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Edible Gardening Series: Question of the Week – citizen scientist in the garden

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:

I’m inspired to learn more about what does and doesn’t work in my own garden, how do I get started?

Every garden is its own unique and wonderful experiment. Each garden is unlike any other garden in the world. Even two plots in a small community garden are different from one another – each a product of what was grown in past years and how the plants and soil were managed.

That uniqueness is exactly what makes gardens such a wonderful environment for practicing your skills as a citizen scientist.

Every scientist needs some basic tools, resources, and a place to write down observations. With those three things in hand, you are ready to start learning from your own garden experiments. If you need help with ideas or understanding the basics before doing your own experiments, visit our online edible gardening resource center and learn about the topics that interest you most.

 

Here are a few simple experiments you can do in your own garden.

Seed varieties

The large, dark purple, tear-drop shaped eggplant sold in grocery stores is just one of hundreds of types of eggplant worldwide.

Try growing two varieties of the same vegetable that are from two different parts of the world. For example, you can grow a variety of eggplant common in hot, dry Mediterranean climates like Italy next to a variety of eggplant common in hot, humid, rainy climates like southeast Asia. Observe how each variety holds up to our heavy rainstorms, notice differences in pest pressure, keep track of how much fruit each produces, and take note of how many weeks each plant makes fruit.

Planting dates

Many Florida planting calendars divide the state into three different zones: North, Central, and South. Many gardeners find that if they live near the transition line between two zones, they have better luck following the dates for one zone for some veggies and the other zone for other veggies. Try planting the same vegetables on a variety of dates. Keep track of the results and repeat your experiment for at least two years. You might discover, for example, that green beans planted in early March survive just fine but beans planted two weeks later when nighttime temperatures are higher quickly catch up with the beans planted earlier. Learning this about your garden means that you save out on two weeks of weeding and pest-management on your beans! Discover your own perfect planting dates.

Mulch

There are many small experiments you can do with mulch. Try using different types of mulch in your garden: notice if there is a different in how plants respond to them and take note of how long each type of mulch takes to break down and how good each type is at suppressing weeds or holding in soil moisture. You can experiment with how thick you spread mulch: is one inch deep better than three inches for carrots but not for kale? You can also experiment with mulching part of your garden and leaving the other part un-mulched. Notice everything you can about your plants and soil on the two sides of your garden: how often do you have to water, how large do plants grow, is there a difference in flavor or texture, which plants produce the most or biggest fruit, which plants bolt (flower) the quickest.

Water

The experiments you can do with water are endless! Here are a few ideas: If you are growing in containers, compare the results of top watering vs bottom watering. Water your garden early in the morning vs in the middle of the day. Give your garden just a little bit of water everyday vs deeply watering your garden once every few days.

Shade

In Florida, some vegetables and herbs thrive in partial shade and others will survive but not thrive. Read our blog post about light requirements for different vegetables and herbs in Florida and design your own experiment. You can discover how many pounds of fruit a tomato plant will produce when planted in 75% shade, 50% shade, 25% shade, and full sun. Or you can try planting heat-sensitive plants like lettuce or spinach in the shade of a tomato plant to find out if they will thrive further into the hot season than they do when planted in full sun.

Beneficials

Learn to recognize insects at all of their life stages. This ladybug larvae (the black and orange insect) is busy eating aphids. Photo credit.

Insects! Bugs! Flowers! Plants! The combinations are endless and endlessly fun to experiment with. Download or pick up a copy of the Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape Design at your local UF/IFAS Extension Office and learn about the dozens of native and Florida-friendly plants that pollinators and other beneficial insects love. Plant a few Florida-friendly plants near your vegetable garden and start to observe the insect life. Can you identify the insects in your garden at all their life stages? Which are beneficial and which are pests? Are some beneficial in one life stage and a pest in another life stage? If you see an aphid outbreak on your kale, try leaving it alone and observing how long it takes for beneficial insects like lady bugs and lacewings to arrive and start eating aphids.

 

Companion planting

Many gardeners are intrigued by the idea of companion planting but don’t know where to start. The basic idea behind companion planting is that there are combinations of plants that grow well together and other combinations that don’t grow so well together. Check out some of these resources and design your own companion planting experiment. Remember that combinations that grow well for some gardeners might not be the perfect combination for your garden.

  • Companion planting in Florida vegetable gardens blog.
  • Cornell University guide to companion planting that helps you understand what is proven, what is myth, and what needs some more experimentation – experimentation that is perfect for home gardeners.
  • Plant Guilds: Taking Companion Planting to the Next Level. This is the pdf of a very interesting conference presentation from an experimental farm.
  • Want to see the idea of companion planting taken to a whole new level? Watch this virtual tour of ECHO Global Farm in Ft. Myers and learn about polycultures and planting guilds. If you are intrigued, you can watch part two of the virtual tour or take an in-person tour.

 

Trap Crops

Trap crops are used by both farmers and gardeners worldwide. The basic idea behind a trap crop is that you plant a pest’s favorite food to draw it away from your other garden plants. Once lured to a small number of trap crop plants, you can manage the insects by hand-squishing or spraying on just a few plants rather than your whole garden. Learn the basics in this excellent tutorial on managing squash bugs and squash vine borers with blue hubbard squash. From there, you can do your own trap crop experiments based on what you notice the pests in your garden like to eat best.

And remember: have fun and take notes!

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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