I come from a family (and culture) of gardeners. I was born in Cuba, but I've lived in the United States since I was 3 and started gardening at the age of four. I grew both vegetables and ornamentals. All my gardening was done organically—by default. I didn't know there was any other way, I just knew we couldn't buy bug sprays, fertilizer, etc.
My wife and I own a small farm in Redland. We grow over 30 types of tropical and temperate fruit, row-crops, herbs, microgreens, and ornamentals. We're certified organic, of course, and blessed (or cursed!) with a 12-month growing season, so there's always something to grow or harvest.
Other than the farm, I'm kept busy lecturing about and promoting organic gardening all around South Florida. I also teach organic horticulture at Miami-Dade Community College (the Kendall campus). Many people proclaim that you can't be organic in the tropics. But my wife and I like to think that we, along with other local organic growers, as well as Organic Gardening magazine, are partially responsible for the change in attitude towards "organic in the jungle".
I've lived in southern Florida (almost exclusively) since the mid-1950s and there is something special about each and every month here. Sure, transplanted single-zone gardeners have some trouble adjusting at first, and Caribbean immigrant gardeners complain about our "bitter 50s" winters, but folks, if we choose carefully, we can sow seed and garden every day of the year!
Cold-Loving Crops. One reason to love January is we get a chance to sneak in the "cold lovers" that single zoners have no trouble with—like peas! I hope you started some in December, but if not, you might still have a chance. Choose a quick maturing variety and plant in double rows so that they'll trellis each other. Better to choose a "sugar snap" type.
Splendid Spinach. Spinach is another timely, cool season choice here. Some varieties are advertised as maturing in 45 days or less. Don't expect that to be the case here and now. Those maturity dates are accurate where days are much longer and the nights cooler. If you grow spinach here, add at least a week or two to the maturity date.
Tropical Fruits. Late avocados, white sapote citrus, and early mangos are maturing now. If you have many types of fruit trees, you may want to tie a ribbon to each tree after it's finished producing. This way, when you prune them in a couple of months, you won't mistake a midseason avocado that hasn't bloomed yet for a late season variety that's done.
Beautiful Berries. Have your raspberries finished fruiting? Trim the canes to ground level.
Fig Fun. Plant figs (the edible Middle-Eastern types).
February is a month of surprises. We usually have a brief warm spell in the beginning. Be prepared though, towards the end of the month, temperatures can dip again.
If you've started tender plants, be sure to bring them inside if wind chills get below the mid-50's. Or you can adapt some of the techniques that single-zoners use to extend their growing season to late fall and beyond. You can use transparent row covers, or single plant covers made from plastic soda or milk bottles. Be careful, though, if the next day is sunny, because temperatures in these containers will climb rapidly.
Dry Season Blues. Barring water restrictions, you may wish to give your lawn an inch of water weekly. I choose not to water my lawn any more. After years of organic management, it is full of organic matter, compost, and microbial life. All of these act as a sponge, reducing the need for water.
Moisture Check. Speaking of compost, be sure to check the heaps regularly for moisture. Water to keep it damp but not soggy, or throw in lots of juicy kitchen scraps.
Need Some Dry Matter? Many tropical trees do a major leaf drop now before putting on new spring growth. Pick up the leaves and put them on your compost pile.
Propagation Party. This is a good time to propagate from cuttings. The plants seem to root better when the day temperatures are in the 70s.
Hibernation No More. Our warm-season insect pests are starting to wake up: Be a vigilant scout. Unnoticed small damage can quickly turn into a major outbreak if it's not controlled early.
Prepare Beds for Tropical Crops. Try black-eyed peas. If you don't care for their taste when mature, harvest them small and use them as a filet bean. Amaranth (callaloo) and hot peppers can go in now too, but be sure to offer protection from low temperatures.
Got Grasshoppers? Be sure to order semaspore to spread around your property. This only works on the newly hatched ones and it doesn't keep for long. Order it now so you have it on hand when the babies hatch. You'll find semaspore at Planet Natural.
March ushers in our tropical growing season. It's still possible to get some cool weather, but the really cold temperatures should be over. A wise gardener, however, is always prepared to bring in or otherwise protect tender seedlings.
Many tropical trees are blooming. One of my favorites is the Golden Trumpet (Tabebuia argentea, aka Silver Trumpet), with its masses of yellow flowers. Even when not in flower, its corky bark and unusual, almost "bonsai" shape make it an interesting attraction. The light olive leaves harmonize well with most landscapes.
South Florida is the first stop for many bird species after spending the winter in the Caribbean or Latin America. The flight across the Straits of Florida is long, so the birds arrive very tired and in need of refueling. Some will stay until fall, others will continue northward as weather permits. Be sure to provide them with clean water. Many people plant rue near bird feeders and baths. The smell of rue is said to repel cats. Be warned, though, that some people are skin sensitive to rue.
Poinsettia Finished Blooming? Cut it back to promote branching. Our climate and latitude are ideal for growing them outdoors. If you have a potted one and wish to plant it outside, be sure to place it where it will receive no light after dark (i.e., from a porch light or a streetlight) or it may not bloom next season.
Thirsty Plants. We're still in the dry season and March winds make matters worse. Check plants often for dehydration. A thick layer of mulch and a drip irrigation system will keep your plants happy and conserve water.
Experiment with New Varieties. Dare to try some cucurbits, such as cucumbers, squash, and zucchini? If they're quick-maturing varieties, you may luck out and get a good harvest before the insect and disease explosion of the hot season makes them hard to keep alive.
It's Warming Up! Begin replacing your cool-weather annuals with warm weather ones.
Mower Maintenance. Change the oil and air filter in your mower—a well-maintained mower runs cleaner and more efficiently. Get the blade sharpened, too.
April is a wonderful month in South Florida. The days are (usually) warm but not hot, and the nights are cool. It's a great time for picnics and hikes—if the "skeeters" aren't out yet. You can get a lot of gardening done without working up too much of a sweat.
Many of our trees do a major leaf change now. One of these trees is weeping fig, whose leaves are smaller than those from other fig species growing here. Small leaves compost easily and tend to make a better mulch, too. And the wind doesn't scatter them as easily as it does those of the larger-leaved species.
Be sure to take some time to enjoy all the trees that bloom this month. My favorite is the jacaranda, a great landscaping tree. Not as messy as the royal poinciana (okay, not as showy either), and it has multi-colored blooms.
Landscaping Aventure. April is a good month for major landscaping changes. Neither you nor your plants will have to deal with the heat of summer. Rain is not dependable this month so be sure to monitor for water needs.
Need Compost? Do you need to replenish the layer of compost or mulch on your garden beds? You should have no trouble finding dry matter in the form of leaves. The grass is growing too, so there's your green matter!
Got Grasshoppers? Did you put out grasshopper bait in February or March? If not, keep your eyes and ears open for these voracious pests. At the adult stage, the 2-block method works best. You know, get 2 blocks of wood and bring them together quickly with the grasshopper in-between!
Fig Tip. If your edible FIG is just breaking dormancy, snip off a growing tip about the size of a pencil. Place it in a container cut side down, put some finished compost around the cut end and then top off the container with good soil.
Order Up! Have you ordered your fall garden vegetable SEEDS yet? I used to put it off until summer but many times the companies were out of the varieties I wanted. If you can't store them properly, ask the companies to delay shipment until late summer or early fall. And if what you want isn't available organically grown, at least specify that you want untreated seed only, and no genetically modified plants or seeds.
Seed Starting. Start seeds of warm season plants such as PAPAYA, marigolds, malabar spinach, cosmos, OKRA, salvia, COLLARDS, vinca, CROWDER PEAS and morning glories.
May is traditionally the last month of the dry season, but it seems like the rainy season starts later every year now. "Summer" day temperatures will probably be upon us but if we're lucky, nights will still be cooler. Many tropical trees are flowering this month. Be sure to visit your local botanical garden if you're thinking of any additions to your landscape—be sure to take notice of the mature size and shape of the trees. This will help to avoid mistakes such as planting a 50-foot tree under power lines.
Every year at this time I'm convinced that my crepe myrtles are never going to break dormancy, then they put on a fantastic show. We have a row of all the available colors planted along our front yard fence. These flower so dramatically that our friends call us to see to find out when the bloom is at its peak so that they can take pictures. We also have a Queen's Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia speciosa) planted near one of our shade houses. I started it a few years ago from seed and it's grown at least 3 to 5 feet every year. If you don't want to buy an already started tree, start one from seed yourself.
Pruning Preparations. Sharpen your pruning tools; you're going to need them. I suggest that you have, as a minimum, a pair of bypass hand pruners, anvil pruners, and a double-edged saw. As a general rule, use the pruners for growth up to about three-quarters of an inch. If you're cutting green growth, use the bypass pruners; for hardened wood, use the anvil. Pruning this early gives us the advantage of being able to chip and compost the prunings before hurricane season turns them into projectiles.
Take Rooting Cuttings. Concentrate on tropicals and sub-tropicals though, save the temperate plants for fall/winter. Keep them in shade while they're developing roots. If you don't have a shade house, a screened porch will do. Or you can grow them inside under lights. Be sure that they're kept evenly moist but not soggy.
Seed Starting. You can still start some warm-weather annuals and perennials from seed. Once again, carefully monitor the soil moisture and start them in shade to part-shade. Adjust them slowly to full sun after they've been transplanted out of their starting pots/flats.
Monitor For Insects. Their populations should be almost at peak and many take advantage of the water stress that our plants go through during the dry season. Spider mite, scale and mealy bug come quickly to mind. A good shot of insecticidal soap will usually take care of the problem if you catch it early.
Lawn Looks. Speaking of water and insect stress, check the lawn for patches that look bad—you may have an insect or disease problem. If the whole lawn looks evenly bad, the problem is probably nutritional deficiency. Letting the grass clippings stay on the lawn after mowing easily solves nutritional problems.
Anyone who was not born in south Florida, or moved here at a young age, probably remembers their first June here vividly. The humidity reading is often the same or even higher than the temperatures. And do we cool off at night? Doesn't seem like it. We go to bed hot, wake up hot, and in between it gets hotter.
So how do we garden here in summer? Here are a few hints: Plan to do your heavy, full sun work in the early morning and late afternoon. Take frequent breaks and drink lots of WATER, not soda or other sweetened beverages, especially not alcoholic drinks. Guys, it's also been shown that wearing a loose cotton t-shirt will keep you cooler than no shirt at all. Save the middle period of the day for things that are not strenuous or that you can do in the shade: repotting, sowing seeds in flats, planning your fall garden, napping, etc.
Plant Trees and Bushes. After you've selected the exact plant you want, dig the hole before you buy it. The spot you've chosen may be solid coral rock. Much easier to buy a 1 gallon pot for that than to chose a 5 gallon (or larger) pot at the nursery and then have to get some dynamite to enlarge the hole.
Care for a Spot of Tea? Check the weather report: If we're going to have a dry night, give all your plants a shot of micronutrients. Homemade compost tea is my favorite.
Grass-be-gone. Keep the grass away from your trees and bushes. This time of year it's growing quickly and you don't want it competing with your foundation plantings.
Seed Starting. You can still start seeds of warm-weather annuals, but start them in shade or at least p.m. shade.
Pest Problems. Harmful insect populations are at their peak, so scout often and thoroughly.
Prepare for Hurricanes. Traditionally, this is the start of the hurricane season. The grocery stores and newspapers will all be giving out their tracking charts, supply list suggestions, etc. We gardeners should be thinking about PRUNING off bad limbs, pruning for shape, etc. This will give us time to chip and compost the prunings or otherwise properly disposing of them before a "big blow" comes along.
We're solidly into the HOT season. Sometimes, we're even too tired to think! On the other hand, we've got all this sunshine, good rains, and long days. As gardeners, we're itching to do a lot but the weather just is not cooperating. These are the times to minimize outdoor work and concentrate on outdoor PLAY! We have so many beautiful state parks and other natural areas. Take along a wildlife identification guide to see how many plants and animals you can find. So many tropical plants are flowering now that you can probably list more in summer than any other time.
Fret not about gardening though, there's still a lot that we can do, just be sensible about it. Just like last month, (and next), take frequent breaks, drink lots of water, wear sunscreen, do the heavy work early and late in the day.
Solarizing Tip. If you don't grow tropical vegetables, what better time to solarize your garden beds? If the plant residue in them is tall, you may wish to chop it up first with a string trimmer or hand tools, let it dry a day or two, and then till it in. Moisten the bed thoroughly, then cover with clear plastic. Secure the edges, then let it bake well through the summer.
Plant A Buckwheat Cover Crop. It outcompetes weeds and is easy to till in before fall planting season, adding invaluable organic matter to your soil. Till the buckwheat in before it sets seed or it will reseed in your garden.
Stay Cool and Make Plans #1. Pick up one of the many good landscaping programs for computers and try it out! Many of them allow you to see how your chosen plants will look as they grow to maturity. This is very good for making sure that trees shade your house in summer, but let all the winter sun through. I've been favorably impressed with the plant lists that come with these programs.
Stay Cool and Make Plans #2. If you haven't yet planned your fall garden, do it now. The sooner you order your supplies, the less likely you'll get a "sorry, sold out" letter! Follow this link to chemical-free seed starting mix:
Repotting Time. It's good time for "stepping up" or repotting cramped plants into larger containers. In a shaded area, use a good soil mix with no artificial ingredients. Add some homemade compost—1 part compost to 3 parts potting soil. To help supply potassium and phosphorus, add a half-cup of greens and and half cup rock phosphate to a gallon of potting mix or compost.
Tropical Fruit Tango. Many of the tropical fruit trees have finished producing for the year. Prune out undesirable branches, then chop and compost the residues.
Move Your Bird House. If your birdhouse hasn't been used in over a year, you might consider placing it in a different location. One word of warning: Here in the sub-tropics, unused birdhouses might have a non-avian resident! I've been surprised by a resident Cuban tree frog, rat snake, and the occasional Tokay Gecko!
This is one of my favorite months. Yes, it's still hot day and night, but cooler months are just around the corner. For those of us who plant tropical annuals, we're enjoying the flowers and fruits of our labors. Also, we can actually start doing more than just dreaming about our fall vegetable gardens, because in August, we can start the more heat-tolerant varieties of many crops.
Solarizing Tip. If you've been solarizing your garden—allowing the sun to bake weeds through clear plastic placed over unused plots—now is the time to pull back the clear plastic and let the soil cool down.
Check Your Irrigation System(s). How are you going to provide water to all the plantings on your property? Are the sprinklers working? Are all your drip lines intact? Better to check now than to be surprised after you've put in your transplants or seeded your beds.
Start Heat-Tolerant Veggies. Peppers, eggplants and tomatoes can take these temperatures. If you're prepared to provide afternoon shade, you can plant heat-tolerant Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, and relatives) and carrots.
Sharpen Mower Blades. Your mower has been getting quite a workout all season no doubt. Give it a tune up and sharpen the blades. And if you've had consistent summer rains, you can re-sod or reseed your lawn. While on the subject of lawns, you'll want to fertilize in fall— so go ahead and order an organic turf fertilizer now.
Plant Tropical Trees, Palms, and Shrubs. Summer rains may help keep newly planted shrubs watered, but don't rely on the rain unless you have a rain gauge. New plants need an inch of water each week, so be prepared to water if Mother Nature doesn't.
Seed Starting. Start seeds of heat-loving annual flowers, such as zinnias.
This month is God's gift to sub-tropical gardeners. Our choices for temperate veggies expand almost on a daily basis. The sun is no longer directly overhead, so it's becoming easier to garden all day. Nights are cooling off, making for pleasant evenings spent in screen porches (yes, the bugs are still out!). We have lots of fruit ripening now, including the late-season mangos and avocados. Of course, with judicious choices it's possible to have fruit ripening every month of the year.
Bird Watching. The fall migrations are starting. Every day brings new surprises (or old friends). Some birds are winter residents, while others are just passing through. Luckily for them, your organic garden is much more bird friendly than conventional gardens.
Lawn Care. I like to fertilize lawns at the end of the rainy season (mid-Oct.), not in spring as some people suggest. This way, the grass doesn't grow 1 inch an hour! Start checking to see if you can obtain organic lawn fertilizer locally.
Test Your Soil. Determine if your soil lacks vital nutrients. If so, now is a good time to buy soil amendments (at garden centers or via the Web) and incorporate them into the soil before planting. You'll find a state-by-state listing of soil testing laboratories here.
Pruned Your Poinsettia? If not, this is the last month! Make sure the plants get no artificial light at night for best bloom during the holidays.
Hurricane Prep Time. Delay heavy tree pruning until late fall, after limb-hurling storms have subsided.
Go Go Garden Gadget. You'll soon be gardening "full-steam" in your yard. Check your tools: sharpen hoes, shovels and pruners. Tune-up the lawn mower and sharpen its blade.
Anxious To Start Seeds? Go for tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other heat lovers. You may have to provide afternoon shade though. This is also a good time to start papaya seeds.
Plant Your Perennials. Plant bushes and small perennials now and while we're still in the rainy season. Hold off on planting trees, though, until after hurricane season.
Beautiful Bulbs and Flowers. Plant fall bulbs such as gladiolus, tuberoses and amaryllis. Start cool-season annual flowers, too, including marigolds, impatiens and lots more. Provide afternoon shade for some of the heat-intolerant types.
Bird Feeder Maintenance. Clean bird feeders, baths and houses with a 10% bleach solution, scrub them with a brush, and rinse with clean water.
This is wonderful month for gardening in South Florida. The nights—and the days—are cooler. We may even get a cold snap toward the end of the month! When the rainy season ends, we're able to spend the whole day in the garden.
Even though the days are noticeably shorter, we can still get a lot done before sundown. Be sure to leave some time to call your friends in the single digit zones to tell them about the beautiful weather. (You do, however, run the risk that they'll pop in unexpectedly!)
Start Heat-tolerant Brassicas. Collard greens, broccoli, cabbage, mustard and kale. You can also plant carrot and okra seeds directly in the garden. With afternoon shade, you can even start lettuce. Wait to plant cukes, squash, and corn until after the rains have stopped.
Want To Plant Roses? Get the soil ready, then plant rose bushes about mid-month. They'll acclimate and bloom over winter and be adjusted to your conditions before scorching summer weather returns.
Cold Weather Flowers. Here are some other flowers that thrive in cool temperatures here: poppies, petunias, carnations and nasturtiums.
Foliar Feeding. Once the rains have stopped, help all your plants prepare for winter conditions with a foliar feeding. Use homemade compost tea or follow this link to a liquid seaweed fertilizer that has the micronutrients plants need: Sea Rich Foliar Plant Food
Fertilizing Tip. One plant you should not fertilize now is Bougainvillea. Pampering it now will actually mean less bloom later.
Spread the Wealth. If you've been composting all summer, spread it around now. Be sure to bury it or otherwise cover it so that the sun doesn't burn up the organic matter before it can nourish your soil. Start a new pile to work on during winter.
November is a great month for gardening. The cooler fall weather has set in, hurricane season is over, and we finally have a wide-open planting calendar for temperate veggies.
The fall bird migration is in full swing too. Our winter residents have arrived and are busy eating pest insects (and leaving behind some organic fertilizer).
Plant Tropical Fruit Trees. But before you do, get to know their characteristics first. Here are some useful tips on sitting tropical fruit trees that I've gathered over the years:
Mulberry Mayhem. Don't put a mulberry next to the driveway unless you like purple stains on concrete (and on your car).
Beware of Banana Plants. Especially by the clothesline—they may stain the wash.
Jackfruit Tip. Jakfruit by the front door may look nice, but who wants to get bonked on the head with a 30 lb. (or more) fruit when they step outside?
Bountiful Brassicas. Plant any brassica (broccoli, cauliflower, beets, etc) you like now without having to worry about afternoon shade. The same goes for lettuce and other greens.
Plant Your Roses. They thrive in cool, dry conditions like we have now.
It's Getting Chilly. Replace warm season flowering annuals with cool season ones such as poppies, snapdragons, carnations and strawflowers, all of which you will find in nurseries and garden centers now.
Planting Preparations. At the start of the month you still have time to plant tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Later in the month, the temperatures may be just a bit too cold to get them established.
Pruning Berries. If your RASPBERRIES have finished their current crop, prune them down to soil level for the late spring crop.
Pest Problems. The beginning of the dry season heralds the start of a different batch of pests. Spider mite comes to mind. They seem to prefer the dry weather. Scout your garden often and thoroughly. Problems caught early are easier to deal with than ones that get out of hand. A bit of soap and water will handle spider mite, mealy bug, and other sucking insects if you spot them early.
Flowering trees continue to put on a show in December. The winter hummingbirds are all around us taking advantage of the blooms. Brown Thrashers are making short work of any ground caterpillars that may make it into our gardens. Kestrels and other hawks are very visible now, especially in Redland and other open space areas.
We may get a cold snap this month but usually after the mid-point. January and February are more likely to have the coldest temperatures.
Check Cold-protection Supplies. Keep tabs on old sheets or blankets, soda bottles or milk jugs for hot water, hay or other insulating mulch, row covers, etc. Better to know where they are now than when you're rushing to protect tender plants.
Blooming Mangoes! If you see large black beetles on the bloom spikes, leave them alone. They're pollinators! They won't hurt the tree, just give you more fruit.
Temperature Tip. When the daytime temperatures have dropped into the 70s, sow seeds of Peas, Spinach and other cool-weather crops.
Go Easy on the Fertilizer. Don't fertilize tropical fruit trees this month. You may cause tender new growth that will not survive the next cold spell.
Poinsettia Pointer. If you have a poinsettia bush outside and wish to cut some blooms for holiday decorations, the flowers will last longer if you singe the stems' ends and then place them in water.