Video: Stevia, As Sweet as Can Be

Video: Stevia, As Sweet as Can Be

Stevia grows well when planted in the ground or in a container. Learn basic care in the garden and how to use fresh leaves to sweeten your next dish or drink with UF IFAS Extension Escambia County’s Garden to Table segment.

Romaine: Lettuce of an Empire

Romaine: Lettuce of an Empire

Who doesn’t enjoy a fresh, crisp bowl of salad? Lettuce happens to be a vegetable that is easily grown in Florida for fall & winter gardens. In Florida, four types of lettuce are commonly grown: crisphead, butterhead, leaf, & today’s topic, romaine.

Photo courtesy of Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS.

An interesting, little known fact about romaine lettuce is that it was cultivated extensively by the Roman Empire. By the fourteenth century, the Catholic Hierarchy had moved from Rome to Avignon, France bringing their prized lettuce along with them. During this period, the plant was known as “Avignon” lettuce. In England, romaine is called “cos” lettuce named after the Greek islands from which the lettuce was originally distributed. Of course, in the U.S., the name we give, Romaine, refers to the time when it was grown extensively in the Roman Empire.

Romaine is grown both commercially and in backyard gardens across the state. Like all lettuce, this is a cool season vegetable. September through March is a generally the extent of the growing season. Romaine can be grown from seeds or by transplants. If you are going the seeding route, just remember these seeds are very small and should be sown shallow and in a tight pattern, with 12”-18” row spacing and a light sprinkle of soil over the top. Newly planted seeds may require burlap or straw to help retain soil moisture for successful germination. Once plants reach a few inches in height, rows can be thinned to where plants are 8” apart.

Romaine needs adequate soil moisture throughout the season. Mulching around plants to retain moisture and adding a complete fertilizer such as 8-8-8 will help ensure a good yield. Lettuce is vulnerable to the usual suspects of garden pests. However, gardening in cooler months helps combat that threat.

Romaine lettuce is fun and rewarding to harvest, as well. You can pick a few leaves off a plant or harvest the entire head.

For more information, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office.

Supporting information for this article can be found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, “Romaine – Lactuca sativa L.” by James M. Stephens, Emeritus Extension Vegetable Crops Specialist, UF/IFAS: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mv125

UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.

‘Patio Baby’: An Eggplant for Any Space

‘Patio Baby’: An Eggplant for Any Space

In my ongoing search for low-maintenance vegetable varieties that perform well in small spaces, like my raised bed garden, I decided to try a newish Eggplant variety called ‘Patio Baby’ this summer.  Developed by PanAmerican Seed and winner of the 2014 All-American Selections Vegetable- edible category, I was drawn to ‘Patio Baby’ due to the advertising claims made that it was a true miniature variety, perfect for growing in containers, only reaching 20” or so in height and producing both “early” and abundant fruit.  I’ve been very pleased with the performance of this extremely unique variety so far in my informal backyard trial and definitely think it deserves consideration in your garden too!

‘Patio Baby’ fruit ready for harvest in September 2020. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

The first observation when seeing a mature ‘Patio Baby’ is how small the plant is, leaves, flowers, fruit, everything.  Compared to a standard ‘Black Beauty’ variety, ‘Patio Baby’ plants measure maybe a third as tall and wide.  Where a “normal” eggplant fruit might be slightly larger than a softball and often have spines on their calyxes (the green part that connects the purple fruit to the stems), ‘Patio Baby’ fruit are roughly the size of a large chicken egg and totally spineless!  I find this smaller plant and fruit size to have several perks.  Vegetable plants that grow 2’ tall and wide are just about perfect for raised bed gardening.  If you don’t require a large quantity of eggplant, you won’t have to sacrifice an entire bed’s space to ‘Patio Baby’ like you would with the standard varieties. Also, ‘Patio Baby’ fruit won’t bend or break branches and are held strongly on the plants, with no need for staking, another bonus when space is at a premium.  Finally, I find it much easier to harvest, handle and prepare the small, spineless ‘Patio Baby’ fruit in the kitchen.  Think of them as a “personal pan” eggplant.  As I’m the only one in my house who eats much eggplant, I waste a lot less fruit cooking these little guys!

‘Patio Baby’ mature fruit. Standard house key used as a size reference. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

‘Patio Baby’ Eggplant also lives up to its reputation of being exceedingly easy and quick to grow.  I purchased a packet of ‘Patio Baby’ seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in June and planted three in a 20” diameter decorative pot next to my raised bed garden during the first week of July, behind summer squash that had recently expired in the heat of late June.  After sprouting, the plants grew strongly and, true to form for most Eggplant varieties, were bothered by no serious pest or disease issues other than the normal stinkbugs and occasional caterpillar that plague summer gardens in Florida.  Around 8 weeks from sowing seed in the soil, cute, egg-shaped fruit were ready for harvest!  Over the next three or four weeks, my single plant produced around 50 of the cute little fruit.  More than enough for me and plenty to share, the goal of my gardening endeavors.

‘Patio Baby’ produces lots of fruit in a small package! Photo courtesy of Daniel Leoanrd.

If you’ve run out of space in your raised bed garden, just want a single plant for your back porch or simply want to try a novelty vegetable variety, my experience this summer deems ‘Patio Baby’ Eggplant is an excellent option!  For an eggplant that is space-efficient, very early and heavy producing, and comes in a more easily harvestable, kitchen-friendly package, try ‘Patio Baby’.  For more information about raised bed gardening, vegetable varieties or any other horticultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office.  Happy Gardening!

Using a Buckwheat Cover Crop in Raised Bed Gardens

Using a Buckwheat Cover Crop in Raised Bed Gardens

2020 has not been the most pleasant year in many ways.  However, one positive experience I’ve had in my raised bed vegetable garden has been the use of a cover crop, Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)! Use of cover crops, a catch-all term for many species of plants used to “cover” field soil during fallow periods, became popular in agriculture over the last century as a method to protect and build soil in response to the massive wind erosion and cropland degradation event of the 1930s, the Dust Bowl.  While wind erosion isn’t a big issue in raised bed gardens, cover crops, like Buckwheat, offer many other services to gardeners:

Buckwheat in flower behind summer squash. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

  • Covers, like Buckwheat, provide valuable weed control by shading out the competition.  Even after termination (the cutting down or otherwise killing of the cover crop plants and letting them decompose back into the soil as a mulch), Buckwheat continues to keep weeds away, like pinestraw in your landscape.
  • Cover crops also build soil. This summer, I noticed that my raised beds didn’t “sink” as much as normal.  In fact, I actually gained a little nutrient-rich organic matter!  By having the Buckwheat shade the soil and then compost back into it, I mostly avoided the phenomena that causes soils high in organic matter, particularly ones exposed to the sun, to disappear over time due to breakdown by microorganisms.
  • Many cover crops are awesome attractors of pollinators and beneficial insects. At any given time while my Buckwheat cover was flowering, I could spot several wasp species, various bees, flies, moths, true bugs, and even a butterfly or two hovering around the tiny white flowers sipping nectar.
  • Covers are a lot prettier than bare soil and weeds! Where I would normally just have either exposed black compost or a healthy weed population to gaze upon, Buckwheat provided a quick bright green color blast that then became covered with non-stop white flowers. I’ll take that over bare soil any day.

Buckwheat cover before termination (left) and after (right) interplanted with Eggplant. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard, UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension.

Now that I’ve convinced you of Buckwheat’s raised bed cover crop merits, let’s talk technical and learn how and when to grow it.  Buckwheat seed is easily found and can be bought in nearly any quantity.  I bought a one-pound bag online from Johnny’s Selected Seeds for my raised beds, but you can also purchase larger sizes up to 50 lb bags if you have a large area to cover.  Buckwheat seed germinates quickly as soon as nights are warmer than 50 degrees F and can be cropped continuously until frost strikes in the fall.   A general seeding rate of 2 or 3 lbs/1000 square feet (enough to cover about thirty 4’x8’ raised beds, it goes a long way!) will generate a thick cover.  Simply extrapolate this out to 50-80 lbs/acre for larger garden sites.  I scattered seeds over the top of my beds at the above rate and covered lightly with garden soil and obtained good results.  Unlike other cover crops (I’m looking at you Crimson Clover) Buckwheat is very tolerant of imperfect planting depths.  If you plant a little deep, it will generally still come up.  A bonus, no additional fertilizer is required to grow a Buckwheat cover in the garden, the leftover nutrients from the previous vegetable crop will normally be sufficient!

Buckwheat “mulch” after termination. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard, UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension.

Past the usual cover crop benefits, the thing that makes Buckwheat stand out among its peers as a garden cover is its extremely rapid growth and short life span.  From seed sowing to termination, a Buckwheat cover is only in the garden for 4-8 weeks, depending on what you want to use it for.  After four weeks, you’ll have a quick, thick cover and subsequent mulch once terminated.  After eight weeks or so, you’ll realize the plant’s full flowering and beneficial/pollinator insect attracting potential.  This lends great flexibility as to when it can be planted.  Have your winter greens quit on you but you’re not quite ready to set out tomatoes?  Plant a quick Buckwheat cover!  Yellow squash wilting in the heat of summer but it’s not quite time yet for the fall garden?  Plant a Buckwheat cover and tend it the rest of the summer!  Followed spacing guidelines and only planted three Eggplant transplants in a 4’x8’ raised bed and have lots of open space for weeds to grow until the Eggplant fills in?  Plant a Buckwheat cover and terminate before it begins to compete with the Eggplant!

If a soil building, weed suppressing, beneficial insect attracting, gorgeous cover crop for those fallow garden spots sounds like something you might like, plant a little Buckwheat!  For more information on Buckwheat, cover crops, or any other gardening topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office.  Happy Gardening!

Foodscaping:  Landscape Design with an Edible Twist

Foodscaping: Landscape Design with an Edible Twist

Did you ever want to grow something for the dinner table in your yard, but said “I don’t have the space”, or “I don’t have the time”, or “it seems like a lot of hard work or even I have restrictions because of the homeowner’s association I live in”?

If so, then foodscaping might be the answer to growing food in your yard.  Landscape beds have traditionally been planted with trees, shrubs, groundcovers, flowers and even vines while edibles were relegated to garden plots containing vegetable and herbs.  Foodscaping is a growing trend that takes edibles from formal vegetable plots into landscape beds.

Rosemary in the UF/IFAS Extension Wakulla entrance bed.

Foodscaping works for both newly planted landscapes and established ones.  Only a few square feet are needed to begin.  When most new landscapes are planted, they space plants apart for future mature growth.  Until the shrubs fill in, you have usable space.  The same holds true for established landscapes.  Sometimes there is empty space.  Whatever the cause, there now is a foodscaping opportunity.

Some of the best examples of beginning foodscaping plants are herbs and greens.  A good number of cooking herbs are perennials and can add seasonal accent to the yard and flavor in the kitchen.  Some examples are oregano*, thyme, rosemary, sage, lemongrass, chives, garlic chives, winter savory, mints*, chamomile, lavender, and lovage (* containers will help control the spread).

Mint insert 1

Potted chocolate mint between red salvia and yew.

Some annuals herbs include dill, fennel, cilantro/coriander, basil, garlic, sweet marjoram (perennial but acts like an annual in colder areas) and tarragon.  These herbs are compact, just one or two plant in a space with a bit of room to grow is all that’s needed.  Other vagetables that offer a seasonal groundcover look are greens like assorted leaf lettuces, spinach, mustard, bok choy, collards, sorrel, burnet, parsley and kale.  These herbs and vegetables attract the senses with their colors, textures, and fragrances.

Once you get the hang of these easier foodscaping plants, you can branch out into more traditional garden favorites like potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, peas, beets, radishes, celery or anything that fits the space and cultural/environmental requirements.

Besides having some quick and easy items to eat from the yard, you are also doing your bit for the environment by reducing vehicle travel, which reduces your carbon footprint.  And if you have extra, share with your neighbors and encourage them to foodscape as well.  For more information check out https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/design/types-of-gardens/foodscaping.html.