By JOYCE COMINGORE
We often tell northern gardeners to turn all their gardening knowledge upside down or reverse it all when gardening in Florida. We start our vegetable gardens in the fall and mulch to cool our plants' soil. We worry more about the plants' heat tolerance than their cold tolerance. Occasionally we cover our plants in January or February, with boxes and blankets to protect them, but not very often. Then, in the spring we water and mulch them to retain moisture during our dry season. April showers don't bring May flowers; here, April begins the drought season. If we want a garden patch, we solarize in the last heat of the summer to sterilize our soil from nematodes, weeds and diseases, when preparing our garden beds. It takes four to six weeks to eliminate these problems by covering the enriched soil with plastic and letting the sun bake out the bad guys.
But we don't really need a formal garden bed to raise edibles. If your gardening area is small, poke edibles into bare spots among your shrubbery along with those cheery flowers. Just remember to keep the chemicals for bug killing out of your landscaping beds in order to protect the edible plants you will be devouring. No spraying either. So tuck a patch of parsley here and a patch of sage, thyme and rosemary there. There are ornamental cabbages as well, clumps of gingers, rows of lettuces that can be arranged into attractive displays.
I was blessed with a mother that loved serving flower blossoms in salads, hors doeuvres and sandwiches, so there are many edible flowers to serve, as well as for flavoring ice creams, teas, jellies and custards. I have early memories of my mother dragging me to help her gather a patch of watercress she had discovered. She loved her cream cheese and watercress sandwiches. I, on the other hand, didn't like their peppery taste until I was much more mature. I paid her back by sucking and eating a salted lemon wedge in front of her. Now, I've heard men say, "If you can't eat it, I don't want to grow it." They think of edible landscaping as fruit trees and fruit bearing bushes. I say, "It's not just what you eat that you need to put on a table, you also need fresh flowers to set the mood." It's all a matter of "taste," pun intended.
Container gardening is another way of fulfilling the need to grow fresh vegetables. My problem is keeping them watered - mainly, remembering to water. Also, vacation times away leaves them unwatered and very unforgiving. But I did have to resort to this when I was overcome by rabbits. My mescaline salads were saved by container gardening. I did try, at one time, to do hydroponic gardening in several wooden green bean baskets of mulch, but, that did take time to water with liquid fertilizer daily, and was quite successful.
In May, I went with other master gardeners to Epcot's International Flower and Garden Festival where our county answered questions of attendees about horticulture. At the entrance, across from our booth, was a wall of plants growing in an artistic design. We studied that display in front and in back. Chicken wire held soil into that space - topped by moss to hold in the soil. Plants had been poked into every inch of that wall, creating a design on that vertical wall of plants. We saw tubing at the top that periodically moistened the top of the plantings and dripped down the wall. There had been pamphlets about vertical wall plantings available, I wish I had taken one, but at the time, I knew I would never have the time or energy to assemble such a massive display, let alone maintain it.
My son in Bradenton has his own version of hydroponic vertical gardening that produces plenty of peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, okra, herbs and strawberries. Five of his 10 pipes are strawberries. He has five sterile soil filled Styrofoam boxes stacked on each pole with feeding tubes to the tops of each pole. A pump and timer automatically send out the feeding that trickles down through the boxes into the sterile soil into the bottom Styrofoam chest of sterile soil. Now that's my idea of a vertical garden.
For the past few years there has been a trend to try growing upside down gardens here in Southwest Florida, well, everywhere. Literally. Placing plants in a container at the bottom and hanging them up to grow out the bottom of the container. My oldest daughter was given rectangle flower beds assembled like shelves by her youngest son. The top soil filled shelf had places to poke plants underneath it to grow upside down. It was fascinating to watch the tomato plants grow down, around and up the sides in order to grow upright. The whole theory was that there would be no need to stake them. The weight of the ripe tomatoes did pull them down somewhat. The years ever after, she put both shelves down on a wooden pallet on the ground and gardens from there. There are directions online, on how to use five-gallon buckets hanging with tomatoes, or cucumbers, peppers, beans and eggplants growing out the bottoms. They suggest that you grow lettuce, radishes, watercress, and herbs in the top to grow upright. Now that is what I truly call upside down Florida gardening.
Just remember to thank a plant, not just for its sustenance, but our life giving fresh air, oxygen!
Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, a national board member of the American Hibiscus Society, an Arbor Day chairman of the Fort Myers/Lee County Garden Council, a tree chairman of the IX District of the Florida Federation Garden Clubs and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.