Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension, P.O. Box 68, LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068   Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Vegetable Gardening in Southwest Florida

Gardening is the nation's number one past time. In Florida, there are over 1 million vegetable gardens. Vegetable gardens offer their owners a number of benefits including: fresh air and sunshine, exercise, enjoyment, mental therapy, economic savings and nutritious fresh vegetables.

Vegetables may be grown year-round in SW Florida, but the months from September - April generally give the most satisfactory results. Due to our unique soils and sub-tropical climate - gardening is a little different here and can be disappointing to the un-initiated.

Summer heat can be brutal, soils often provide little more than support to hold plants upright, insects and diseases flourish in our eternal summers and varieties that worked well back home are often miserable failures locally.  Despite these challenges - vegetable gardening in SW Florida can be extremely rewarding to those who learn how.

There are several essentials that must be followed to ensure an abundant harvest. Choose a sunny location close to a water source. Most vegetables need six to eight hours of direct sun a day for best results. For best sun exposure, orient the garden so the rows run east to west, with the tallest plants on the north end.  If possible, locate the garden so that access is easy and convenient. Don't make the garden too big, it will be neglected if it becomes too much work.   A 20 by 20 foot garden will give you plenty of room to grow a wide range of crops.

The ideal garden location has loose soil that drains well. If your soil isn't perfect, you can improve it over time by adding organic amendments such as compost. Prepare the soil by roto-tilling or turning the soil by hand to remove existing weeds and provide a firm seed bed..  Have the soil tested to determine the soil pH.  Most vegetables prefer a pH between 6.0 and 6.8.  If your soil pH is below 5.5, two to three pounds of finely ground dolomitic limestone per 100 sq. ft will usually raise the pH sufficiently.  Be aware that the application of lime when it is not needed may cause plant nutritional problems.

If your soil pH is naturally alkaline, where limestone, marl, or shells are present, there is no practical way of permanently lowering soil pH.  You will have to use fertilizer with micro nutrients.  If high pH is the result of over liming, application of granular sulfur (1 lb/100 sq. ft) will lower soil pH.

Most of our soils will benefit from applications of organic matter such as animal manure, rotted leaves, compost, and cover crops. Thoroughly mix liberal amounts of organics in the soil well in advance of  planting, preferably at least a month before seeding. Spread at least 25 to 100 pounds of compost or animal manure per 100 sq. ft. if you do not expect to use inorganic fertilizer. Due to inconsistent levels of nutrients in compost, additional applications of balanced inorganic fertilizer may be beneficial. Organic amendments low in nitrogen, such as composted yard trash, must be accompanied by fertilizer to avoid plant stunting.

Unless very large quantities of organic fertilizer materials are applied, commercial fertilizer, such as 8-8-8 or 15-15-15,  is usually needed for Florida gardens. Broadcast 2 ½  to 5 lb. of fertilizer over the entire garden plot 1 to 2 weeks before planting. Band  2 to 4 oz of fertilizer per ten foot of row at planting time in 1 or 2 bands each 2 to 3 inches to the side of and 1 to 2 inches below the seed level or plant row.

In addition, during the growing season, it may be necessary to side dress 2 or 3 times with appropriate fertilizer at half the banded rate given above. Side dress just beyond the outside leaves.

Provide sufficient drainage of excessive rainfall from your plot, while arranging for irrigation during dry periods.  Some of the most productive gardens are ones that utilize raised beds. Raised beds help plants grow better by providing excellent drainage even in heavy rains and save resources since fertilizer and compost are applied only in the beds, not broadcast over the entire garden area.

Frequency of irrigation will depend upon your soil type. Sandy soils need water 2 or 3 times a week. Conserve water by using mulch, organic matter, and techniques such as drip irrigation

Weed disease and insect control are critical for success with vegetables.  Scout the garden twice weekly for pests and diseases. Begin control efforts early and be sure to follow product labels for vegetable clearances, rates, and interval of application. For more information on vegetable gardening, contact the Hendry County Extension Office or check the Hendry County Horticulture web site - Vegetable Gardening section.  Good luck and good gardening.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or  863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an Equal Employment Opportunity - Affirmative Action Employer authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap or national origin.

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