I can’t believe it’s October 1st. I can’t believe it’s nearly been a year since I moved back to Central Florida from the northeast. After one of the hottest, soggiest summers yet, things are finally cooling down here and I’m embracing a new first: a FULL fall planting season. And I don’t mean sowing a few cool-weather-loving leafy greens. For the first time in 11 years, I won’t be hustling to harvest every last late-summer bloom, clearing and cleaning and putting the garden to bed for winter. Right at this moment, under clear skies and stars are dozens of flower, herb and vegetable seedlings, patiently waiting their return to the soil...IN OCTOBER. The mind reels! But first: I want to take the time to share some of the lessons I learned during my first season gardening back in the south. Brace yourselves. Some of these may come as a shock (mild sarcasm implied!).
1. Here in Florida, summer = winter I pushed the envelope a bit on my first season back, planting out almost 2 months later than most for an end-of-spring/early summer season. Stubborn by nature, I was determined not to waste good weather and a new space. To be honest, I figured a Florida summer really wouldn’t be much worse than muggy Junes, Julys and Augusts in NJ, NY and CT.
The hard truth is, there’s a reason why folks compare Florida summers to the surface of the sun. The main difference is the humidity. Between the unforgiving heat and long days, the plants thrived and frankly exploded in size, towering over me in their beds. It was a thing to behold! However, the heat had an affect on me as well, and I quickly became lazy with my regular routine to keep the garden healthy (weekly applications of organic neem oil fell by the wayside, as did applying compost tea and maintenance pruning). When the rainy season began in early summer and the nights stayed hot, the impact was evident. The plants couldn’t recover and started to succumb to disease and pest pressure. True champs though to the very end, they pushed out bloom after bloom until late-July when finally I put the garden out of its misery for a well-deserved rest.
Final verdict? The garden most definitely performed, but with better planning and earlier planting it could have been more successful with less effort, disease and pests. Non-stressed plants are just healthier all around. 2. Less is more Which brings me to the topic of simplicity. Growing in the northeast, I had become accustomed to working with near-painfully small, usually urban spaces. Dozens of containers, narrow raised beds, concrete and a dream. Still, through closer plant spacing, I was always (and quite successfully) able to grow many unique varieties and enjoy robust, healthy harvests. Planting more closely together causes longer stems for cut flower production - a plus when harvesting for design and bouquet work! It's amazing what you can do with a small space and I will always be drawn to the creativity required to cultivate them well.
Fast forward to owning my first home and having "real" farming space, re: nearly 60 feet of raised beds. Despite having a much larger footprint to work with, I approached things the same way I would have in my previous small space gardens, sowing dozens of unique varieties and practicing close planting in nearly every inch of available soil. In essence, I created a magnificent jungle that for the reasons in my first point certainly thrived, but also suffered from a lack of air circulation and relief from the heat and humidity. Harvesting from this 8th wonder of the world also proved to be a feat for me, with my 5'2" petite frame unable to reach many of the precious varieties of flowers I'd spent time and resources cultivating.
The verdict: in the future, I’ll be growing fewer varieties with somewhat relaxed spacing so that the plants have room to stretch without being unsustainable for them or for me. I know I’ll enjoy larger harvests because the plants will be healthier, and I won’t be battling them to GET to them. Seems like a win win.
3. Grow what thrives From the very beginning, I approached the challenge of growing in Florida again with this mantra (and even wrote a detailed blog post about it!); however, as gardeners, we're all guilty of succumbing to the siren's call of planting beautiful things that either don't belong in our zone, or that would do better in a more-forgiving season. I'm no different. Yes, I leaned in hard and prioritized those easy, heat-loving beauties like zinnias, cosmos, celosia and gomphrena that I knew would have success; however, I was swept away with the excitement of a new home and planting space, sowing many delicate varieties of flowers and fillers that frankly struggled in Central Florida's weather. These experiments, while always interesting to me, also wasted precious soil for other things that would have thrived.
A few examples of plants I attempted to grow this summer but probably won't again (or will try in the fall when things are cooler) include: flowering tobacco (nicotiana - a favorite of mine and one of the first plants I grew by scattering seed in my first tiny garden in Greenwich), decorative grasses (these did well in well-draining containers during summers in the northeast, but the humidity rotted them straight out here in Florida), and lavender (brb, still crying). 4. Always learning At the end of the day, my biggest takeaway from the grand, stubborn experiment of my first season back in Central Florida was that, despite having more than a decade's experience cultivating gardens, I am ALWAYS still learning. We all are. Isn't that the joy of the garden when it comes right down to it? Yes, it can be frustrating to see something you spent time and resources on fail, but the process can be beautiful if you take something positive away from it.
I was truly astonished by the garden this year. It may have been my favorite yet - it was BIG and bold - even with the pests, even with the disease and heat and laziness of melting under the Florida sun. The garden gave, and gave and gave, until it had nothing left to give, because it knew no other way. There's something so poetic and beautiful about that. But as a steward of the garden, I can do better. I know what not to do next time, but still enjoyed the process. And trust me, I learned a lot. Slowly but surely, I'm on my way to becoming a true Florida gardener.