By Ginny Stibolt, coauthor of Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida
We are so fortunate here in Florida that with our mild winters, we can grow productive, edible crops on a year-round basis. Because of this and because of our wet and dry seasons, most general vegetable gardening books don’t translate well to our climate. People like me who’ve grown crops in more northerly areas of the U.S. are usually surprised at how different vegetable gardening is here in Florida.
In this post, I’ll cover some of the many benefits of growing some of your own food and some ideas for getting started.
Eating locally-grown food is good for our only planet
Every pound of food that you grow, or buy from local growers,
offsets up to two pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.
Local urban and suburban food production reduces net greenhouse gas emissions compared with the conventional food system because of the reduction or elimination of transportation (mostly refrigerated) and elimination of packaging and handling. In addition, at least 30% of conventionally produced food is wasted—starting at the harvest, during the handling by middlemen, and ending at the local grocery stores with the expectation of only perfectly formed produce. Both Climate of Hope by Bloomberg and Pope and Drawdown by Hawken cite food waste as a major contributor to global warming, for many reasons. The large carbon footprint of producing the crops—including replacing forests with crop fields, soil treatments, planting, irrigation, and harvesting—becomes even larger because the system needs to produce even more food to compensate for all that waste.
A more indirect way in which vegetable gardening might reduce greenhouse gas emissions is the replacement of high-maintenance lawns with vegetable gardens. Another indirect result of growing your own food is that when you cook to the harvest, it changes what and how you eat. You and your family will consume less processed food and maybe less meat. Both processed food and meat production have large carbon footprints.
One other climate consideration is that on a global basis, soil sequesters four times more carbon than all terrestrial plants, including rainforests. You can play a part in conserving your local soil ecosystem by using raised beds or containers for growing your vegetables so that the soil is not turned or disrupted with plow or tiller and that the integrity of the underlying soil ecosystem is preserved. This maximizes its carbon-storing capacity. See below for guidelines on raised beds.
Growing some of your food is good for your family
In 2020, when COVID-19 abruptly changed people’s lives, many began to grow more food in response to the following:
- More time at home and not going out to eat.
- Worries about food safety and the desire for more nutritious food.
- Food shortages and higher prices in grocery stores.
- Searching for educational and fun projects for their children around the home. Kids should know that carrots grow in the soil and don’t just come in plastic bags.
That year, several large seed companies ran out of seeds and gardening supplies as a result of this uptick in home vegetable gardening.
Now, there is still talk about how growing more food at home and in community gardens adds resiliency to families and to the community. This movement seems a bit like the Victory Gardens of World War II, but homeowners are pursuing it on their own to save money, to supplement their family’s food supply with freshly harvested vegetables, and to work together on a meaningful and educational family project. I hope this movement continues well beyond the pandemic so people will have control of their food from seed to table.
How to get started growing food in Florida
Choose a sunny spot on your property that is not near trees. Even though we love trees in our yards for their shade and because they actually cool the air through transpiration (see my article “Transpiration: Forests’ most important service”), you don’t want big tree roots competing with your vegetable garden plants for water and nutrients. Sometimes the sunniest spot is in your front yard. Fortunately, here in Florida, we have the Front-Yard Vegetable Garden Law, which states that no municipality may ban front yard vegetable gardens. It does not apply to homeowners’ associations (HOAs), but it’s still a good start.
Raised beds are recommended for all of Florida
Growing plants above the ground—in raised beds or containers—offers several advantages over the conventional method of growing directly in the ground. Raised beds with or without hard sides should be designed so that you are able to reach the whole bed without stepping on the prepared soil. Additional benefits include the following:
- Less irrigation is needed because water only falls on the growing areas with drip, micro-spray, or hand irrigation techniques.
- Non-growing areas are likely to have fewer weeds because they are not irrigated, which means that soil is not disrupted by pulling weeds, and therefore can continue to store carbon.
- Soil where crops are growing is never compressed by foot traffic because beds are sized for maintenance from outside the beds.
- Crops are planted densely with just enough space to grow so weeding is less of a chore.
What to plant
When just beginning to grow food, or growing food in a new location, choose plants that will thrive in your climate with a minimum of care and without the use of poisons. These will probably include those that have been bred to resist diseases such as fungal wilt and other common problems.
After gaining some local knowledge and experience, add a few new or unusual crops to the mix each season. Of course, the best crops are those that you and your family will enjoy eating.
The keys to success in growing edibles
- Start small and don’t expect miracles during the first couple of seasons.
- Not everything will work every time, so don’t be discouraged when something fails.
- Educate yourself so that you make fewer mistakes. For Florida, timing is tricky and most general gardening advice doesn’t work here.
My book Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida, written with Melissa Contreras, covers the whole state with 3 monthly calendars. We also arrange the crops by plant family in the book, so your crop rotation by plant family will be easier.
Fall is a great time to plant a wide range of vegetables in Florida, but if you start preparing your soil by composting in place in the summer it will be ready when it’s time to plant those cool-weather crops. So let’s get started!
Ginny Stibolt began her professional life as a teacher and has taught math, science, business, and computer courses at levels from 7th grade through college. She is a lifelong gardener with a MS degree in botany from the University of Maryland. Since moving to Florida in 2004, she has written five peer-reviewed books on Florida gardening, all published by University Press of Florida. She has also coauthored the award-winning Climate-Wise Landscaping, published by New Society Press in 2018.