What you need to know about Florida gardening
Published: Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 1:01 p.m.
An estimated 1,000 people move to Florida each day. Like many of you, I am not a Florida native. Imagine my surprise when I arrived here and dug into the "soil" and see it flow freely through my hand. It was pure sand! How can I ever grow anything in this sand?
The places I lived prior to Florida required little effort to get plants to grow. I knew I had a huge challenge before me. I'll provide you some pointers based on my 10 years of gardening in Florida.
The first step is to conduct a site analysis. Do you have soil other than sand? Ha! Identify the sunny and shady locations, low-lying areas, location of water source, and any unique micro-climate, for example, an area that stays warmer than other parts of your yard in the winter. Based on the results of your site analysis, decide if you can plant a vegetable garden and where to locate your landscape beds and what will be in those beds. Plants should be grouped according to their water needs and according to their light requirement.
The next step is improving your soil. Gardening will be extremely difficult if this step is omitted. The addition of compost is recommended to increase the ability of sandy soils to hold water and nutrients. An added benefit of the compost is that it helps reduce the incidence of root knot nematodes. These are small worm-like organisms, invisible to the naked eye, that restrict the movement of water and nutrients through the plant, causing stunting of the plant, yellowing of the leaves, and swollen/knotted roots.
Compost can be easily made by collecting the fallen leaves from the trees in your yard, grass clippings, coffee grounds and kitchen scraps, and allowing them to decompose either in a compost bin or a hole in the ground. More detailed information on composting can be found at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep323.
A soil test also is recommended to determine the soil pH — the acidity or alkalinity of the soil and nutrients available. The results of the soil test also will help to determine whether to add sulfur to decrease the pH, or if lime is needed to increase the pH. The University of Florida Soils Lab will conduct a comprehensive soil analysis for $7. Call the Master Gardeners at 671-8400 for instructions on how to take a soil sample.
Central Florida receives an average of 52 inches of rain per year. If that amount was distributed somewhat evenly throughout the year, no supplemental irrigation would be needed. However, that is not the case, so watering is essential, especially when there is no rain for an extended period of time during the summer. In the winter, growth slows significantly, so only water every 10 to 14 days. Water is a limited resource, so employ as many water conservation practices as possible in the garden. These include: adding a 3-inch layer of mulch to flower beds; installing a micro-irrigation system, which uses a lot less water than overhead sprinklers; and installing a rain barrel to capture rain water from your roof that can be used to water your garden.
In order to be successful at gardening in Florida, you need to become acquainted with the many common garden pests that thrive here. There are many insect pests in the garden, some you can barely see with the naked eye to huge ones. Don't rush out to kill all the insects you see in the garden — there are numerous good bugs out there, too!
Many of the disease problems you encounter are usually a result of some incorrect cultural practice. It might be overwatering, watering late in the evening or over-fertilizing. Your garden will never be 100 percent weed-free. You can mulch to reduce weeds and apply herbicides, but it is imperative that you do not allow weeds to seed, or else you will have lots more weeds in your garden the next year.
Increasing your gardening knowledge will help you to successfully tackle the many problems you will encounter gardening in Florida.
Norma Samuel is the Urban Horticulture Agent for the UF/IFAS Marion County Extension Service. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.