By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
As the old saying goes “August weather is fit for neither man nor beast,” and it is not making gardening a lot of fun either. High humidity, 90 degree plus temperature, and a bumper crop of bugs all add up to a big challenge.
The spring garden’s selection of tender vegetables has long since played out and gone to the compost pile. There are, however, a few heirloom exceptions which are still delivering menu options despite the seasonal doldrums.
It is worth noting why these cultivars or varieties are not commercially produced, despite their ability to handle Wakulla’s summer heat. Choices in the supermarket are available for very specific reasons.
One big reason is heirlooms produce a crop over weeks, sometimes months. Varieties found at the grocer usually mature in a narrow window of time, which makes harvesting and packing much more efficient from a business perspective.
Another reason is shelf life, the ability to stay fresh and usable longer. Many heirlooms must be used in close proximity of picking or they will spoil.
This springs demonstration garden selection included crooked neck squash, a home vegetable garden staple and frequently seen in markets for sale to the public. South Florida is a major squash producer during the winter months with the harvest shipped to many terminal markets in the eastern U.S. and Canada.
Like many commercial vegetable crops, the crooked neck (and straight neck) squash fields are picked one or two times. Most of the yield has been produced, and then the fields are left until the next planting.
Lemon squash, an heirloom variety, was also planted in the demonstration garden this spring. It blooms later and with less intensity than the crooked neck variety. From a commercial perspective this is not a good quality, but to the home gardener who wants to eat fresh squash all season this is ideal.
The two plants currently in the garden have produced approximately 40 pounds of the round yellow squash since early June. Despite the shape difference the texture, flavor and density are similar to the crook and straight neck cultivars.
The lemon squash plants, despite the hot and humid weather, are still consistently delivering the globe shape squash which weigh approximately eight ounces. The yellow crook neck which are in an adjacent bed and treated identically, have ceased to produce.
Another heirloom variety which has performed well in the demonstration garden is the Everglades tomato plants. This heat tolerant cherry variety tomato is still producing fruit.
Most tomatoes will not set fruit after blooming once temperature readings exceed 84 degrees for any length of time. Like squash and many other commercial vegetables, south Florida uses its mild winters to produce many fresh market tomatoes.
As temperatures warm in the spring, the tomato production moves rapidly north through the Quincy, Florida area into Georgia then far beyond. Growers are ever mindful of the temperature range for successful fruiting.
The tiny Everglades tomato, five and a half to produce an ounce, easily handles the warmer temperature, but will decay a few days after picking which makes them completely impractical for shipping. One example plant of this heirloom cultivar produced 1107 tomatoes weighing a total of 11.6 pounds as of Friday, August 5, 2016.
August weather may not be comfortable, but fresh vegetables can still be successfully grown. The heirloom varieties provide tangible evidence of menu options before the advent of retail grocery chains.