By Joyce Comingore
Special to The Breeze
March has arrived and the dreaded fear of another freeze has gone with its arrival. It is time to prune, clean up, clear out, fertilize and even plant. Florida is unique in our ability to grow plants. If you can amend the sandy soil of all Florida, we have three to four growing zones. Northern Florida, central Florida and the third and fourth zones are the Sub-tropical and Tropical.
Of course, the northern zone is similar to all the mildly northern states, with activities that model the northern states. You can grow plants there that base their fruiting and flowering on how many hours of below 40 degree temperature that they require. Central Florida is a bit milder. Crops need to be taken care of in a freeze, because there will be freezes, but it is still too cold for tropical plants. Sub-tropical Florida has rare freezes and frosts, but northern plants have a hard time during the hot and humid summers.
We sort of fit into this category, but we do have areas of the tropical zone where frosts and freezes rarely occur. Those areas need plants that appreciate hot, humid weather. All of Florida has sandy soil that needs amending, with the northern half having some spots of clay and the southern half has limestone aggregates mixed with the sand.
I keep reading where Southwest Florida has three growing seasons. As near as I can figure it out, summer is a challenge all its own, and the winter season, our best growing time, has two seasons. After the August /September plantings, we can start again in February and March. As long as we have cool nights, plants can get through the day heat. Right here in Lee County we seem to have three zones of growing zones. All along the west coast and the islands that are surrounded by warming waters, we have tropical. Because of this, Pine Island is our most agricultural area. Then inland to I-75, most of Cape Coral and Fort Myers, we have sub-tropical, mostly 10b, with past Highway 75, Buckingham and Lehigh, being 9b.
I was asked today if we can still plant lettuce seeds. In looking the dates up for planting, you can plant up to the last month mentioned, which is March ... these are the last days to plant, so get those seeds growing. They need the cool nights we still have. Hot nights make plants bolt, or set flowers and seed. We can do multiple overlapping (winter and spring) seed growing now. We are going to have longer daylight time now until June, then plants that are photoperiodic need to be fully grown so that they can start their blooming and have their harvest in October and November. What I'm particularly concerned about is roselle. In order to have ripe calyxes for Florida cranberries in time for Thanksgiv-ing, we need to be planting their seeds in March, so that in June, when the days grow shorter, they can be ready to set up blooms for fall harvesting.
Since now is the time for flushes of new growth, good pruning is essential effective immediately. Most tropical plants bloom on new growth. The first trim is where you do the most severe cutting, doing it in three stages, a third of the plant, about 3 weeks apart. This eliminates the stress that one severe pruning would do.
Start monitoring your plants now, stay ahead of the summer heat and humidity that bring plant pests and diseases. Another problem is keeping plants watered until the rainy season in June takes over. Mulching is important. It preserves the moisture already in the soil, protects the soil from the intensity of the summer heat, provides a continual source of organic humus, protects the soil from the dry and windy times, does a good job of protecting roots against root knot nematodes and improves the texture of the soil.
Choose plants based on your zones requirements and plant them during the seasonal time in which they comfortably grow right varieties, right time. What to plant now includes boniato, calabaza and malanga, cantaloupe, collards, cowpeas, mustard, okra, papaya, peanuts , pole beans, pumpkins, New Zealand spinach, sweet potatoes, turnips and watermelon. If you want to grow things like tomatoes in Zone 10 now, create a micro-climate on the north side of your home, providing shade and watering often, daily. It is possible to develop micro-climate areas in your yard.
I recently read an article about a Florida gentleman who was an herb grower and supplier in northern Florida, where he considered roselle to be a very under utilized herb in the Florida gardens today. Before World War II, it was grown in every home garden in Florida, and is considered a "Florida Heritage Cracker plant." Better known as hibiscus sabdariffa, you find it in herbal teas and any recipe that calls for hibiscus.
If you want "Florida" cranberries for Thanksgiv-ing, plant the seeds soon. With green leaves and yellow flowers, it is deep rooted and needs full sun with rich well drained soil. It can become a 6 to 8-foot shrub. Too much nitrogen in the fertilizer affects them adversely. Young seedling can be thinned and eaten as greens - raw or steamed. Gather the calyxes before any woody tissue appears. There is a false roselle, hibiscus acetocella, that has cranberry-colored leaves and stems, that doesn't have swollen calyxes, but you can eat the leaves and blooms. Both make great herbal teas.
As delightful as March has come in, I hope it doesn't go out like a lion. "In like a lamb and out like a lion" or reversing that expression.
Anyway, thank a tree, we need them. Here's to oxygen!
Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, national director of the American Hibiscus Society and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.