Today, in celebration of hitting 15,000 subscribers, I posted an entertaining tour through the little vegetable gardens out back:
The beds and fencing, etc., aren’t the way I would design a garden but the pre-made space works pretty well and has been a blessing. We’re getting some good pumpkins now, as well as greens and perennial cucumbers.
Here, as a comparison, is a garden I designed:
I don’t like raised beds all that much and was mostly phasing them out in my Florida gardens; however, they are more useful here where the soil is filled with rocks and clay.
In the future I hope to dig and sort all the rocks out of the beds which will help even more.
It is nice to get some Seminole pumpkins from the garden but I am quite disappointed they all seem to be the necked variety. That was unexpected – not what I thought I had saved.
Have a great weekend. I’ll be getting some gardening done today.
Yet I cannot argue with the results. Our double-dug beds have always done well. Always. There has never been a time where I put in the effort to double-dig and then said “man, that wasn’t worth it!”
It may be, as Bruce notes, that double-digging initially to clear rocks and remove soil compaction followed by using a no-till or other method may be a better practice than breaking the soil again year after year.
Don wonders about tropical gardening in Vero Beach:
I recently moved to Vero Beach, and was delighted to find that we are in a 10a climate zone. I heard that Vero is in a microclimate area. You;d you consider this to be a tropical zone? or one that may be open to setting up a system where we may be able to push toward a 10b or even an 11a depending on how we set up our garden?
I am currently on 5 acres, and I am mulching over about 2 1/2 acres of it. I plan on planting fruit trees in just about 3 weeks.”
You are in a great place, Don. Gardening in Vero Beach is life on the easy setting.
Vero’s climate is close enough to the tropics that you’ll be able to plant an abundance of species that people an hour inland from you would struggle to grow.
2.5 acres is a ton of space, too. With Vero Beach’s mild, year-round growing season you’ll be raking in produce if you plan well. Even if you don’t, it will be hard to fail.
Though zone 10a suffers through occasional freezes, the close proximity of the ocean keeps them rare and brief.
“If you live near the coast, consider yourself blessed. The climate of Jacksonville (Northeastern Florida) is comparable to that of Groveland, despite the former being located farther north. This is why there are coconut palms growing inside Tampa bay but not in Orlando.
Like the barrels of water in my greenhouse, the ocean functions as a huge repository of warmth on chilly nights. The farther you get away from the ocean, the worse the overnight lows become—and the hotter the summer highs. The center of the state of Florida is a ridge with rolling hills and little to moderate the heat of summer or the cold of winter. In my previous location south of Gainesville, I could drive an hour east or an hour west and see a lot more tropical foliage growing than would survive on my homestead.
More than one person in the Ocala area told me “I could never live in South Florida—it would be way too hot.” I’d just laugh. I grew up in Ft. Lauderdale and I can tell you from experience: it never, ever gets as hot there as it does during the middle of a Central Florida summer. The ocean keeps it both cooler and warmer. Where I currently live in the tropics is even milder. Temperatures normally range between 74 and 87 degrees, even though you’d think its equatorial location would lead to sweltering misery.
If you’re not tied to a particular location, you have a few options in finding a place where you can grow warmer climate plants outside with little or no protection. You can move southwards towards the equator… you can move into a warm, urban area… or you can move towards the coast. Heck, you could combine all three and move to Miami; however, the crime rate down there takes some of the fun out of gardening. There’s nothing that dampens horticultural enthusiasm like having some hoodlums steal all your mangoes or break into your tool shed three times in one week. No fun.
Getting close to the ocean or into the city is more expensive than living in the country, unfortunately, which is part of why we moved into the middle of my home state. Land is abundant and the soil can be pretty decent by Florida standards, depending on where you settle.
If you already live in the city, I recommend trying some trees and plants from farther south. Patios and pool areas are excellent for planting small fruit trees. If you’re in an apartment, try growing some tropical plants in large pots on your deck or garden area.
I’ve seen queen palms growing in North Florida between an apartment wall and a pool. If those palms were planted out in the open, they would be toasted by frost. By the building, in that urban heat sink along with the additional thermal mass of a big swimming pool they looked as happy as if they were in Tahiti.
The way to find out what works is to plant a lot of things and see how they do in your area. I’ll bet there are places in your yard right now that are warmer because of their location.
I once visited a friend about seventy miles east of my old house in Marion County. He lives in Ormond Beach, right near the ocean, which was actually a little north of me. In his neighborhood people were growing royal poinciana trees and sea grapes—both decidedly tropical species. The ocean made all the difference.”
Mangoes: The Tropical Canary
One of the species I look for to determine if an area is tropical enough to grow plenty of tropical fruit is the mango.
So – can mangoes grow in Vero Beach?
Though the frosts will remove fruit from mango trees in some years, you will have great success in other years.
If the property you are developing has established trees – no matter what the species – they will help moderate the climate. If it is a wide open space, I recommend planting fast-growing species as quickly as possible to help moderate the climate and protect your tropical trees from the cold.
You don’t have to let them get huge, you just want to get some canopy edges that will help hold in warmth on a frosty night. Slowing the movement of cold air helps as well, so hedges, fences, buildings – think about where they are or where they could be. South-facing walls will create fully tropical microclimates along their sides.
But… as mangoes already grow in Vero Beach, your work is much easier than mine was in North/Central Florida.
Tropical Fruit for Vero Beach
Here are some species I would definitely hunt down and plant:
There are many more options as well. More “tender” trees could be planted after these somewhat frost-tolerant trees get established. The collective canopies will create a warmer microclimate in your yard over time.
Covering the Area
One mistake I made at the beginning of my food forest process was not planting enough nitrogen fixers and plants to keep the ground covered.
Most of Florida wants to be forest. If you put down that mulch – plant more species in it that will keep life in the soil and provide you with new mulch material. If you have pain-in-the-neck invasive species, like Brazilian pepper, I would chop and drop it, but not kill it right away. If you keep it cut it won’t seed and you can use the limbs and leaves as mulch around other trees.
For quick ground-covering species I like cassava, Tithonia diversifolia, pigeon peas, black-eyed peas and big crazy seed mixes.
The more life you get going on the sand, the better.
Perennial peanut is also a very nice ground cover for orchards and food forests.
Little trees are very susceptible to overnight lows. Go to the local thrift store and buy cheap blankets and sheets and be prepared to cover those trees for at least the first few winters. If you keep them fed and watered well during their first few years, they’ll soon get big enough to live through a cold night, usually with minor damage. I have a lot more ideas in Push the Zone, but the bare bones of it is: baby young tropicals and they’ll take care of themselves in adulthood.
Vegetable Gardening in Vero Beach
My recommendations for top crops as shared in Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening hold firm for Vero Beach. Start with tough stuff that handles the humidity and the sand and move out from there.
Mexican Tree Spinach
Those will get you started and will do great – and there are many more options as well. Beefsteak tomatoes are tough, but Everglades tomatoes are easy. Get the forgiving plants growing first and making you food, then branch out.
I also encourage you to hunt down tropical fruit growers and enthusiasts in your area. Visit the local agricultural extension. Drive around town and any time you spot a tropical fruit tree, see if you can meet the owner and talk to him about how it has done over the years.
Good luck, Don, and if you have any more questions – shoot them my way and I’ll help as best as I can.
Digging in sandy soil with a broadfork is easy. In rocky clay, it’s not nearly as easy. It’s basically an extreme sport in clay.
It’s not impossible, though. That bed took me perhaps 45 minutes to prepare, mostly because it takes more stomping on the broadfork than I’m used to, plus I had to bust up the big clods.
Sure, it’s work – but it’s work that needs to be done, especially for root crops.
Why Dig a Garden Bed?
The major reason: loose soil. If the soil structure is open and crumbly, plant roots do a lot better. They can dig deep and get the minerals and water they need without having to force their way through hard earth. You’re doing the hard work first to make their lives easier.
Digging garden beds even works well in sand, as I discovered back in Florida.
When your plants have easier lives, they’ll spend more time making delicious things for you to eat.
The Initial Feeding
When I prepare a garden bed I rake in compost right at the beginning. In the past I’ve also used amendments such as lime, blood meal, bone meal, cottonseed meal and kelp meal – all of which are excellent additions to the soil.
Here, though, I can’t get most of those things, so I stick to compost, biochar and sometimes seaweed.
You can see a recent bit of bed prep in this video:
You don’t need a ton of organic matter in the soil. A few percent is fine. I sprinkle perhaps a half-inch cover of compost on a newly dug garden bed and rake or turn it in before I plant. The plants really appreciate compost and it lasts longer and releases its nutrition over time, unlike chemical fertilizer.
When preparing this garden bed I used my Back to Eden chicken run compost, which is probably hotter than compost from a typical backyard pile. The plants don’t seem to mind, though.
Here’s how I made that compost:
Planting a Bed of Sweet Potatoes
This is easy as shoo-fly pie.
Just cut some vines and stick them in.
You can start your own sweet potato slips with store-bought sweet potatoes if you don’t have any vines currently growing on your homestead.
Use the toothpicks and a jar method – or – even easier – start potatoes growing by burying them shallowly in a pot of soil, then cut vines off of those to plant.
I use a stick to dig holes, then plant the sweet potato cuttings a few inches deep into them.
They’ll look like they’re going to die for a few days, then they’ll recover as the vines root. Sweet potatoes are tough.
“Natural vegetative strips (NVS) are narrow live barriers comprising naturally occurring grasses and herbs. Contour lines are laid out with an A-frame or through the ‘cow’s back method’ (a cow is used to walk across the slope: it tends to follow the contour and this is confirmed when its back is seen to be level). The contours are then pegged to serve as an initial guide to ploughing. The 0.3–0.5 m wide strips are left unploughed to allow vegetation to establish. Runoff flowing down the slope during intense rain is slowed, and infiltrates when it reaches the vegetativestrips. Eroded soil collects on and above the strips and natural terraces form overtime. This levelling is assisted by ploughing along the contour between the NVS – through ‘tillage erosion’ – which also moves soil downslope. The vegetation on the established NVS needs to be cut back to a height of 5–10 cm: once before planting a crop, and once or twice during the cropping period. The cut material can be incorporated during land preparation, applied to the cropping area as mulch, or used as fodder. This depends on whether the farmer has livestock or not, on personal preference, and on the time of cutting. If the grass is applied as mulch or incorporated, the technology can be considered to be an agronomic, as well as a vegetative, measure.
NVS constitutes a low-cost technique because no planting material is required and only minimal labour is necessary for establishment and maintenance. Some farmers had already practiced the technology for several years before the intervention of the ICRAF (The World Agroforestry Centre) in 1993. ICRAF came to realise that farmers here preferred NVS to the recommended ‘contour barrier hedgerows’ of multipurpose trees – which land users viewed as being too labour intensive.”
How is the Practice of Natural Vegetative Strips Different?
Imagine hedgerows or alley cropping, then make it simpler.
All the farmer does is find the contour of their slope, then let the native vegetation grow. It’s rather like Inga Alley Cropping, but with grass and weeds instead.
According to FAO, over time, those strips eventually create terraces instead of a steep slope. This illustration from the .pdf shows how:
I never thought much about swales, runoff and hedges on contour back in Florida. Here in the tropical mountains, things are a lot different and I’m learning all over again.
I can see how this natural vegetative strips idea would work well here by stopping erosion, providing a place for beneficial insects and lessening the slope of the land over time.
“China has pollution problems, and one Italian architect could have some answers.
The Chinese city of Nanjing is getting a Vertical Forest, a set of two buildings stylised with around 1,100 trees and a combination of over 2,500 shrubs and plants.
But it’s not all about how it looks: The Nanjing Towers will absorb enough carbon dioxide to make around 132 pounds (60 kilograms) of oxygen every day, an official press release claimed. China’s Vertical Forest is scheduled to be completed sometime next year.
“Vertical Forest is a model for a sustainable residential building, a project for metropolitan reforestation that contributes to the regeneration of the environment and urban biodiversity without the implication of expanding the city upon the territory. It is a model of vertical densification of nature within the city that operates in relation to policies for reforestation and naturalization of large urban and metropolitan borders. The first example of the Vertical Forest composed of two residential towers of 110 and 76 m height, was realized in the centre of Milan, on the edge of the Isola neighbourhood, and hosts 900 trees (each measuring 3, 6 or 9 meters) and over 20.000 plants from a wide range of shrubs and floral plants distributed in relation to the façade’s position towards the sun. On flat land, each Vertical Forest equals, in amount of trees, an area of 7000 m2 of forest. In terms of urban densification the equivalent of an area of single family dwellings of nearly 75.000 m2. The vegetal system of the Vertical Forest aids in the construction of a microclimate, produces humidity, absorbs CO2 and dust particles and produces oxygen.
Biological habitats Vertical Forest increases biodiversity. It helps to set up an urban ecosystem where different kinds of vegetation create a vertical environment which can also be colonised by birds and insects, and thus becomes both a magnet for and a symbol of the spontaneous recolonisation of the city by vegetation and by animal life. The creation of a number of Vertical Forests in the city will be able to create a network of environmental corridors which will give life to the main parks in the city, bringing the green space of avenues and gardens and connecting various spaces of spontaneous vegetation growth.
Mitigations Vertical Forest helps to build a micro-climate and to filter dust particles which are present in the urban environment. The diversity of the plants helps to create humidity, and absorb CO2 and dust, produces oxygen, protects people and houses from the suns rays and from acoustic pollution.”
I like the idea of forest buildings. I imagine you could really “push the zone” on the south-facing wall of a building like this, as they would be located inside the heat sink of surrounding urban development.
The next step would be to grow edible plants and trees, though you’d have to be careful about avocados falling 500 feet and turning some sidewalk stroller’s brains into guacamole.
“After pulling up those tillage radishes, and seeing several other plants in the garden that could be pulled and tossed into my compost pile, it occurred to me that I should try composting some of the garden waste in a minibed. This isn’t an original idea with me. I saw it mentioned recently in a YouTube video by my gardening friend, David The Good.
David and his family are living (and gardening) among the natives in a mysterious undisclosed Caribbean location. You can subscribe to David’s YouTube Channel and follow the adventure. Every so often, you’ll see him sporting a Planet Whizbang hat in his videos. That always puts a smile on my face.
It seems like a good and logical idea to pile garden waste in a minibed and let it compost down. But I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that a compost pile will not “work” unless it is at least a 36″ square cube in size. The minibeds are only 30″ square, and the bed frame is only 3-1/2″ high. That’s hardly big enough.
But I don’t call it a Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden for nothing.
I rounded up a variety of old and mostly mushy vegetation from my garden and made a pile in Minibed E7 (please refer now to your copy of The Report to locate minibed E7). Into the pile I put the tillage radishes, along with beet tops, kale tops, carrot tops, chard tops, broccoli tops, buckwheat straw (from a cover crop I planted last year), and some odd tree leaves.
I cut up some of the bigger pieces of vegetation with a knife before adding it to the pile. Here’s a picture…
That’s quite a pile, but it will settle down considerably in time. It is best to cover a compost pile in order to maintain a steady moisture level, so I put a piece of 1mil black plastic over the top…
One tire sidewall on top, four on the sides, and the plastic will stay in place. I’ll push my compost thermometer into the pile in the spring and see if it has any heat to it. It might not, and if not, I think I will redistribute the contents into bed E6, while mixing in some high-nitrogen feathermeal.
The feathermeal is vile-smelling, but it does a fine job of getting a compost pile hot (and I just happen to have half a 55-gallon drum of the stuff).
As I contemplate this minibed compost pile, I think it might be a good idea to make some sort of frame extensions and stack them up so I have a compost bin that is more of a 30″ cube in size. Perhaps something along the lines of my Lee Reich compost bins would work.”
I think this compost pile will work fine. It may not get that hot, but it will break down and feed that soil. I also believe that colder piles make better compost – or at least, more compost.
“Hot composting usually only yields about 25% to 33% cured compost per unit of built material volume. In contrast, Ecology Action (EA) has found that cold compost can yield about 35% more cured compost per unit of built material.”
That said, I think you could still get a pretty hot compost pile even if it’s smaller than the oft-cited hot composting magic size of one cubic yard.
Have you ever cut grass and then waited a day or so to rake up the piles? Even small piles – we’re talking less than 12″ thick – of grass can get warm inside. I think that feather meal is going to do the trick.