May is a big gardening month for Florida, but it’s important to get an early start. This is the month when we start most of our summer garden. We’re limited by what we can grow in the summer because of the heat and humidity. While the guide says that tomatoes, eggplant and lettuce will survive transplanting, you better get some very established plants if you want to harvest anything before they start to die in June. Cherry tomatoes are the only things that seem to tolerate the heat. If you can get a hold of some Everglades tomatoes, they will last all summer and then some. They are a small cherry tomato that’s native to Florida, but it’s rare to find the seeds available commercially. I tried to start some of their seeds last year, but squirrels ate my seedlings. Hopefully I can get some more seeds this year. As for lettuce, I wouldn’t even bother. Mine already bolted because of the heat. Even if you could keep it from going to seed, the heat tends to make the leaves bitter.
A lot of plants that require full sun in the rest of the country (expect maybe Texas) cannot tolerate the full sun of a Florida summer, like tomatoes. They actually do best in partial shade during the summer months. Other plants like peppers and okra love the heat and full sun. Determining what does best in your particular micro-climates will require a lot of trail and error, especially if you want to garden in the summer in Florida. This is the one season that proves the most difficult for new Florida gardeners. It is unlike any gardening you’ve done up north, trust me. Winter gardening is much easier in Florida.
Aside from the heat and humidity, we have to deal with the bugs, mildew, and weeds. One thing that is not inhibited by the heat is the weeds. This will be my first year using a paper weed barrier as part of my No-Till Low-Maintenance Gardening. I’ve used plastic weed barrier in the past, and I’m still pulling that junk out of my flower beds. It didn’t block the weeds, lasts forever (literally), and ultimately makes it more difficult to maintain the garden. Seriously, don’t waste your money.
I use companion planting as much as possible in my garden. Planting compatible plants together helps to build the strength and immunity of those plants so that they can better defend themselves against pests and disease. Certain plants, like aromatic herbs, can deter certain pests and can be planted next to vulnerable plants to keep them safe. Likewise, some plants attract pests and can be planted away from those plants to draw the pests away. There are even plants that can inhibit the growth of certain plants and should not be planted with them. I’ve found that The Complete Guide to Companion Planting is a valuable resource in determining which plants to put together and which combinations to avoid. It truly is a complete guide that tells me beneficial plants to put with my vegetables as well as plants to avoid. It also has a lot of information about companion gardening in general to get you started on your journey. I always have this book in my hand when planning out my garden.
Mildew and borer beetles tend to be our biggest threats to squash plants in the summer. To be honest, I still haven’t figured out how to beat either of them. I’ve read articles about cutting into squash vines to remove the beetles, but I haven’t tried it yet. One piece of advice I’ve been told is to rotational plant a squash with a solid stem, like a Seminole pumpkin, where you want to grow hollow stemmed squash like zucchini. The borer beetles tend to go after hollow stemmed vines, so the solid stemmed vines aren’t attractive to them. They either look for food elsewhere or they die. I planted Seminole pumpkin last summer to see if this theory would work, with the intention of growing zucchini in the winter months. Well, the Seminole pumpkin still hasn’t died, and I never did plant any zucchini this winter, so I haven’t tested the theory. What I can tell you is that Seminole pumpkin is an extremely resilient Florida native that is very resistant to bugs, disease, and mildew.
As for mildew, I had some success with spraying the leaves with milk, but it turned out to be a bit labor intensive and expensive. In the long run, I still ended up losing all of my squash plants. First of all, we get almost daily rain showers in the summer. I’d have to spray the plants every day to make sure they were protected. If I missed a few days, the mildew would come back and some of these leaves would die. If I kept at it and kept the mildew away, the borer beetles killed the plant anyway. It was a bit frustrating. Moral of the story, just grow Seminole pumpkins in the summer. I’m told the green ones can be cooked just like zucchini, but I haven’t tried it yet.
As for what can be planted, summer is the perfect time for okra, peppers, and sweet potatoes. I’ve had limited success with corn, but most of that was due to deer and dogs. Even then, I got poor pollination rates and a lot of weeds. I’m going to try again this year, but plant them closer together. Sunflowers are a good companion plant for corn, so I’m going to start them as well. My sunflowers actually did better last year than my corn did. Corn needs a lot of nitrogen to do well, so I’m going to make sure my corn bed is well fertilized. Beans make a good companion for corn because they deposit nitrogen in the soil, but the corn needs to be started before the beans. Once the corn is a few inches tall, plant the beans at the base and let the beans climb the corn. If you start them at the same time, the beans tend to take over and grow faster than the corn, trailing all over the garden.
My husband started a bunch of seeds last weekend that seem to be germinating very well. To be honest, I don’t even know what he has growing out there. He doesn’t listen to me when I tell him what he should or shouldn’t plant. Guess I better work on expanding more of my garden. Until next time…