In spite of this record-breaking hot summer, it might be surprising to realize that we are just a month away from the onset of fall. As the sun-soaked dog days gradually relinquish their hold to the inviting coolness of autumn, the allure of the new season comes into view.
If your thoughts are already conjuring images of vibrant leaves and the anticipation of robust greens and earthy root vegetables in your garden, we extend an invitation to explore our newly revamped edition of the North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide.
We’ve transformed the guide from a static PDF into a user-friendly website, making it easier than ever for you to tap into its wealth of gardening insights. Crafted by the adept hands of the UF/IFAS Leon County Extension, this guide serves as an invaluable resource catering to both seasoned horticulturists and aspiring gardeners.
Dive into an array of articles, planting schedules, images, and informative UF/IFAS EDIS publications – all thoughtfully designed to address your gardening questions. From the basics of getting started to the finer points of site selection, pest management, fostering biodiversity, soil testing, composting, harnessing cover crops, and mastering irrigation techniques – the North Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide website has it all covered.
For those who prefer a tactile experience, physical copies are available upon request at the UF/IFAS Leon County Extension Office, located at 615 Paul Russell Rd., Tallahassee, FL 32301. A quick call ahead will help you ensure availability.
We’re also excited to announce our upcoming Fall 2023 Backyard Gardening Series, set for September 6 and 13, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. on both evenings at the Leon County Extension Office (615 Paul Russell Road).
If you’re eager to explore the art of fall gardening in depth, this series will cover topics like site selection, soil enrichment, effective fall planting techniques, and more, including a hands-on planting activity.
Individual tickets are available for $10 per person if pre-paid online or $15 in cash or check at the door. For families of three to four, pre-paid online family tickets are $20 per family or $30 in cash or check at the door. This registration fee includes both evenings on September 6 and 13 and light refreshments will be provided.
For any further inquiries, please contact Molly Jameson at email@example.com or via phone at 850-606-5200.
You’re in the right hands if you want to grow pumpkins in Florida. While growing pumpkins can be tricky in Florida’s hot and humid climate, you can successfully grow Sunshine State pumpkins with the proper planning and care. Pumpkin is a popular vegetable in the cucurbit family. It shares this family with members of summer and winter squash. The pumpkin varieties differ from those called squashes by having coarser, more intensely flavored flesh and rinds that are softer at maturity than the winter squashes but harder than the summer squashes. Pumpkins refers to certain varieties of C. pepo L., C. moschata Duch. ex Poir., C. mixta Pang., and C. maxima Duch. Local tradition and common usage may dictate that a particular variety is called a squash in one area of the country and a pumpkin in another.
Pumpkin Varieties Choosing the right pumpkin variety is a major decision when growing pumpkins in Florida. Not all pumpkin varieties are suited to Florida’s warm and humid climate. Seminole Pumpkin is a native pumpkin variety well-suited to the state’s warm and humid environment. Traditionally grown by the Calusa, Creek, and Miccosukee peoples, Seminole pumpkins remain one of the tastiest and most reliable for Florida gardens. Seminole pumpkins are known for their hardiness and resistance to disease and pests. The Big Max variety is known for producing giant pumpkins that can weigh up to 100 pounds or more. Big Max pumpkins do well in Florida’s warm climate but may require extra care to prevent pests and diseases. The Jack-o-Lantern variety is the classic Halloween pumpkin for carving and decorating. Look for types suited to warm climates, such as “Funny Face” and “Big Moon.” The Pie Pumpkin variety is best used for cooking. If you plan to use your pumpkins for cooking, look for pie pumpkin varieties such as “Small Sugar” and “Early July.” These pumpkins are smaller and sweeter than carving pumpkins and are ideal for making pies, bread, and other baked goods.
Most pumpkin varieties need around four months to reach maturity. Pumpkins should be seeded by early July to be ready for Halloween. Spring pumpkins planted in March or April can be stored for use in October and November (though long storage is difficult in Florida). Early August seeding provides a fall crop for late November. Choose a sunny spot with well-drained soil for your pumpkin patch. Pumpkins can be grown in small gardens or containers if you need more space. Plant your pumpkin seeds about 1 inch deep and should be placed 6 feet in either direction, except for the bush types. Plant 3-4 seeds per hill, then thin when the plants are 2-4 inches tall.
Once your pumpkin seeds have sprouted, it’s time to start caring for your plants. Pumpkins need consistent moisture to grow, so be sure to water them regularly. Aim to give your plants about 1-2 inches of water per week. Water thoroughly after planting to help the seeds settle in. Climbing varieties like Seminole can be trellised for more space while using slings to support larger fruits. Use a balanced fertilizer to help your pumpkins grow strong and healthy. Apply the fertilizer according to the package instructions. Pumpkins do well with large amounts of compost. Place compost under each hill before seeding. Side dress with a handful every three weeks or as needed. Keep an eye out for pests such as squash bugs and cucumber beetles, which can damage your plants. If you notice any signs of pests or disease, treat your plants with a pesticide or fungicide as needed.
Like other cucurbits, pumpkins need bees for pollination to produce fruit. Bees are the primary pollinators for pumpkins, so make sure to plant flowers and other plants that attract bees to your garden. Each plant holds male and female flowers, and knowing the difference between them is essential. Male flowers have a long, thin stem and no fruit behind the flower. Female flowers have a swollen, bulbous base that will eventually become pumpkins. It’s essential to have a good balance of male and female flowers to ensure a proper fruit set. If large-size fruits are desired, keep only two fruits on the vine. Once two fruits are the size of baseballs, remove all others as they form.
Harvest and Storage
Pumpkins are ready to harvest when the skin is hard, and the stem is dry and brown. Cut the stem about 2 inches above the pumpkin. After harvesting, allow your pumpkins to cure in a cool, dry place for 10-14 days. Curing helps the skin to harden and protect the pumpkin from pests and diseases. Once your pumpkins are cured, store them in a cool, dry place with good air circulation. Avoid storing them on concrete or damp surfaces, which can cause them to rot. Pumpkins keep for a few weeks, but long-term storage of 1–4 months is challenging in Florida. Store them in a dry (70% RH) and cool (50–60°F) place where possible.
The Americas are not only a land of beautiful landscapes and diverse cultures but also the birthplace of a remarkable array of indigenous plant species. Native vegetables have played a significant role in shaping the culinary traditions, cultural practices, and biodiversity of the region. To truly appreciate their significance, it is important to delve into their fascinating history and observe how they have evolved over time.
The cultivation of vegetables in North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean dates back thousands of years, with evidence of early farming practices emerging in Mesoamerica (central Mexico southward through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica) around 9,000 BCE (Before Common Era), or about 11,000 years ago. Native peoples, including indigenous tribes, recognized the value of native plant species and skillfully cultivated them to meet their nutritional needs. Through trial and error, they learned to adapt and enhance the growth of these vegetables, setting the foundation for the crops we know today.
Maize. Maize (Zea mays), or corn, holds a central place in the history of American agriculture. It is believed to have originated from a wild grass called teosinte, which had few small, hard kernels enclosed in a tough husk. It was much smaller than the corn we know today and was barely edible, tasting more like a raw dried potato, with only a few hard kernels per ear. Ancient societies in present-day Mexico began domesticating maize 9,000 to 10,000 years ago, selectively breeding it to produce a variety of colors, sizes, and textures. Maize quickly became a staple crop, providing sustenance and shaping the cultural and economic practices of many indigenous civilizations, such as the Mayans and the Aztecs. Over time, its cultivation gradually spread northward, reaching present-day United States and Canada.
Squash. Squash (Cucurbita spp.) holds a significant place in the ancient history of the Americas, with evidence of its domestication dating back approximately 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. Native peoples in various regions, including Mesoamerica and North America, recognized the value of the flesh and seeds of squash as versatile and nutritious food sources. Domestication involved selecting and cultivating wild squash varieties with desirable traits, leading to the development of different cultivated squash varieties such as acorn, delicata, butternut, and zucchini.
Beans. Common beans (Phaseolus spp.) have a rich and ancient history in the Americas, with evidence of their domestication dating back around 7,000 to 8,000 years in the region that is now Peru. Native peoples in Mesoamerica and the Andean region recognized the nutritional value and versatility of beans, incorporating them into their agricultural practices. Cultivated by civilizations such as the Maya, Aztecs, and Inca, beans were an essential staple crop alongside maize and squash. The domestication of beans allowed for the cultivation of various species, including kidney, lima, and black beans.
The Three Sisters. The “Three Sisters” have deep historical roots in ancient American agriculture, with evidence of their use over 7,000 years ago. This system, practiced by various indigenous civilizations, especially in Mesoamerica and North America, involved the intercropping of three key crops: maize, beans, and squash. Maize served as the central component, providing a tall stalk for the beans to climb. Beans enriched the soil with nitrogen through their symbiotic relationship with bacteria, allowing them to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that the plants can utilize. Squash, with its broad leaves, acted as a living mulch, reducing weeds and retaining soil moisture.
The Three Sisters synergistic trio enhanced soil fertility, prevented erosion, and yielded a nutritionally balanced diet for generations of indigenous communities. It also fostered a deep connection between humans and the land, emphasizing a holistic approach to farming that honored the interdependence of crops and the environment.
Potatoes. While potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are commonly associated with Ireland, they actually originated in the Andean region of South America, what is now Peru and Bolivia, between 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. Long before European arrival, Native Americans were cultivating potatoes. Over time, they developed different varieties of potatoes, adapting them to suit various climates and growing conditions. It wasn’t until the exploration and colonization of the New World in the 16th century that potatoes were introduced to Europe, eventually becoming a staple food crop there.
Tomatoes. Similar to the association of potatoes with Ireland, tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) are often associated with Italian cuisine, including pasta sauces and pizza. And like potatoes, tomatoes also have an ancient history in the Americas, with evidence of their domestication dating back about 7,000 years. Native to western South America, particularly in the region that is now Peru and Ecuador, wild tomato species were cultivated by indigenous civilizations. Initially, tomatoes were smaller and had a more varied range of colors beyond red, including yellow and purple. Through years of selective breeding and cultivation, larger red varieties became more prevalent. Over time, the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations to the north, such as the Maya and Aztecs, adopted tomatoes into their agriculture and diet. Following the European colonization of the Americas, tomatoes were introduced to other parts of the world in the 16th and 17th centuries, where their popularity and cultivation spread widely.
Peppers. Peppers (Capsicum spp.), or chili peppers, also originated in the Americas, specifically in regions that now belong to Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia. They were domesticated around 6,000 years ago and played significant roles in the cultures and diets of ancient civilizations like the Aztecs and Mayans. Peppers were introduced to other parts of the world through the exploration and trade routes of Spanish and Portuguese explorers. They played a significant role in spreading peppers to Europe, Asia, and Africa during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Some Other American Crops. There is a rich variety of lesser-known crops that originated in the Americas as well. Amaranth and quinoa, originating from the Andean region, are highly nutritious, rich in protein and essential amino acids. Chia seeds, native to Central and South America, have many culinary uses. Yucca, a traditional starchy root vegetable, has been cultivated in tropical regions for centuries. Fruits such as guava, papaya, and passion fruit originated from the Americas and have unique flavor profiles. Finally, the sunchoke, also known as Jerusalem artichoke, is a North American root vegetable known for its nutty taste and abundant dietary fiber.
The ancient journey of native vegetables in the Americas highlights their significance in shaping agriculture, culture, and nutrition. By embracing this ancient journey, we not only honor the wisdom and traditions of indigenous communities but also ensure a sustainable and inclusive future where diverse crops and food systems thrive, preserving the rich biodiversity and cultural legacy for generations to come.
Written by: De’Anthony Price, Agriculture & Natural Resources Extension Agent, UF/IFAS Extension – Jefferson County
Florida is the perfect place to grow sweet potatoes (Ipomea batatas). Sweet potatoes are considered a long-season crop, and Florida’s long, hot summers allow them to grow and mature well here.
Sweet potatoes are native to America and known for their colorful and tasty tubers. Their flesh can be yellow, orange, or even purple. They are a great source of vitamins A and C. Sweet potatoes are an excellent warm-season crop for Florida. They require a long growing season but will reward you greatly for your patience. The leaves are edible as well. Not only are they nutritious, but the young leaves and shoots also provide a source of tender and mild-tasting leafy greens through the hot Florida summer. Sweet potatoes are a healthier alternative to white potatoes with a high glycemic index. The starch from a white potato is quickly metabolized, leading to a rapid increase in blood sugar. Sweet potato starches are metabolized at a slower rate.
Planting and Care
Sweet potatoes can be planted in the spring through the end of June. Sweet potatoes grow in a well-drained loamy to sandy soil and do not require much fertilizing. If the soil contains clay, add some aged compost or other organic amendments to the planting bed to improve drainage. Sweet potatoes grown in unamended clay soils are usually small.
Sweet potatoes are generally planted from March through June in the Florida Panhandle. Sweet potatoes are typically started from transplants called “slips.” Sweet potato slips are six to eight-inch sweet potato vine cuttings with most of the leaves pulled off. You can purchase sweet potato slips from a local garden center or a seed catalog. Make sure you only buy certified, disease-free slips. One can also quickly start your sweet potato slips from a store-bought sweet potato. Sweet potato weevils can be a severe problem and starting with certified-free transplants can help you avoid issues.
Plant sweet potatoes in rows spaced 48 to 54 inches apart, with 12 to 14 inches between each plant. Look for transplants that are about 6 to 9 inches long. Sweet potatoes will do best when they receive a consistent water supply; inconsistent watering can cause them to split while growing. Sweet potatoes can be kept throughout the season using vine cuttings to create new plants.
Wireworms and root-knot nematodes are the biggest problems for home gardeners. However, many insect and disease problems can be avoided by choosing disease-resistant varieties and using sound cultural gardening practices. Crop rotation with a vegetable in another family can help prevent nematode and soil disease. Rotating where you plant can help prevent problems with a major pest, the sweet-potato weevil (Cylas formicarius).
For the tastiest sweet potatoes, always dig up the previous crop and start a new planting. While sweet potatoes can be grown year-round in tropical regions, plants left to grow for too long can encourage pest populations. The sweet potatoes eventually become too large and tough for most people’s tastes.
‘Centennial’ and ‘Beauregard’ are two varieties that grow well in Florida gardens. Beauregard is found quite often in garden centers. It shows some disease resistance and produces a high yield. It has light rose skin and a deep orange flesh that matures in 105 days. Centennial sweet potatoes tolerate clay soil, are disease resistant, and mature in 90 days.
Harvest and Storage
Sweet potatoes should be ready to harvest 90–120 days after planting. The tops will die back as it gets close to harvest time. Sweet potatoes should be harvested before the first frost. Cool soil reduces their quality and storage life. Sweet potato skin is fragile, so freshly dug roots need to be handled gently.
The ideal conditions for curing sweet potatoes are roughly 85°F with 90 percent humidity. To help increase their sweetness, place harvested sweet potatoes in a dark, warm room for at least two weeks before eating. Once your sweet potatoes are done curing, store them in a cool, dry pantry—not the refrigerator! Storing your sweet potatoes at temperatures below 50°F can cause them to have an off flavor or rot. Patience will pay off with delicious and healthy sweet potatoes that can be added to the dinner plate as a vegetable side or in a sweet pie served for dessert. While “yam” is sometimes used to describe the sweet potato, a true yam comes from a different plant.
With the arrival of spring weather in the Panhandle, many people have begun planning a vegetable garden. However, many gardeners that I talk to tell me more of their gardening frustrations than successes. I surmise the main reason for their frustration is simply doing what gardeners have done across centuries and all over the world, planting in the ground. That’s a great strategy in many places; unfortunately, in the Panhandle, we are not often blessed with great soil. We can overcome our poor soil conditions and be more successful by going above ground with raised beds!
Gardening in raised beds has three primary benefits for area gardeners: the ability to control soil conditions, reduce disease problems, and be space efficient. The first raised bed benefit is the most critical. Soil in and around much of the Panhandle is sandy in nature with little rich organic matter. To make matters worse, much of our native soil is either too well-drained and dries out rapidly or is the opposite and frequently stands in water – neither is conducive to garden success. We can alleviate all the above issues by creating our own perfectly draining, nutrient-rich soil environment inside a raised bed. One can either make their own soil concoction by experimenting with different ratios of compost, aged pine bark, peat moss, perlite, etc. or simply purchase bagged garden soil. I use either 100% mushroom compost or a 1:1 mix of mushroom compost & aged pine bark, but many soil component combinations work well.
Gardening in raised beds can also dramatically reduce the incidence of disease. Many of the most serious vegetable garden diseases like Bacterial Wilt and Late Blight in tomato are soilborne, surviving for years in the ground and only needing a splash of rainwater to transfer them onto your vegetable plants. Growing in beds with curated soil mostly alleviates this issue. Our sandy soils also tend to have damaging levels of difficult to control nematodes (microscopic round worms that feed on plant roots). Because nematodes prefer porous sandy ground, switching to raised beds with rich organic soils also removes that concern.
Finally, growing in raised bed gardens allows for a very efficient use of space. A typical raised bed is 4’x8’ in diameter, meaning you can site one nearly anywhere, regardless of how big or small your yard is. You don’t even need a yard space in some cases! If you have only a sunny porch or driveway, you can certainly mimic raised bed conditions with large containers. Most people are surprised by the amount of produce that you can pack into one or several 32 square foot raised garden beds, especially when you pay attention to plant mature size and group accordingly. The square foot gardening method is a great way to maximize raised bed produce yield.
If you have struggled in past years to produce a fruitful, high-yielding, mostly disease-free garden, your problem might be below your feet in the soil. As you plan your vegetable gardening activities this year, try gardening in raised beds and get ready for your best gardening season yet! For more information about vegetable gardening, raised bed construction, or any other horticultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office. Happy Gardening!
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.