds. I should have had potted flowers around the bed this year, because I'm realizing the benefits to having them thanks to more recent research. Homestead and chill has this great article on flowers and their purposes.
Another focus this coming year is to plant things with more calories (just to be safe). I have two growing boys, and even though this started as a hobby, I do want to see that if need be, we can survive off of our garden, chicken's eggs, and fishing.
I hope this was helpful! I know so many people planting and planning their future gardens right now, I felt like maybe I could offer something to someone! Please comment and share your experiences for whatever zone you are in. It would be great to hear what has worked or hasn't for all of you. Thanks for reading!