As a 20-year veteran at growing a vegetable garden in South Florida, I have learned there are some vegetables that grow best in South Florida, some that grow satisfactory, and others that just do not appreciate the poor soil quality and climate. A gardener must also take into consideration the time of year and prepare for either a heavy rainy season or even a hurricane. One of my best vegetable garden years was totally wiped out from the hurricanes of 2004.
Even with the rainy summers and sandy soil, there are a handful of vegetables that thrive in the Florida summers and even better, some that flourish during our mild winters. If you are new to gardening in South Florida, these are the best vegetables to start learning how to deal with the peculiar weather and inadequate soil conditions.
Out of the many vegetables that grow best during the summer, okra is probably the easiest to care for in the South Florida garden. Once the seeds have been planted, okra is basically a care-free plant. Seeds can be started directly in the garden from mid-April to May depending upon how far south you live. Just remember to start the seeds after all chance of frost has passed.
Two key elements to remember for a bountiful harvest of okra – water and timing. Because the summer months is also the rainy season, plant okra where it won’t get waterlogged and the soil drains well. You shouldn’t have to water your plants unless 4 or 5 days have passed without any rainfall. It’s easy to tell if you plants need watered just by looking at their condition.
Timing is also important when planting seeds. To have a harvest all summer long, plant rows of seeds a couple weeks apart. I plant a row around mid-April and then another two weeks later and then one more near the end of May to the first of June. For our family of 5, we have plenty of okra all summer long and enough to freeze for the winter months.
Both yellow squash and zucchini are great vegetable choices for a South Florida summer garden. Zucchini tends to do better for me for the long haul but I’ve been able to get adequate yields of yellow squash. Like with okra, the soil needs to be well draining and I space out the time I plant my seeds. The plants grow much better and have less chance of rot when planted in mounds rather than rows.
Almost any type of pepper is going to flourish over the Florida summer. Sweet bell peppers are a favorite and when planting is spaced out, you can have peppers well into late summer. I have better luck when planting pepper plants rather than starting with seeds. If you choose seeds, start them indoors and transplant outdoors in the garden when all chance of frost has passed. Pepper plants are also perfect for the flower garden. They take up very little space and their color adds to the beauty of a flowerbed.
It is possible to get a great harvest of cucumbers in a South Florida garden but they aren’t like okra and peppers. Cucumbers need babied somewhat. They need adequate amounts of water but not over-watered. I also have better luck when I grow mine on a trellis. Cucumbers also need better soil than the typical sandy variety offered in South Florida. The soil should be prepared beforehand with a nutrient-rich mulch to get the best results.
Like cucumbers, tomatoes are a bit tricky. The soil needs to be prepared – don’t expect them to thrive in the poor, sandy soil. To prevent tomato diseases, you should stake your tomatoes or cage them to keep them off the ground. The plants must be kept in a well-draining soil but also have adequate amounts of water.
The vegetables you should avoid during the summer are the cool-weather plants like radishes, carrots, and greens. However, because our winters are so mild, these cool-loving plants can be added to the garden in late fall. Carrots are not a good idea any time of year but greens can be planted in early November. As long as they are harvested regularly, you will have greens until the first freeze which sometimes doesn’t occur until March.
The downside to any South Florida garden is the weather. Hurricane season can wipe out an entire crop. Even if a hurricane doesn’t hit your area, winds and excessive rain can turn your bounty into wasted time and money. Remember to plant your garden in an area that drains well or plant your garden in raised beds.