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cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, green onions

New Vegetable Gardener – What to do in the Summer Vegetable Garden?

It’s the second week of June. How does the vegetable garden look? The high daytime temperatures in the mid-to-upper 90 degrees F is causing many of the flowers on most of the vegetables to drop. The rainy season has started with afternoon showers almost daily. The vegetables are getting wet and do not have time to dry off before sunset. Now they sit all night long in temperatures about the mid-70 degrees F. The native/natural fungi in our surrounding soils find this environment to be perfect for creating problems for our plants.

I believe it is time to think about the upcoming “warm season” garden and put the “warm season” garden that started in March to bed. Plan on solarizing the soil if you had soil disease problems or nematodes. Look at your garden notebook/journal and think about what went well and what you need to improve. Do you need more raised beds or trellises? Now would be a good time to make a list of materials you need to improve the garden. Order your seeds for the next gardening season and get ready to start transplants for the fall “warm season” garden in July.

Summer is a great time to take inventory of the garden. Was there enough sunlight? How about soil moisture? Did you have issues with soil disease organisms or nematodes? Did you have enough room to grow all the vegetables you wanted to grow? Did the vegetables grow well and have sufficient support to keep them off the ground? Summer is an excellent time of year to address these concerns.

If there wasn’t sufficient sunlight, move the garden to an area where there is sufficient sunlight for good food production. Move your water source closer to the garden so you can easily keep the soil moist throughout the gardening season. Increase the size of the garden to accommodate more vegetables in the next gardening season. Build another raised bed if you need it. Repair or build new trellises to support vegetables and keep them off the ground. Soil solarization is most beneficial when completed during the hot summer months.

Remove all the plant residue and weeds from the recent “warm season” garden. Till or turn the soil to expose soil organisms to sunlight and wildlife such as birds and toads.  Add a 3″ layer of compost and mix it into the top 6″ of your garden soil. If you haven’t had a pH test during the past three years, now would be a good time to send a sample to the UF Soils Laboratory for a certified report of nutrients and pH as well as a report of what you should do to improve your garden.

Now would also be ideal for solarizing the garden soil. Once the garden bed is prepared as we just discussed, cover the soil with clear plastic and keep it covered for at least six weeks.

So, you see, there are a lot of things to do in the summer garden besides growing vegetables. This is a good time to shut the garden down and help the soil recover from its recent 9-month gardening season. Summer would also be a good time to order your seeds for the next gardening year and a great time to read a good vegetable gardening book.

For those of you who simply must grow something in the vegetable garden during the hot, humid summer, there are a lot of crops that won’t mind the heat and humidity but the traditional vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, squash, cucumbers and watermelon may not be on that list. So here goes:

What Florida lacks in traditional crops, it more than makes up for in vibrant and delicious tropical vegetables.

There are many leafy greens including sweet potato leaves that can be grown during the summer months.  Amaranth (aka Callaloo) and the so called tropical spinaches, including Malabar spinach, Okinawa spinach, longevity spinach and others that are not true spinaches, will provide leafy greens all summer long.

Cassava and Boniato (Cuban sweet potato) are excellent root vegetables.

Despite its name, “summer squash” does not thrive in Florida during the summer. But there are squash relatives such as Calabaza, Seminole Pumpkin, Long squash, Chayote and luffa that are all good candidates for the summer garden. The calabaza and Seminole pumpkin may last long enough in the garden to become your new Halloween and Thanksgiving pumpkins. Harvest the luffa when less than 6” long and treat it like a cucumber. Large luffa’s can be dried out to harvest the “sponge” for the bathroom.

The standard tomato types do not perform well in our hot, humid summer gardens, so consider cherry tomatoes and tomatillos. There are heat-tolerant varieties such as “Heat Wave II” but the humid weather is still an issue.

Southern peas, winged beans, long beans and tropical pole beans are good choices for summer gardens. Additionally, these legumes can be used as a cover crop to help get your soil ready for the next “warm season” planting in mid-August.

Don’t forget Okra, Roselle (is also called Florida cranberry, red sorrel, or Jamaica sorrel) and sugarcane, which is unique to Florida. Pineapple would be a good fruit crop to add to the summer garden, but it may take up to two years before it is ready for harvest.

Okra and Southern Pea seeds can be planted directly in the ground in March. Provide about an inch of water per week (about 1/2 gallon per square foot) and provide a 6-6-6 garden fertilizer before you plant and then about every three weeks add a light feeding. Do not overfertilize the Southern Peas — they can harvest nitrogen from the soil and do not need much nitrogen from a garden fertilizer.

Okra will be ready to harvest anytime it is 2″ long or longer. If it is 6″ long or longer, it may be best to add it to the compost pile. Southern Peas can be harvested when the pods fill out (look for bumps) while the pods are still green. You can leave the peas on the plant until the pods turn tan and then harvest them as dry peas.  Both okra and southern peas seeds can be saved for planting in a future garden season.

Most of these less common vegetables should be started in the vegetable garden as early as March because some take more than six months to mature. Chayote grows best on an overhead arbor or trellis and won’t be ready for harvesting until August.

Unfortunately, seeds for some of these less common plants are not generally found in nationwide big box stores. Look for them in the local garden stores, southern–specializing seed catalogs and plant swaps.

Come back and read more about the “New Vegetable Gardener.”