Carrots growing in a large container.
After tending a home vegetable garden for any length of time in the Panhandle, you begin to learn some things. Tomatoes are awfully hard to grow. Raised beds drastically lower the difficulty of gardening in general. You should never plant mint in a permanent veggie garden. Swiss Chard has to be started early because it grows as molasses creeps. Of all of these anecdotal maxims I’ve discovered, the one with the most flavor return on my gardening investment is that carrots should always be a part of your cool season garden. A fresh carrot out of the garden is hard to beat. The difference between a grocery store carrot and one fresh out of your own garden is astonishing and will change your culinary life. Though carrot season in Florida is just ending (my final batch was harvested yesterday), it’s the perfect time to learn about growing carrots here and plan to get some in the ground this fall!
There are a number of reasons to grow and eat carrots. They’re obviously very healthy, though I dispute the whole eat carrots and you’ll have great eyesight thing – apparently I acquired the taste for them too late to help. They go well in more dishes than they don’t. However, the real two reasons you should supplement your grocery store carrot purchases with home grown harvests are that they’re so easy to grow and that there are so many more options than the standard long, thin orange varieties adorning the produce aisle shelves.
Though carrots are remarkable easy to grow, they do ask a couple of things of gardeners. They are a cool season vegetable and are generally planted from seed beginning in late August through early September in the Panhandle, though successive plantings can continue through at least February if you want to extend your harvest. Also, like many other root vegetables, carrots don’t transplant well so direct seeding in the garden is a must. But before you even consider seeding, care must be taken to make sure the soil bed you’ll be seeding in has been properly prepared. One of the few ways to fail growing carrots is to not start with a loose soil free from any potential obstructions. If the development of the carrot root is disturbed by anything during the germination and growing process (this includes manure aggregates or other clumpy soil, sticks, rocks or even a hard layer of soil hiding under your loose compost), the end product will be deformed. To prevent this, thoroughly till your raised bed soil to at least 12” and break up any larger soil particles that are left with your hands. If you don’t get your soil bed perfect though, fear not, deformed carrots are definitely edible, they just won’t look like they’re supposed to and are more difficult to clean and process!
Deformed carrots due to clumpy compost!
Once you’re ready to plant, I’ve found it easier on poor eyes and fumbling fingers like mine to sprinkle the tiny carrot seeds in shallowly furrowed rows 10”-12” apart and thin the seedlings later, rather than trying to individually space seeds the recommended 1”-3” apart. Finally, these colorful little veggies love water and require good fertility. To ensure good expansion of the edible root, maintain consistent moisture and fertilize at planting with a good slow release fertilizer. Additional fertilizer applications may be required later in the growing season as most carrots take around ten weeks to gain maturity.
‘Sugarsnax’ (orange) and ‘Malbec’ (red) carrots
In this age of online catalogs, farmer’s markets, and demanding consumers who crave interesting food, the selection of carrot varieties available for gardeners to grow has never been better. Among the hundreds of individual cultivar options are several broad types of carrots you’ll need to choose from. You’re probably familiar with the Imperator types. These are the extra-long, durable carrots most often find in stores. If you have a deep raised bed or other large container, Imperator varieties can be extremely rewarding! I grew the Imperator-type ‘Sugarsnax’ this year and highly recommend it for ease of growing, size and flavor. Next up are the Nantes types. These carrots are medium length and cylindrically shaped. Sometimes called “storage” carrots, these types tend to store well for long periods of time after harvest and retain their flavor well. I’ve tried a few over the last several years and can recommend ‘Bolero’ and ‘Napoli’ with confidence. There is even a carrot type for those of you with shallow raised beds (8” or less) that can’t accommodate the previously listed types! Chantenay type carrots are excellent performers in these situations as they are generally a bit shorter and possess a conical shape with roots wider at the top and tapering to the tip, making a deep soil bed a bit less critical. Finally, there are even some excellent cultivars of carrots in colors other than orange! That’s right, you can grow white, purple, yellow, and even red carrots! I’ve done very well with ‘Purple Haze’ (purple with orange interior), ‘White Satin’ (creamy white color), and ‘Malbec’ (deep, rich red) and highly recommend all three. Keep in mind that the red and purple carrots tend to lose their color when cooked, so the greatest effect is seen when eaten fresh. All of these cultivars can be found at nearly any of the numerous online and catalog seed retainers such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Burpee, and others.
As you can see, carrots are an easy to grow, extremely rewarding vegetable for the home gardener; give some a try in your raised beds next fall! And as always, if you have any questions about growing carrots or any other gardening related question, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office!
Are you a patient gardener? If not, try you hand at growing microgreens. Why wait for at least a month or so for a harvest when you can enjoy fresh greens in as little as 7 days.
Microgreens are the tender seedlings of your favorite vegetable or herb. They are grown in containers or flats and harvested when the first seed leaves are fully emerged. You may also wait until you see the first true leaf. Unlike sprouts, microgreens require light and are cut when harvesting to only include the stem and leaves. Depending on the seeds you start, you may enjoy mild or spicy greens, or refreshing lemony flavors of a young herb.
Microgreens can offer beautiful colors for your dish. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.
Here are the basic steps to get started growing microgreens.
- Get a commercial tray or recycled container and sterilize it in a 10% bleach solution. Make sure your recycled containers have drainage holes.
- Choose a good seed starting potting mix that is more fine textured. Many seeds you will start are small and a mix with a lot of bark may affect seedling germination. Add one to 1.5 inches of the soil in your container. You don’t need more depth of soil since you will be harvesting in a week to 20 days.
- Decide which types of greens you like. Consider arugula, radish, mizuna, or mustard for some spice. Swiss chard and purple cabbage will give you color, while collards, broccoli, and kale will offer mild flavors. Don’t forget about herbs like dill, cilantro, or basil for good flavors too.
- Once you have chosen your seed, beginners should seed one selection per container. As you learn the growth rate of your favorite selection, you may can combine different varieties in a flat.
- Make sure your soil is moistened (but not soaking) and spread seed on top of the soil. You will be adding about 12 seeds per square inch of soil for small seeds and about 7 seeds per square inch for larger seeds.
- Sprinkle vermiculite over the seeds and then use a spray bottle or nozzle mister to moisten the vermiculite.
Vermiculite allows moisture to get to seeds and may reduce seedling disease pressures. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County
- Place containers in a greenhouse, window sill, or indoor growing tray. As soon as the seeds germinate, make sure they are receiving bright light. If growing indoors, the fluorescent or plant lights need to be a few inches above seedlings. Move the lights higher as your seedlings grow.
New seedlings need bright light. Indoor lights that are 2-3 inches from seedlings prevent thin, spindly stems. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County
- Maintain a room temperature of about 70 degrees F. Temperatures above 75 degrees F can lead to disease issues
- It is also best to water from the bottom to prevent disease issues. If this is not possible, carefully water seedlings so not to injure delicate plants.
- Radish and kale will be ready for harvest in about 7 days. Swiss chard, basils, and cilantro may take 20 days.
Microgreens are ready to harvest. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County
- Use clean scissors to cut stems, careful not to pull up any soil. Remaining soil and roots can be composted.
- When you are ready to use in a salad, sandwich or in juicing, place microgreens in a bowl of water to wash. Let them air dry on a paper towel.
The good news about growing microgreens, is if you find they are not to your liking or too much trouble, you it has only been a couple of weeks of effort.
Many Americans have a remarkably unrefined taste in salads; my brother has long counted himself in this group. Dice up some crunchy Iceberg type lettuce, splash on a dollop of ranch dressing, maybe chop a leaf of romaine up if you’re feeling frisky and call it a salad, this is the way we’ve been trained to eat. I’m here, a voice in the supermarket produce aisle wilderness calling, to tell you it’s time to open up your palate, look beyond lettuce, live a little, and add some spice to your life and salad bowl with three of my favorite easy to grow leafy greens: Mizuna, Frilly Mustard, and Italian Dandelion.
Mature Mizuna plants in the author’s container garden.
Before we get into species specifics, let’s cover a couple of reasons you should grow them at home! Growing your own flavor-packed greens has many benefits. First, leaves from these plants can be difficult to find anywhere but specialty health food stores or high-end supermarkets. Growing your own ensures a consistent supply, especially if one utilizes the “cut and come again” harvesting method (just remove the leaves and stems you need that day, leave the crown intact and allow the plant to regrow for next week’s harvest). Second, you do not have to worry about the too common food safety recalls and other health scares involving “leafies”. If you follow standard safety practices (clean irrigation water, wash picked leaves and store properly, etc.), you’ll be eating scrumptious salads when everyone else is begrudgingly trashing entire bags of recalled store-bought greens. Finally, each of these species double as gorgeous accent plants in
‘Scarlet Frills’ Mustard in the author’s container garden.
raised beds or containers. I love plants that do heavy lifting as both eye-catching ornamentals and delicious edibles!
Mizuna is a little known member of the mustard family that is quickly becoming one of my favorite leafy greens! It faces no major pest or disease problems in the garden and it is extremely tolerant of the cold weather Floridians periodically face through the winter, laughing off frost. Mizuna possesses lovely, deeply cut, pale green, fringy leaves complete with crispy white stems, all of which are edible – no need to separate stems when processing to eat! This lovely little Asian green has a mild peppery taste (think a toned-down Arugula) and adds perfect flavor and texture to any salad!
Many Southerners are well acquainted with traditional Mustard greens and their preparation (more than a little bacon and salt) but may not be aware of newer Mustard cultivars that give the species a bit of refinement and make it a salad celebrity! This winter, I’m growing a cultivar of Mustard called ‘Scarlet Frills’ (aptly named with finely serrated burgundy-red leaves) and really enjoy its peppery horseradish taste as a foil to the mildly sweet taste of traditional salad greens like lettuce and spinach. Mustards are extremely cold tolerant and slow to bolt, making it a mainstay in the salad garden all winter long; you really get your money’s worth from a few Mustard plants! However, even if this leafy green wasn’t delicious, it would be worth growing. The “fancier” Mustard cultivars are highly ornamental and deserve a spot in any cool season container garden.
‘Italiko Red’ Italian Dandelion in the author’s container garden.
Finally, the one that turns up the most noses when I mention growing and eating it, Italian Dandelion (Cichorium intybus)! I’m not advocating foraging in your turfgrass to find dinner, in fact, Italian Dandelion is not a true dandelion (it’s actually a chicory). However, it does share a number of features with its weedy cousin, including leaves that are similar in appearance and a vigorous taproot. That’s where the comparisons stop though, as Italian dandelion is a superior garden plant, more upright growing, much larger, and deeper green (some varieties including the one I grow ‘Italiko Red’ have red veined leaves) than its wild cousin. Unlike Mizuna and some of the milder mustards, Italian Dandelion is a bit of an acquired taste. It imparts a strong bitter flavor that may be cut with milder greens in a salad or cooked down to reduce bitterness. Either way you try it, put Italian Dandelion on your cool season garden next year!
Mizuna, Frilly Mustard, and Italian Dandelion all require similar growing conditions. In Florida, leafy greens are cool season vegetables, growing through the fall, winter and spring months. Seeds should be sown in late September and can be stagger-sown (plantings every couple of weeks) to ensure a steady supply through spring. As a rule, they prefer rich, well-drained soil high in organic matter. These soil conditions are achievable with either quality commercial potting mixes or homemade concoctions of compost and pine bark. The beds or containers you fill with the aforementioned soil should be sited near a good water source (plants that aren’t convenient to water get neglected, trust me) in an area that gets 6-8 hours of full sunlight. I like to topdress at planting (if using transplants) or after germination (if using seed) with a good general purpose, slow-release fertilizer, many formulations and brands that work are widely available for purchase. Finally, be sure to purchase seed from a quality source. Online purveyors Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and Sow True Seeds are good places to start, though the options are nearly endless!
Next year, when planning your cool season garden, remember to add a little spice with these three leafy greens, Mizuna, Frilly Mustard, and Italian Dandelion! For more information about cool season gardening and other topics, consult your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.
University of Minnesota Extension
Is your grandmother’s pass along Christmas cactus blooming really early? Do the leaf segments have “teeth” along the edges? Are the “stringy things” sticking out of the flowers yellow in color? Well, I hate to tell you this, but that is not a Christmas cactus, (Schlumbergera bridgesii). It is a Thanksgiving cactus, (Schlumbergera truncata). You can tell the Thanksgiving cactus apart from the Christmas cactus by the shape of the leaves and flower anthers. The leaves, botanically referred to as phylloclades, are serrated on the Thanksgiving cactus. Additionally, the pollen-bearing anthers in Thanksgiving cactus flowers are yellow. Christmas cactus have smooth-edged leaves and pinkish-purple anthers. Both of these species are native to the coastal mountains of south-eastern Brazil, where they are found growing in trees or on rocks. Therefore, the preferred potting media for Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti should contain about 40% perlite to ensure good drainage and aeration. To care for your Thanksgiving cactus, allow the soil to dry out when it is not blooming. As flower buds develop, the soil should be moist to the touch. However, overwatering can kill the plant. Additionally, provide plenty of indirect light and temperatures of 60-65 degrees F. Want to get last year’s plant to bloom again? Beginning in mid-September, it will need 12-14 hours of total darkness along with cool (60-65 degrees F) nighttime temperatures for 3-4 weeks. To achieve the light control the cactus can be placed in a closet or covered with a large brown paper bag overnight. Once buds start to form, fertilizer can be applied to encourage growth and blooms. However, flower buds will fall off with any significant changes in temperature (below 50 degrees F), light or watering.
Now, if your “Christmas cactus” doesn’t set flowers until spring, it is probably an Easter cactus, a totally different species (Rhipsalidopsis gaetner). The leaf margins of Easter cactus have small bristles and are more three-dimensional with a thick ridge on one side. Additionally, the flower are more star-shaped than the other two cacti. All three cacti species have flowers that come in a range of colors including variations of red, pink, peach, purple, orange or white.
Fatsia japonica, common name Japanese aralia, provides tropical texture to your landscape. That coarse texture is attributed to its large (nearly a foot wide) leaves that are deeply lobed (maple leaf shaped). This shade-loving plant performs well in moist (not soggy) locations. Upright stems originate near ground level usually near the base of older stems. The stems grow to about eight feet tall before bending toward the ground under their own weight.
Even though the foliage of this species is enough to make you want it in your own garden, you will absolutely fall in love with its blooms. Upright clusters of showy, creamy white flowers begin to appear in fall. These little snowballs provide wonderful color to your garden. The shiny, black fruits appear in winter and are prominent for several weeks. The fruit are know to attract birds to the landscape.
A Fatsia japonica specimen in full bloom. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension
Fatsia japonica thrives in the shade in slightly acidic, nutrient-rich, moist soil. Older stems become leggy and can be cut back to encourage branching. In the right place, Fatsia japonica is low-maintenance and not typically bothered by pests. It is also known to perform well in coastal landscapes. It fits well in entryways, in containers, or in mass plantings spaced three feet apart.
Florida is known for many things, however sweeping vistas of hillsides covered in the orange, red, and yellow foliage of fall is not one of them. Our long, hot summers and short, cool (not cold) winters, and lack of anything of substance resembling a season in between, precludes the fall color show our neighbors to the north enjoy. Don’t settle for synthetic Halloween decorations or faux painted leaves to add festivity to the autumn landscape design. When football season kicks off and summer blooming annuals begin to fade, it’s time to reach into the horticultural toolbox and pull out a couple fall-y Florida Friendly annual foliage species, perfect for the balmy Panhandle “autumn”: ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus and ‘Petra’ croton.
‘Alabama Sunset’ Coleus in mixed container – Photo Courtesy Andrea Schnapp
The first plant to consider when looking for outstanding heat tolerant foliage is the common coleus (Solenostemon scuttellarioides), particularly the cultivar ‘Alabama Sunset’. As the name indicates, ‘Alabama Sunset’ offers leaves in shades of red and yellow, perfect for designing fall containers or mixing into planting beds. This popular summer annual is known for its ability to add interesting color and texture to shady areas.
Recently with the arrival of the ‘sun coleus’ series (to which ‘Alabama Sunset’ belongs), coleus is permissible in situations with greater sunlight. Coleus is incredibly easy to grow and easy to find since nearly every nursery stocks at least a few cultivars. What’s more, these plants are generally free of pests and disease problems! Even sun coleus does appreciate a little protection from the hot afternoon sun and occasional deadheading of flowers.
‘Petra’ Croton. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
The second plant in the fall foliage arsenal is ‘Petra croton’ (Codiaeum variegatum ‘Petra’). Primarily known as a tropical foliage or indoor houseplant, Petra croton is criminally underused in fall landscape and container design. Petra croton sports bold magnolia-sized leaves striped with colors of yellow, red, orange, and black. A great Halloween plant to complement those front-porch Jack-O-Lanterns!
Like coleus, Petra croton is extremely easy to grow either in a container or in the ground. It should be located in either in full sun or partial shade and watered through establishment. Otherwise, this species is quite drought tolerant and can be killed with kindness if watered too frequently!
Although croton is a perennial shrub in the tropics, in Northwest Florida it may be killed by frost and best treated as an annual. Croton can be expected to reach 30-36” in height in a single season, its size and the boldly colored foliage make it a true focal point in the autumn landscape!
Appalachian-grade fall color may be unattainable in the Panhandle in the literal sense, but with these novel plant selections the autumn mood may be present even as the emerald waves hit the sugar white sand. By using annual foliage plants that possess traditional fall colors throughout their life cycle, anyone can add a splash of Autumn to their mixed containers or landscape beds. ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus and ‘Petra’ croton are the perfect match for this time of year, pairing ease of culture with bold, seasonal color. Plant a couple today!