One of the major recent movements in production agriculture has been the widespread adoption of cover crops. This practice gives farmers a host of benefits, from erosion prevention to nutrient retention and recycling. However, using cover crops isn’t just for large scale farming operations. Hobby vegetable gardeners can absolutely employ similar systems on a smaller scale to reap the same benefits. For the past two years, I’ve used Buckwheat to provide a soil building cover during the heat of summer between spring and fall gardens. This winter, after my fall greens garden succumbed to frost, I decided to employ the same tactic with a mix of Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), White Clover (Trifolium Repens), and Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum) to enhance my soil during the coldest months until spring tomato planting arrives!
Clover mix used as a cool season cover crop in raised beds. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
While there are many different species of plants (rye, oats, wheat, various brassicas, etc.) that can be planted in November or December as cool season covers to deliver benefits like winter weed suppression, enhance soil organic matter, retain and harvest leftover nutrients, and provide habitat for beneficial insects, I chose Clover for an additional reason. In addition to the above benefits, Clover is a legume and also fixes atmospheric nitrogen, making it available for subsequent plantings! Not only is Clover an excellent soil cover, but it also provides some nitrogen fertilizer to the following vegetable garden!
Growing Clover, while not quite as simple as Buckwheat or small grain covers like oats and rye, is relatively easy for most gardeners. The first step is selecting which clover species and/or variety to grow. I chose a mix of Crimson, White, and Red Clover simply because I had several pounds of each left over from a previous field planting. However, any one of the three may be used by themselves or in various combinations. All are excellent choices for garden cover crops and have similar growing requirements. Crimson Clover is the most readily available, but all three species can be found at most farm and garden supply stores.
The next step is to prep your garden beds for clover seeding. I thoroughly remove weeds from my raised beds, lightly till the top couple of inches of soil, and rake to provide a level surface. Since clover seed is tiny, a smooth, clean seedbed is a must for excellent germination. Once this is done, your next should determine how much seed to plant. Recommended clover seeding rates are usually given on a per acre basis and range from 3-4 lbs/acre (White Clover) to 20-25 lbs/acre (Crimson Clover). Given these seeding rates, planting in a 4’x8’ (32 ft2) raised bed is only going to require a miniscule amount of seed.
Clover mix used as a cool season cover crop in raised beds. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.
To ensure a good stand while minimizing risk of overplanting, I mix equal parts clover seed and either sand, vermiculite, or other media similar in size to clover seed and hand scatter over the surface of my beds, making sure to uniformly cover the entire bed. If you think the stand is too thick, you can always hand-thin after emergence.
As a group, clovers prefer moist soil that is not allowed to dry out completely. This isn’t usually a problem given the Panhandle’s frequent rainy cold fronts in winter, but if rainfall is inconsistent, some irrigation will be required. Supplemental fertilizer isn’t normally necessary when planting a clover cover in vegetable gardens because nutrients remaining from the previous veggie crops are usually sufficient for growth and development (N especially is not needed as legumes produce their own through N fixation). 2-3 weeks before you’re ready to plant your spring veggies, chop the clover cover into the top few inches of your bed to terminate it and release its nutrients back into the garden. It’s that easy!
Planting a winter legume cover crop like clover is a great way to harness the benefits of cover crops for your spring veggies and enhance the aesthetics of your otherwise barren and drab garden beds! For more information about growing winter cover crops or any other horticultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office. Happy Gardening!
Q. One of my two fig trees has produced a few figs. The other one, which is the largest and healthiest tree, has never had a fig on it. Both where planted six years ago. Why is it not producing?
Mature fig tree with fruit. Photo credit: Larry Williams
A. It may be a matter of age and being overly vigorous. When a fruit tree is younger, it puts most of its energy into producing leaves and shoots. Until the plant becomes mature and slows down in the production of leaves and shoots, it will produce few to no fruit. It may take a year or two more for your tree to slowly and gradually switch from producing mostly leaves and shoots to producing and maturing some fruit. Patience is needed.
Be careful to not overdo it in fertilizing and/or pruning your fig tree. Too much fertilizer, especially nitrogen, or severely pruning the tree will result in the tree becoming overly vigorous at the expense of setting and maturing fruit. This includes fertilizer that the tree may pull up from a nearby lawn area. A tree’s roots will grow outward two to three times beyond its branch spread into adjacent lawn areas.
The end result of being heavy handed with fertilizing and/or overdoing it in pruning is the same – it forces the plant to become overly vigorous in producing leaves and shoots at the expense of producing and maturing fruit.
In addition, the following is taken from an Extension publication on figs and includes the most common reasons for lack of fruiting, in order of importance.
Young, vigorous plants and over-fertilized plants will often produce fruit that drops off before maturing. If plants are excessively vigorous, stop fertilizing them. Quite often, three of four years may pass before the plant matures a crop because figs have a long juvenile period before producing edible quality fruit.
Dry, hot periods that occur before ripening can cause poor fruit quality. If this is the case, mulching and supplemental watering during dry spells will reduce the problem.
The variety Celeste will often drop fruit prematurely in hot weather regardless of the quality of plant care. However, it is still a good variety to grow.
An infestation of root-knot nematodes can intensify the problem when conditions are as described in item 2.
You could have a fig tree that requires cross-pollination by a special wasp. This is a rare problem. If this is the case, then it will never set a good crop. The best way to resolve this is to replace the plant with a rooted shoot of a neighbor’s plant you know produces a good crop each year.
Who doesn’t like strawberries, right? Backyard gardeners grow these low-growing herbs throughout the state and there is a significant commercial industry too, as Florida’s climate is ideal for cool season production.
Strawberries like well-drained sandy soils, so they’re a perfect fit for many areas in the Panhandle. Strawberries should be planted in the months of October or November as the plants are quite cold hardy. Shorter days and temperatures between 50°F and 80°F are ideal for fruit development.
Photo Credit: Cristina Carriz, UF/IFAS
Strawberries are also very versatile. You can plant them in the ground, in raised beds or even containers. Transplants should be planted 12” to 18” apart, with 12” row spacing. For best results, use a rich soil balanced with compost and sandy soil and both fertilize and water regularly. Mixing in 2 ½ pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer into a 10’ x 10’ bed space should be sufficient to start. A sprinkle of fertilizer applied monthly throughout the growing season should also help ensure a solid yield.
Berry production begins to ramp up roughly 90 days after planting, but plants will continue to produce throughout the spring. When the weather gets warmer, the plants start to expend energy into producing runners instead of fruit. These runners will be new fruit producing plants for next season.
Transplants can be purchased from most garden centers. There are many varieties on the market, but “Florida-Friendly” cultivars include “Sweet Charlie”, “Camarosa”, “Chandler”, “Oso Grande”, “Selva”, and “Festival”. “Camarosa” has proven to be the most productive variety in North Florida. Any of these varieties are capable of producing two pints of fruit per plant.
As stated earlier, Florida has a significant strawberry industry and UF/IFAS has a supporting role. The UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) is home to the Strawberry Breeding Program. Cultivars are developed by traditional means, for the Florida commercial industry on an 11,000+ acres research site. Appearance, shelf life, sweet flavor and disease resistance are just some of the areas of selected breading research that is conducted on site. There is also a white strawberry soon to be released!
Photo Credit: Cristina Carriz, UF/IFAS
For more information, contact your local county extension office.
Daniel Leonard, Horticulture Agent at UF/IFAS Extension Calhoun County, answers commonly asked questions about raised bed gardening. In the video he discusses construction materials, the type of soil to use, fertilization, crop rotation, cover crops, and smaller container gardens.
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.