Garden goodness, Gainesville style

10 rules of (green) thumb for planting a successful fall vegetable garden here

Grow Gainesville co-founder and farmer Melissa DeSa holds a some freshly cut basil while standing with her crop of wildflowers at Forage Farm in Rochelle.

Doug Finger / Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, August 1, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 9:14 a.m.

So you’d like to start your own backyard vegetable garden? Your timing couldn’t be better. Fall is the perfect season for growing in North Central Florida — especially if this is your first time.


Join in on the fun.

Check out these community resources and support for area gardeners:

UF IFAS's website,, provides free materials on gardening and lawn maintenance.
The Alachua County Extension Office regularly offers workshops and classes on lawn and garden topics (
Grow Gainesville, an urban gardening network (, offers workshops and demonstrations, blog posts, a Facebook page and online resources, along with a Seed Library in which bulk-purchased seeds are available twice a year for gardeners who pay a $20 annual membership fee.
Community gardens. Can't grow your own? Volunteer at one of the area's many community gardens managed by the city of Gainesville ( 393-8186), Alachua County (548-3765, and Grow Gainesville. For a complete list of community gardens, visit

“The fall garden is much easier than the spring garden,” says Alachua County Extension Agent Wendy Wilber. Cooler fall temperatures help keep weeds and pests at bay, and plants don’t need to be watered as often as in the spring and summer. What’s more, many of the crops that grow well in the fall are easy to grow, Wilber says.

Here, two of the area’s greenest thumbs — Wendy Wilber and Melissa DeSa, co-founder of Grow Gainesville, a community gardening group — offer 10 tips to backyard vegetable-gardening success this season.

Know when to grow. DeSa says one of the biggest mistakes new Florida gardeners make is planting at the wrong time of year – especially if they’ve just moved here from another part of the country. “The best time to grow here is in the spring and fall,” she says.

For a late fall crop of tomatoes and peppers, put them in the ground in August, DeSa says. Otherwise, plant in September and October. To extend the bounty, consider putting new plants in the ground every 2-3 weeks.

Think small. “Folks get too ambitious,” Wilber says, often failing to factor in the kind of equipment and maintenance—fertilizing, watering and weeding—they’ll need to pull it off. "Start small and build on your successes,” she says.

Amend the soil every time you plant. New gardeners also may not realize how important it is to add materials like compost and manures to the soil in Florida. "We really don’t have the nice rich soil that other parts of the country have, so we have to work at building soil,” DeSa says. Amending the soil must be repeated every time you plant — not just during the first year, she adds.

Contain yourself. Start with either a container garden or a small raised garden bed in your yard.

“Weeding, fertilizing, watering … for some crops, it’s much more convenient to do it in containers,” Wilber says. Make sure containers are large enough to accommodate the plants you grow. For tomatoes, for instance, use a 5-gallon container with drainage holes for each plant.

The only downside to container gardening: “You’re going to have to keep up with the watering, because containers dry out faster than your in-ground,” Wilber says.

DeSa says raised garden beds hold water longer than an in-ground garden, and the soil you use is less likely to be washed away by the rain. “They also look nice.”

For raised garden beds, Wilber recommends a 4x4-foot or 4x8-foot wooden box. Fill it with soil that you purchase from a garden center or store, or use compost that you purchase or make yourself in a compost bin.

Know what to grow. Wilber encourages gardeners to refer to IFAS Extension’s “Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide” ( and choose varieties that grow best here. Some of the easiest fall crops for beginners: “Cherry tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers … in that order,” Wilber says. Radishes, leaf lettuces and leafy cooking greens, such as swiss chard, kale, mustard and collard greens, arugula and spinach, are easy to grow, as well. Broccoli, cauliflower and root crops, such as beets and carrots, grow well in the fall, too.

Know where to grow. Locate the garden in a place that receives at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight and that’s close to a water source. Other considerations: Be sure the site has well-drained soil, and that it is at least 30-50 feet away from tree roots, which can steal nutrients and water.

Water wisely. Use drip hoses or a micro-irrigation system that releases a trickle of water at the base of the plant. Or water by hand at the soil surface using a long wand. To prevent plant diseases, be sure not to get the leaves wet or allow soil to splash up on the leaves.

Control pests with care. Use the most organic method of insect/disease control as possible, such as as neem oil and BT (Bacillus thuringiensis). IFAS’s “Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide” has a list of organic pest control options for the area’s most common pests.

As for weeds, Wilber says prevention is the best defense. At the end of the season, pull your plants out of the ground and cover the bed with a thick layer of mulch, cardboard or weed cloth. Daily weeding — 10 minutes a day — is the best way to control weeds that do pop up, DeSa says. Mulching around the plants using a leaf mulch, pine straw or straw (not hay) also helps.

Plant flowers, too. Flowers encourage the bees to come and pollinate the vegetables. Sunflowers (the short, branching variety that produces multiple flowers), zinnias and marigolds can be planted early in the fall. Plant violas or calendula later in the season.

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