New Zealand spinach has a mild flavor, flourishes in the heat, and can serve as a nutritious summer salad. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.
If you’ve ever tried growing lettuce (Lactuca sativa), true spinach (Spinacia oleracea), or crops in the cabbage family (Brassica spp.) in late spring or summer in the subtropics of Florida, you know that our extreme heat can make it difficult. Between bolting leaves, fungal diseases, insect pressure, and poor germination, it can be quite a challenge to keep greens on the dinner table all year long.
Fortunately, there are a few greens that – while less well known – can take our Florida heat and are relatively easy to grow. Some of these greens include New Zealand spinach, Malabar spinach, and perpetual spinach. They are frost sensitive and prefer well-drained, slightly acidic soil and require regular watering, but they don’t need a lot of fertilizer or special attention. Additionally, they are resistant to most pests and diseases.
New Zealand Spinach
New Zealand spinach tastes similar to true spinach but can stand up to the Florida heat. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr, Starr Environmental, Bugwood.org.
New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides) is a leafy green that is native to New Zealand, but it is well-adapted to warm climates such as ours. It grows one to two feet in height and branches two to three feet across. In the kitchen, it is known for its mild, slightly salty flavor, and it is a great source of vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium.
New Zealand spinach germinates slowly, taking two to three weeks to sprout. Soaking seeds for 24 hours directly before planting can help them along, but be patient, and keep the planted area weed free.
Sow seeds a quarter-inch deep, two inches apart, and water well, keeping the soil moist but not waterlogged. Once germinated, thin to eight to 12 inches apart. After the plant has grown about a foot, harvest a few tender leaves off of each branch, making sure enough leaves remain so the plant can continue to photosynthesize and grow.
Malabar spinach (Basella alba and B. cordifolia) is a fast-growing leafy vine native to tropical South Asia. It is known for its thick, succulent leaves and its slightly lemony flavor. It is a good source of antioxidants, vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium.
Support fast-growing Malabar spinach vines with a trellis or stakes. Photo by Molly Jameson.
Like New Zealand spinach, Malabar spinach is vulnerable to frosts and grows well in hot, humid conditions. Wait until soil temperatures reach 65°F to 75°F to sow or wait at least three weeks after the last frost date. Typically, in our area, it does best sown from mid-April through early June.
Sow seeds a quarter-inch deep, two inches apart. Also, like New Zealand spinach, Malabar spinach can take two to three weeks to germinate, so soaking seeds for 24 hours prior to planting is recommended. Once planted, keep the area weed free and well-watered, but not waterlogged.
After germination, thin the sprouts out so that they are spaced 12 inches apart. In optimal conditions, the plant can reach maturity in 70 days. Vines will continue to grow to 10 feet or longer and will benefit from a trellis, a fence, or stakes to assist in climbing. Harvest the leaves and young stems and prune back any overlong vines.
Perpetual spinach is related to Swiss chard and beets, but it is more “spinach-like” in flavor. Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.
Perpetual spinach (Beta vulgaris), or spinach beet, is a leafy green that is the same species as Swiss chard and beets, but tastes more like a true spinach and is known for its mild, slightly sweet flavor. It is a great source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as calcium, magnesium, and iron.
Perpetual spinach can tolerate cooler temperatures than New Zealand and Malabar spinach, but it also grows well in warm weather and can continue to produce throughout the growing season.
Sow seeds a half-inch inch deep, two inches apart. Water well and keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. Again, be patient, as like the other heat-loving greens, perpetual spinach can take up to two to three weeks to germinate.
Once the plants have sprouted, thin them out so that they are spaced six to eight inches apart. Begin harvesting by cutting leaves at the base of the stem. If the plants get too big or the leaves begin to taste bitter, cut the leaves back to about three inches above the soil and they will produce new, tender leaves.
While these heat-loving greens do not taste the same as lettuce, true spinach, kale, or collards, they are incredibly versatile in the kitchen and have a unique flavor profile. They can be eaten raw in salads, or they can be cooked in a variety of dishes. For example, New Zealand spinach can be sautéed with garlic and lemon juice, while Malabar spinach can be used as a green in a delicious stir-fry. Perpetual spinach can be used in soups, stews, casseroles, and salads.
Other heat-loving greens to try out in the garden include Okinawa spinach (Gynura crepioides), longevity spinach (Gynura procumbens), and Surinam spinach (Talinum triangulare).
If you are looking to keep homegrown greens on the dinner table this spring and summer, give heat-loving greens a try! They are easy to grow, resistant to pests and diseases, and are great additions to many dishes.
Elephant garlic grows well in our climate, including here at Turkey Hill Farm, where it is being harvested in late spring. Photo by Molly Jameson.
One of my all-time favorite vegetables to grow and eat is elephant garlic. While related to garlic, elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) is actually considered a bulbing leek. Like garlic, it is in the genus Allium, a family of flowering plants that includes over 600 different species of onions, leeks, and garlic that are native to many parts of the world, including North America, Asia, North Africa, and Europe.
Elephant garlic is more mild tasting than regular garlic and can grow up to three times larger than regular garlic bulbs. Photo by Full Earth Farm.
Elephant garlic is very much garlic-like, but it has a milder, slightly sweet flavor and can grow up to three times the size of regular garlic bulbs. It is well-suited for growing in the Florida Panhandle, as it can take our heat and humidity much better than regular garlic.
Elephant garlic is a long season crop, requiring eight months for best results. It therefore should be planted in the fall for an early summer harvest. But if you just can’t wait, you can plant it now and still harvest this summer, but the garlic you harvest will most likely be one big round bulb instead of a bulb that can be separated into cloves.
When planting your elephant garlic, choose a location that receives full sun and has well-drained, nutrient-rich soil. When you are ready for planting, separate the individual elephant garlic cloves from a bulb and plant each six-to-eight inches apart, with the pointed end facing up. Cover the cloves with four-to-five inches of organic-matter-rich soil, and water well. Elephant garlic requires consistent moisture, so be sure to water your plants regularly, especially during any dry spells.
One of the unique features of elephant garlic is that it forms a tall, flowering stalk, or “scape,” in the spring. To encourage the plant to focus its energy on bulb development, remove the scapes. The top of the scape contains an edible round composite flower head that you can enjoy in salads or stir-fries.
Cure elephant garlic in cool, dry, and well-ventilated location. Photo by Molly Jameson.
As your elephant garlic plants mature, you’ll notice that the bulbs start to grow larger, the leaves that wrap the bulbs will decrease, and the tops will begin to turn a lighter green or yellow as they begin to die back. This is a sign that your elephant garlic is ready to be harvested. To harvest, gently loosen the soil around the bulbs with a potato fork and carefully lift them out of the ground.
If you planted late, or your elephant garlic experienced water or nutrient stress, you may still find that some of your harvested garlic only formed one big round bulb. You could leave these giant bulbs in place, and they should turn into cloves the following year. Or go ahead and harvest the big bulbs and use them in the kitchen just like you would regular garlic cloves.
Once harvested, you’ll need to cure your elephant garlic before storing. To do this, lay the bulbs out in a single layer on a dry, well-ventilated surface for at least a week. After the bulbs have cured, you can trim the roots and store them in a cool, dark place for up to eight to 10 months.
While elephant garlic may not be as pungent as regular garlic, it grows much better in our climate than regular garlic, and it still packs a flavorful punch, adding a unique twist to any dish. So why not give it a try in your garden? With a little care and attention, you’ll be enjoying home-grown elephant garlic in no time.
Want to grow a vegetable garden but don’t know where to start?
Raised bed gardens give you the ability to put a garden anywhere you have at least six hours of sunlight and access to water, regardless of your native soil type.
See the fact sheet below (Or Click Here for the downloadable PDF version!) for tips on how to build a raised bed vegetable garden. And be sure to reach out to your local Extension office with any questions!
Come on down to the farm! The 15th Annual Farm Tour is October 15 and 16. Image by Millstone Institute of Preservation.
Fall is upon us, and that means it is farm tour season!
The 15th Annual Farm Tour is on Saturday, October 15 and Sunday, October 16, 2022. Farmers and producers in 12 counties in North Central Florida and South-Central Georgia will be open to showcase their various farming endeavors. It is a free family weekend of learning, exploration, and fun.
The Farm Tour has been organized and hosted by Millstone Institute of Preservation since 2016. It gives the community the chance to explore local producers in our area and become familiar with the farmers that make up our diverse local food system.
There are 40 farms, ranches, farm-to-table restaurants, markets, vendors, and gardens (including the Leon County “VegHeadz” Demonstration Garden on Saturday!) participating in this year’s Farm Tour, some of which have never participated in the past.
There is much to explore during the 15th Annual Farm Tour, including heritage breed livestock. Photo by Rachel Mathes.
The sites span nearly 140 miles east to west, from Greenville, Florida, to Chipley, Florida, and about 80 miles north to south, from Whigham, Georgia, to Crawfordville, Florida.
Each farm is open to the public at no cost, providing the opportunity for participants to learn the importance of supporting local agriculture and how they can do so.
There are many different types of farms to explore, including seeing a multitude of processes and demonstrations firsthand, such as honey harvesting, cow and goat milking, sawmill operating, bamboo extracting, horse grooming, compost turning, flower arranging, seed saving, wine manufacturing, sausage creating, satsuma juicing, cheese making, kombucha brewing, and much more.
You can also sample and purchase local products at many farm tour sites, including local honey, beeswax and honey products, local eggs, homemade breads, fresh veggies, various locally produced meats (bring a cooler!), pumpkins, vegetable seedlings, kombucha, muscadine wines, handmade soaps, fruit trees, cookbooks, and more. Many locations will also be serving food for sale, such as falafel and hummus; baked goods; beef, bacon, and pork burgers; ice cream and coffee; satsuma slushes, cookies, jellies, and syrups; and much more.
The Fall 2022 Leon County Seed Library Kickoff event starts at 11 a.m. on August 13 at the Collins Main Leon County Library.
To kick off the Fall 2022 Season of the Leon County Seed Library Program, UF/IFAS Extension Leon County will be at the LeRoy Collins Leon County Main Library (200 W. Park Ave.) Program Room on Saturday, August 13, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., with information on raised bed gardening, a hands-on seeding activity, an Ask-a-Master-Gardener booth, and a healthy cooking demonstration.
Although we are still in the full swing of summer, gardeners know it is time to start thinking about planning the fall garden. Although pulling weeds and adding fresh compost can wait a little while, gathering seeds for the new season can be something to think about doing now.
Youth creating garden gnomes at the 4-H station during the 2019 Seed Library Program debut. Photo by UF/IFAS.
If you live in or around Tallahassee, the Leon County Seed Library Program can help jump-start your fall garden. Starting August 13, you can go to any of the seven Leon County libraries to check-out three sample vegetable seed packets per month per library card! The Leon County Master Gardener Volunteers are currently busy labeling and packing each of the seed varieties that will be distributed to the seven libraries.
There will be 10 vegetables varieties this season, including a few varieties that have never been featured in the program. If you like to save seeds from your garden, know that all varieties in the Seed Library Program are open-pollinated (by insects, birds, wind), which means if they are not crossed with another variety, the seeds they produce will grow true to form.
The Fall 2022 selection includes:
Common Arugula: Deep green with a spicy, peppery, mustard-like flavor
Cylindra Beets: Heirloom with long cylindrical roots, good for slicing
De Cicco Broccoli: Central light green head and side shoots to extend season