HOW TO GROW VEGETABLES IN NORTHWEST FLORIDA

Okra, eggplant and sweet potatoes thrive in the summer heat

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Watch those fingers – and green thumbs! That noise you hear is the window closing on planting warm season vegetables in Florida. While conditions now may seem just right for planting veggies, it is actually too late for most. In a blink of an eye, the heat and humidity that comes with summer will be upon us and serve as a no-nonsense reminder that, if you are going to have success in your home garden, most warm season vegetables must be planted in a month that has an “r” in it.

Don’t despair.

Although May is upon us, those of us living in the north and central parts of the state are not altogether shut out from growing a little something for the dinner table. In north Florida, we can still have success with such vegetables as okra, eggplant and sweet potatoes. In central Florida, sweet potatoes are your only option of the three – but a tasty one!

Southern peas can be planted now, too, but they do much better for me, and I get bigger yields and less pest pressure, when I grow them in the cooler part of spring, not summer.

Popular varieties of sweet potatoes for Florida include Centennial, Beauregard and Vardaman. Beauregard, or “Mississippi Red,” is a real favorite in my household.

Purchase sweet potato slips (sprouts cut from tubers) from a local farm supply store or reputable seed company on the Web. Set plants 12 to 14 inches apart in mounded rows that are eight to12 inches high. The rows should be about 48 inches apart. Water regularly and keep weeded, and you should be ready to harvest in late fall.

Every Southern garden should have okra growing in it, if for no other reason than it usually thrives under the conditions that cause so much havoc to our other veggies. It is such a delight to harvest and eat something fresh and green in the late summer when most of the garden is otherwise bare.

Okra plants range in size from a few feet to as high as 10 feet or more. Recommended varieties include Clemson Spineless, Perkins, Dwarf Green, Emerald, Blondy, and Burgundy. As some of the names imply, okra pods can be green, red or white.

Okra prefers fertile, well-drained soil. Plant seeds or starter plants a foot or two apart in rows that are spaced three to four feet apart, or plant a few seeds together for a sort of okra bush.

Okra grows quickly and needs a steady supply of nutrients, so be sure to fertilize every three weeks. Pods should be harvested a day or two after the flower petals have dropped off and while the pods are still tender. Check your plants often. The pods may be too small to harvest in the morning but just right by the end of the day.

Avoid planting okra in the same area of your garden from year to year because the plants are highly susceptible to root damage from nematodes.

Eggplant stands up to Florida’s summertime heat as well as okra. The plants will not produce fruit during the hottest part of the summer but they will begin producing again once it cools down in late September.

When planted in full sun, many kinds of eggplant will grow about three to four feet tall and just as wide. Keep the spacing between plants or seeds about the same, three to four feet, or follow the recommended spacing on the seed packet.

Eggplant flowers are self-pollinating, so a lack of honeybees in the garden does not significantly impact yield. Fruits are best harvested while they are still shiny and glossy. Fruit is over mature when it appears green or mahogany in color, leaving it tough, bitter and seedy.

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