Yay, we are halfway through with August and our summer is winding down! This is the perfect time to start prepping for that fall garden. Growing a productive fall vegetable garden requires thoughtful planning and good cultural practices. This process consists of selecting a site, planning the garden, preparing the soil, choosing the seeds and plants, planting a crop, and nurturing the plants until harvest time. In the Florida Panhandle it can be a challenge to get cool season crops started; there is a balance in starting them early enough to allow them to mature (50-60 days) before a hard frost and getting them through the end of a hot summer.
August and September are the main planting times for a fall garden. There are several cool-season crops and a final crop of warm-season vegetables that can be planted. Some good warm season crops are lima beans, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. Going into September it will be a good time to establish strawberry plants. Some good vegetables to start growing just around the corner are broccoli, carrots, cabbage, collards, mustard, and Swiss chard. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/NorthFloridaGardeningCalendar Herbs that do well are cilantro, parsley, and lemongrass. Mint, oregano, and thyme should be planted in containers as they tend to spread. Mexican tarragon, mint, rosemary, and basil will also do well in September. See Herbs: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_herbs
Transplants from the local garden center will get the garden off to a fast start while seeds will offer more varieties to choose from. It is also important to think about your location. A vegetable garden can be in the ground, a raised bed, or even grown in containers. Your plants will need more than just a place to grow. They will also need sunlight, water, air, soil, fertilizer, and care. Most vegetables require at least 8 hours of sunlight. Keep an eye out for pest problems such as insects, diseases and weeds because they will continue to flourish in warm temperatures and high humidity. To help conserve soil moisture a layer of newspaper and mulch can be placed between the rows. Mulch also aids in weed control.
The result of a beautiful, successful vegetable garden is fresh produce to eat, share with neighbors, family, and friends and even the possibility to sell your harvest. With patience and practice your gardening skills will improve every year! Follow the above few tips and you will be well on your way to a great harvest! For more information about starting a fall garden or any other horticultural or agricultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Happy Gardening
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
For many people in the Panhandle, gardening season begins when the weather warms in spring and nurseries start setting out tomato transplants. While I understand the allure of the yummy summer veggies and spring/early summer are the most traditional times to garden, cultivating a winter garden in the Panhandle unlocks many tasty options. Among these cool-season garden veggies is a classic southern staple that is among the easiest and most rewarding of all vegetables to grow, sweet onions!
‘Texas Super Sweet’ Onions almost ready for harvest in a Calhoun County garden. Photo courtesy of Joe Leonard.
Sweet onions are very popular in the culinary world for their mild flavor and soft texture and are among the most widely grown group of onions across the world, but the most famous of them, Vidalia’s, hail from Georgia! Despite its fame, the “Vidalia” onion is actually nothing more than a trademarked name for a specific variety of sweet onion that was bred in Texas (‘Yellow Granex’ and its derivatives), grown in a 20-county region in South Georgia with excellent onion-growing soil, and made famous by excellent marketing from the Vidalia Onion Committee. While they can’t be called Vidalias legally, you can absolutely grow your very own Vidalia type sweet onions at home here in the Florida Panhandle!
Sweet Onions are most easily grown at home if purchased in the fall as “sets”. Sets are small bulbs that have been started, harvested, dried to prevent rotting during storage, and shipped to garden centers ready to be “set” out in home gardens. Sweet onions may also be grown from seed but take much longer and have a lower success rate. When browsing onion set varieties for purchase at garden centers or in seed catalogues, make sure to purchase a short-day “Granex” type like “Texas Super Sweet” or similar. It is critical to remember that sweet onions are classified by how many hours of daylength they require to produce bulbs. The three classifications are Short, Mid, and Long-Day. Since sweet onions require cool weather to develop properly, Floridians must grow short-day varieties to compensate for decreased daylight hours in the winter. In the less hot Northern states, long-day sweet onions are grown in the summer, where they’ll be able to soak up 15-16 hours of daylight. Therefore, for best results in the Panhandle, select ONLY short-day onion varieties.
‘Texas Super Sweet’ Onions that have been harvested and are ready for use! Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.
Once you’ve selected your onion sets in the fall, they can be planted in the garden anytime from early October to mid-December. Individual bulbs should be planted about an inch deep in well-drained garden soil with high organic matter content (mushroom compost, composted manure, or other rich organic matter works) and spaced 4-6” between plants and about a foot between rows. Onions in general, and sweet onions in particular, are heavy feeders and require ample nutrition to meet their potential! To meet these fertility needs, I apply a slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote or a Harrell’s product at planting and supplement that with either a quick release granular or liquid fertilizer monthly during the bulb enlargement phase. Sweet onions also have a shallow root system and require frequent watering to develop properly and avoid splits, doubles, and small bulbs. Don’t let your onion bed dry out!
Finally, sweet onions planted in late fall/early winter are normally ready to harvest in April and May. However, rather than relying on a calendar, begin harvesting your onions when the tops start to turn yellow and fall over, this indicates maturity. After harvesting, allow your onions to “cure” with tops and roots still attached for a couple of weeks outside in a shaded, protected area. Once they’ve had an opportunity to “cure”, remove tops and roots and store the cured bulbs in a cool, dry place (a dark pantry in an air-conditioned room or the refrigerator crisper drawer work fine) and use at your convenience!
While they can’t be called Vidalias, sweet onions grown at home are oh so rewarding and very tasty! Provided they are planted in quality soil, receive plenty of water and fertilizer, and are harvested/stored correctly, sweet onions will provide a delicious, home-grown culinary treat throughout the year! For more information about growing onions in the home garden or any other horticultural/agricultural topic, contact us at the UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension Office. Happy Gardening!
Use frost cloth to completely cover cold sensitive plants. Be sure to make complete contact with the ground and use heavy objects to keep the fabric secure. Photo by Jonathan Burns.
One major aspect that separates North Florida from South Florida is the discrepancies in air temperature. Although the differences are relatively small when comparing Florida with northern states, they can mean a world of difference in the plant world.
Even hardy cauliflower leaves can be damaged by cold winter nights in the Florida Panhandle. Photo by Molly Jameson.
In most of North Florida, our USDA plant hardiness zone is 8b, which means average minimum winter temperatures are between 15 and 20° Fahrenheit (F). We therefore can experience hard freezes, which happens when temperatures are below 28°F for over five hours. These types of conditions are capable of “burning” the leaves of even the toughest winter vegetables.
Fortunately for our winter gardens, average minimum winter temperatures are in the lower 40s, high enough not to damage winter garden crops. When we do have lows close to or below freezing (32°F), there is one very cost-effective method that can help keep crops and landscape plants protected. This is the use of a material called frost cloth.
Frost cloth can moderate air temperatures six to eight degrees. Photo by Turkey Hill Farm.
Frost cloth, which can be purchased at most plant nurseries, is a breathable polyester fabric that is light weight and heat retentive. When used correctly, it can moderate air temperatures about six to eight degrees. This is typically all that is needed to get us through our mild North Florida winters. It is also relatively inexpensive, and if cared for, the same cloth can be used for many winter seasons.
Large blankets or bedsheets can be used as frost cloth substitutes, but whether you are using actual frost cloth, or something pulled from the linen closet, it is very important to use it correctly to be effective. The cloth must touch the ground at all points, as it works by trapping heat that radiates from the soil. It also increases the humidity around the plant, aiding in temperature moderation.
“Lollipop” trees will allow the heat from the ground to escape, giving the tree no cold protection. Photo by Jonathan Burns.
For sensitive landscape plants and fruit trees, it can be more difficult to fully cover the plant with the frost cloth to trap the heat, but it is just as important. When driving around town on a cold night, I inevitably encounter a few “lollipop” trees. This is when the foliage of the tree is wrapped in frost cloth, but the cloth does not reach the ground, and is typically tied off at the upper trunk of the tree. All heat moving upward from the soil will go right around the cloth, giving the tree essentially no protection.
Wire or PVC hoops can be used to help secure frost cloth and keep the cloth from damaging sensitive plant stems and leaves. Bricks, sticks, soil, or garden staples should be used along the perimeter of the frost cloth to prevent nighttime gusts from blowing the cloth off your garden beds or landscape plants. In the morning, remove the cloth once air temperatures reach about 50 to 60°F.
Fall is the season for leaf color changes on many plants, but we are often concerned when we see evergreen plants with brown leaves. Learn what is normal browning for evergreens and when to seek more help from UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.
As you garden this fall, check out the North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide, compiled by UF/IFAS Leon County Extension.
Getting into vegetable gardening, but don’t know where to start?
Even experienced gardeners know there’s always more to learn. To help both beginners and advanced gardeners find answers to their questions, the UF/IFAS Leon County Extension Office put together the North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide. It incorporates multiple resources, including articles, planting calendars, photos, and UF/IFAS EDIS publications.
The North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide covers the many aspects of vegetable gardening, including how to get started, site selection, insects and biodiversity in the garden, soil testing, composting, cover crops in the garden, irrigation, and more.
You can click here to view the digital version of the guidebook. We also have physical copies of the guide available at the UF/IFAS Leon County Extension Office (615 Paul Russell Rd., Tallahassee, FL 32301).