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Edible Gardening Series: Question of the Week – garden planning and keeping notes

By Carol Wyatt-Evens and Sarah Bostick

Gardening in Florida can be incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating, at the same time. If you are new to the region, you soon learn that gardening in the Sunshine State can quickly become a full-time job. While our subtropical climate is perfect for growing an abundance of different vegetables, fruits, and herbs, it also can present some overwhelming challenges.

We can help! UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County agents and staff have created an online edible gardening resource center. The website features short videos from our 25-episode “Edible Gardening Series” webinars, along with blog posts and resources lists for episodes. Get help on an array of topics that befuddle many gardeners.

 

This week’s Question of the Week:

How do I know that the gardening advice I find online is the right advice for my Florida vegetable garden?

One of the most frequent requests we receive is for Florida vegetable gardening guides. Many aspiring gardeners seek a step-by-step guide to successful gardening. And we regularly provide gardeners with links to very helpful gardening guides (such as UF’s 11-page Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide or “Vegetable Gardening in Florida” by James Stephens).

But we also give this piece of advice: your garden is unique, so keep notes on what you observe each year. Over time, your own notes will become the best gardening guide for your garden.

There are no two gardens alike – and that is what makes gardening both so challenging and so rewarding.

Florida is a geographically large state with an incredible diversity of climate, soils, and topography. The distance from Miami to Jacksonville is roughly the same as the distance from Jacksonville to the Virginia state line!

USDA Climate Zone Map

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map shows that the northern most counties in Florida have a climate similar to coastal South Carolina and the southern most counties have a climate more similar to the Caribbean islands. That is amazing diversity in one state. And that means that gardening in north Florida is quite different than gardening in south Florida.

Similarly, there is an amazing diversity of soil and land in Florida. Much of Florida has very sandy soil that drains quickly after a big rain and does not hold onto soil nutrients or fertilizer very well. But there are also parts of Florida that have soil with a layer of clay that drains poorly and does hold onto fertilizer well. There are stretches of Florida that are flat as a pancake and regions covered in rolling hills. To really see the diversity of gardening conditions, it can be helpful to look at a general soil map of Florida or at pictures of soil profiles (deep pits dug to show the natural layers of soil).

Gardeners add their own diversity to the mix by growing directly in the ground, in raised beds, or in pots and containers of different sizes and materials and filled with a wide array of potting soil.

Iguanas are common visitors to gardens in southern Florida

Gardeners grow food outside and in lanais, in spaces protected from wind or directly hit by salty ocean breeze. There are gardens in partial shade, cooled by old trees or in full sun, surrounded by hot pavement. Gardeners in the hottest parts of the state struggle to keep iguanas out of the garden. Gardeners in rural parts of the state struggle with deer. Gardeners in urban areas struggle with squirrels and racoons.

Gardeners use different fertilizers and irrigate their plants with many different types of water. Coastal gardeners may be irrigating with somewhat salty water. Well water may be very acidic or very alkaline or be unusually high in a particular nutrient. Something as seemingly simple as the invisible chemistry of water can have a huge impact on the vegetables growing in a garden.

And finally, the inspiring diversity of vegetable varieties makes each garden even more unique. For example, there are quite literally hundreds of varieties of tomatoes in the world. No two varieties of tomato will grow exactly the same in your garden. The same variety of tomato grown five miles down the road in someone else’s garden will grow differently than it does in your garden. Grow two of the same variety of tomato side by side but planted in different sized pots and you will see two very different tomato plants.

Each garden is unique. And this is why we advise all gardeners – both new and experienced – to do two things: read the invaluable advice in gardening guides and take notes about your own garden.

Your notes will become your most valuable gardening guide.

Your notes will help you plan a successful, abundant garden year after year. Your notes will help you figure out the perfect date for planting cucumbers, the week you should start keeping an eye out for armyworms on your beets, and how often to plant lettuce so that your family always has a fresh salad in the winter. Your notes will help you remember that you loved this variety of green bean but not that one, that the amount of space and time a single head of cauliflower takes to mature in your garden is not worth it, and that one cayenne pepper plant produces more peppers than you could possibly eat in a year.

Your notes will help you see patterns such as basil grown in a pot has a different flavor and texture than basil grown in the ground, almost all veggies produce longer when the soil is mulched than when grown in bare ground, and tomato plants with leaves that touch the ground become diseased more quickly than plants that have lower leaves trimmed off.

If you are not sure what you should be taking notes on, there are countless free garden journal templates online to guide you. There are endless things you can keep track of in a garden.  Here are a few of the most important:

  • A simple map of what you planted where each year. You can create a hand-sketched map, create a fancy one with an online program, or simply create a “map” by taking photographs of your garden each year so that you can see what you grew where.

    You can download free garden record templates or create your own garden journal in a notebook. This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed underCC BY-NC-ND

  • A record of what you planted when. You can keep this simple: name of variety and date. Or you can add details such as the weather when you planted, soil moisture, how big the plants where when you planted them, and more.
  • A record of how much of each thing you planted. This can also be simple, for example: three tomatoes, six heads of romaine lettuce, and one foot of directly seeded red radishes.
  • A record of pest and disease issues and how you dealt with them. The more details you can take note of the better: when did you first notice the issue, did the plants show signs of disease when you bought them or after being in your garden for a few weeks, what was the weather like when you noticed the issue? What did you do to  manage the pests or diseases: record the names of products you used and how effective they are. Were you able to control the pest by just squishing the insects? Were you able to control the disease by simply removing diseased leaves?
  • A simple record of when you fertilized, how much you fertilized, and the brand name(s) of the fertilizers you used.

Each year when you sit down to plan your abundant garden, look through your notes. Learn from yourself and watch your unique garden grow.

The Edible Gardening Series and blog series is a partnership between the following UF/IFAS agents and Sarasota County staff:

  • Sarah Bostick, Sustainable Agriculture Agent
  • Carol Wyatt-Evens, Chemicals in the Environment Agent
  • Mindy Hanak, Community & School Gardens Educator
  • Kevin O’Horan, Communications Associate

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