Rob is currently based in St. Petersburg. For those in the area, see his St. Pete page to get involved. See multiple sections below for St. Pete/Tampa resources.
In December 2017, I moved to Orlando, Florida to set out on my next project- to grow and forage 100% of my food for an entire year. I had never grown any food in Florida, and in reality, had not grown much food in my life. I had a few small raised beds when I lived in San Diego where I grew some veggies, but it wasn’t much food, and I didn’t put too much effort into it. So going from that to producing 100% of my food would be no small feat. And my plan was to start the project just six months after arriving in Florida. That meant I had to learn A LOT about growing in Florida immediately and get growing right away.
I quickly began soaking in all the knowledge I could get. I have been visiting education centers like Sustainable Kashi and H.E.A.R.T., farms, home gardens and community gardeners, talking to dozens of people who grow food, attending meetings at Orlando Permaculture and the Simple Living Institute, taking plant walks with foragers like Andy Firk and Green Deane, taking workshops at places like Florida Earthskills Gathering and the Florida Herbal Conference, reading books, and researching online. It’s hard to even fathom how much more knowledgeable I am on growing food in Florida than I was when I arrived months ago. Yet I am still very much a beginner. I still very much remember being overwhelmed with dozens of questions on the basic elements of gardening such as how much should I water, how much sun should the garden have, what can I plant, when should I plant, should I plant direct in the garden or in a greenhouse, and on and on.
After less than six months I had learned much of the basics and was sitting in a more comfortable place. That comfortable place looked out onto a veggie garden that on many days overwhelmed me with having TOO MUCH food to eat. Many neighbors come to the garden to harvest food and I’m often sending guests home with armfuls of food. I’ve grown and eaten about fifty different veggie varieties now and rarely buy minimal vegetables from the store.
I feel that being in the “successful beginner” stage that I am in puts me in a position where I can help other beginners to get started. I won’t and don’t have all the answers. I will turn out to be wrong sometimes. I will still have failures. But that’s all okay. I can help you get started. And to me, that’s the most important part, getting started.
My goal with this guide is to help you get past the parts you may be nervous about. I want to empower you and activate you into growing your own food and sharing it with your community. Once your confidence level has risen and you feel like you’ve got the hang of it, I’m confident that you can figure out the rest!
This guide is geared toward beginner and first-time gardeners in the Orlando, Florida area (UPDATE: See St. Pete/Tampa area section below). I would not recommend this guide if you are outside Florida. Instead I would use my Free Seed Project Gardening Guide. Florida is a pretty unique state when it comes to growing food and this guide is aimed at helping people working within the circumstances that Central Florida provides. This guide focuses on the basics of growing food and provides a general rule of thumb with ideas. It is by no means the end all be all of beginner gardening. However, I do feel that reading this whole guide will be extremely helpful to those of you who are just getting started.
For those with little or no experience with gardening, first I want to say to you, that you can absolutely do this. Gardening can be very intimidating to those of us who have not done it before. But the good news is once you get the basics down, most of the rest becomes common sense. Keep in mind:
You will have some failures. Even the most experienced gardeners do. Expect failures and embrace them. Don’t let them get you down. Without failed attempts at growing food you will never create a bounty of fresh, homegrown food.
Sometimes things will die because you didn’t take care of them, but often plants will die or do poorly even if you do everything right. It’s more than okay to make mistakes. You will make many. I consider it the nutrient cycle. When I kill a plant and return it back into the soil, it will become another life. It’s all a cycle.
Growing food successfully will be a journey. Just as you would never expect to become a professional athlete overnight or to gain a college degree in a few weeks, you can’t expect to make the garden of your dreams in one season. Remembering this is likely just as important as any of the basics of sun, water, and soil. Your attitude can affect your gardening experience just as much as any of the earth’s elements.
Gardening will be work, but if done correctly it should be enjoyable and rewarding work. Sometimes it may feel like a chore, but at other times it will feel like there’s nothing in the world you’d rather be doing.
And remember, you will not have a “black thumb” as long as you follow the basics and remain dedicated to your garden and your mission to grow your own food and share it with others.
Some Top Tips and Advice
Start small to ensure that you do not get overwhelmed.
“A small, well maintained garden is better than a large, messy one.”
Plan your garden on paper before planting. This will help you to use your space more efficiently and plan out what plants will do best next to each other. You should take into account the very basics: dimensions of your garden space, the spacing that each plant needs to thrive, and the orientation of the sun.
Use a garden journal. Keep track of when you plant, your first and last harvest, when you add compost or fertilizer, important weather events, etc.
Seek local resources. One of the easiest ways to become a successful gardener is to spend time with successful gardeners in your area.The next section of this guide is on local resources. These people are far more knowledgeable and experienced than I am. I highly recommend you use these resources!
Watch my beginner gardening tips video:
How to Get Started
Where do you get information for gardening in Central Florida?
One of my best suggestions to help you successfully grow food is to seek out local information and resources. In the past this was standard practice, but as our communities have become less connected, it is not as commonplace.
When many people think of Orlando they think of just Disney and many people assume there’s little to nothing progressive going on. But I can tell you that is far from the truth. Orlando has an amazing community and there are more ways to get involved than you can possibly imagine. In this section I’ve included a list of resources that proves just how much is going on as well as general suggestions to help you find local information.
Find other gardeners in your area. Maybe you don’t have a community garden near you, but there’s almost certainly some people that garden nearby. Keep your eyes open for gardens and then talk to the people who tend them. If you see someone in a garden, just walk up to them and tell them you are new to gardening and hoping you could learn from them. If you see a house with a garden, don’t be too shy to knock on the door. Gardeners are usually friendly and often even excited to share their knowledge, seeds, and abundance with you. Maybe you can help them with weeding their garden or do garden sitting when they go out of town, and in exchange they can give you lessons.
In April, this guy named Jean did exactly that, and I happily shared information with him to help him get started (read the story here).
Today I heard a knock on the door and I came out to quite the surprise.Jean, a total stranger, was at the door. He was…
Go to the local nursery, garden centers and botanical gardens. There’s a good chance they will either be a great resource or be able to connect you to great resources.
Leu Gardens is likely the most helpful botanical garden in Central Florida. They are a 50-acre botanical oasis designed specifically to inspire visitors to appreciate and understand plants.
There are many classes and opportunities to get involved here and entry is free on the first Monday of each month.
Find local classes, garden clubs, or meet-ups.
Orlando Permacultureis an amazing group of local permaculturists. “Orlando Permaculture exists to disseminate the knowledge of Permaculture as it applies to the urban setting of Orlando, Florida.” Their Facebook group, Orlando Permaculture, and page, Orlando Permaculture, will provide you with many opportunities to learn and get involved.
Orlando Permaculture hosts meetings on the 2nd Tuesday of every month and cooking classes and action days every month as well. Going to these monthly gatherings and meeting these people could change your direction in life.
The UF/ IFAS Extension offers a wide range of classes. Use the Cooperative Extension office near you, in Orlando that is The UF/ IFAS Extension. Your local Cooperative Extension office “provides” research-based advice on agriculture and horticulture that is specific to your region. The U.S. Cooperative Extension System offices are staffed by experts who can help answer your questions about pest and disease management, growing conditions, sustainable agriculture, farm management, and more. Local educational programs and publications are also offered… “Each U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land-grant university and a network of local or regional offices.” Learn more about Cooperative Extension Systems here as well as other valuable resources like this and find your nearest Cooperative Extension office here. All the help and information you can imagine is at your fingertips if you get connected to your local office.
(Note: Extension services often recommend unsustainable practices of agriculture. Be conscious when using their content.
Simple Living Institute is a group of Central Floridians who want to create a stronger community that values the environment, personal health, and a more self-sufficient lifestyle.
They host monthly meeting on the third Wednesday of each month at Leu Gardens.
Fleet Farming hosts twice per month Fleet Rides where you ride your bike and garden with their team and a group of volunteers around Audubon Park, Orlando. It’s a great learning opportunity and a great opportunity to meet others interested in growing food.
Central Florida Fruit Society.This club focuses on growing fruit trees in Central Florida. Meetings are on the 3rd Monday of the month from 7 PM to 9 PM.
Master Gardener Program through UF/ IFAS Extension “The Master Gardener program is a volunteer based program for those people interested helping others and has been serving the citizens of Orange County since 1981. It involves going through more than 70 hours of education encompassing all areas gardening. In return for this education, we ask that you pledge to donate at least 75 hours of volunteer service during the following year.”
Sustainable Kashi in Sebastian is an interactive demonstration program dedicated to teaching sustainable environmental practices. Sustainable Kashi offers a perfect site to learn, practice, and observe a functioning model of abundance. “Feed everyone” is their philosophy and permaculture is their approach. They host many events including a weekly free permaculture class every Wednesday. They also offer three-week permaculture immersions for those looking to get really involved. Terry Meer is the Permaculture Director and is an amazing resource and human being.
Florida School of Holistic Living. The Florida School of Holistic Living is a 501c3 nonprofit educational organization with the mission of cultivating sustainable community by empowering individuals through philosophy-in-practice education that promotes holistic living. Their programming includes a comprehensive curriculum of natural health and sustainable living workshops, continuing education, and professional training. In addition, they provide the Central Florida community a space to connect with our community, build vibrant health, and deepen our relationship with the earth, through our Bodhi Garden, Community Herbal Clinic, Moon Circles, the Florida Herbal Conference, and ongoing special events. They offer many hands on classes open to everyone.
Local seed companies. Besides providing you with the seeds you need to grow food, local seed companies often offer classes and resources to help you get growing. I’ve listed the local companies I’ve found in the next section of this guide.
Florida Earthskills Gathering is a unique blend of enthusiasts who bring abundant skills and a great spirit of co-creation to this homespun gathering. The community believes the time is ripe for modern, “civilized” humans to become more ecologically aware, to reclaim the true meaning of sustainability, and to help grow a culture of thriving which can only be achieved by living in symbiosis with each other and with our beloved Earth. “We invite you to join us in creating conscious community and in celebrating our living, breathing planet by learning and sharing truly sustainable living skills. With over 50 instructors sharing skills for adults, teens and kids, plus morning and evening activities, there’s something for everyone to enjoy!”
Florida Herbal Conference is a gathering to connect and empower our bioregional herbalist community, featuring over 30 workshops for all levels of interest and experience, alongside inspiring music, nutritious food, and herbal artisans, all in a beautiful lakeside setting. Workshops focus on bioregional, earth-centered herbalism, with topics including clinical herbalism, herbal crafts, herbal tradition and history, medicine making, plant identification walks and many hands-on demonstrations.
Another amazing local resource is Pete Kanaris and his YouTube Channel GreenDreamsFL. He has produced a plethora of videos on amazing local food forests, houses with edible landscaping, fruit growers, at home gardeners and more. He also has videos on specific plants that grow extremely well in this area.
St. Pete and Tampa area Educational and Volunteer opportunities
Go to your public library. Often libraries will have gardening books specific to your state or region that you can check out. Libraries aren’t just full of books though, they are often a knowledge base of local initiatives and programs. Some libraries even have seed libraries.
Search for books written about gardening in your state or region. Go to the local bookshop, library, or do an online search.
Here’s a selection of some of the wonderful women working to improve Florida:
Koreen Brennan of Grow PermacultureRead Koreen’s biography here. “Koreen Brennan is an internationally recognized permaculture designer and educator who lives on and manages a permaculture farm in West Central Florida growing medicinal herbs, and preserving the long leaf pine sandhill that exists on the land. Koreen has been a community organizer focused on regenerative solutions for over 20 years. She has worked in multiple ecosystems around the US and in a number of other countries with a focus on subtropical.”
Melissa DeSa co-founder of Working Food. “Melissa is a University of Florida graduate, with a Masters degree in Interdisciplinary Ecology. She worked for Florida Organic Growers, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and the UF Horticulture Department. She oversees two key programs: the Southern Heritage Seed Collective and our youth garden initiative. Preserving southern seed biodiversity has really stolen her heart. She currently serves on the advisory board for both Southern SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education), the Southeast Slow Food Ark of Taste, and Grow Hub.”
Caitlin Fogarty project manager at Orlando Permaculture, permaculturalist, fruit tree expert, consultant, mushroom grower and forager.
Erica Klopf “Erica was raised in Naples, Florida and is dedicated to the development of sustainable landscapes in South Florida. She completed her undergraduate work with a double-major in Environmental Studies and Art at Florida Gulf Coast University in 2012. Her university experience included one year of service in the Student Government as Executive Director of Environmental Initiatives, two years as the assistant to the Director of Sustainability in the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, and two years as a student naturalist for the Colloquium Program, leading tours of natural areas and connecting students to concepts of sustainability… Her studies of ecology, tropical fruits, and design culminated in the design of the Florida Gulf Coast University Food Forest. After Graduation, Erica founded Florida Edible Landscaping LLC, which she currently owns and operates, designing and installing edible gardens for both residential and commercial clients… She is a trained Permaculture Teacher through the Urban Permaculture Guild of San Francisco in Experiential Permaculture Education.”
Jillian Ross – “When it comes to food, Jillian shares a healthy love affair with all things fermented! From Sauerkraut and Kimchi’s to Tepache and Kvasses… Jillian has been experimenting with fermentation for almost a decade and fortunate enough to study under the beloved fermentation revivalist, Sandor Katz.
Currently residing in north Florida, Jillian also known as “The Ferment Lady” travels seasonally throughout the state as an educator spreading the love of bacterial goodness, hoping to inspire others to keep this tradition of food preservation alive. In her downtime, you can find her foraging around Florida’s wild habitats as she is passionate about local natural resources.”
Malory Foster“Malory learned the value of growing food as a farm intern with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms on small farms in Florida and North Carolina. Through this experience, she realized the uphill nature of small farming in the current paradigm, and vowed to use her efforts to make ethical food production easier for farmers. She now works with the University of Florida IFAS Extension Family Nutrition Program to assist nutrition education sites with policy, systems, and environmental changes. She assists school and community gardens in three counties as well as organizes garden educator trainings. She has had the pleasure of getting to know the work of City and County planning staff and food policy councils who are making strides in ordinance updates for urban agriculture, and she has been able to assist lending technical information on agriculture and food systems in the process.
Malory is a registered dietitian and completed her Master of Science degree in Sustainable Food Systems at Green Mountain College and her Permaculture Design Certificate with the Green Education Center. She hopes to coalesce her background in nutrition, love for urban farming, and passion for food systems remediation to contribute, in camaraderie with a diversity of others in our community, to an ever-improving, nutritious, and accessible food system.”
Thais Theisen “Thais is a community organizer and designer focused on creative and educational community based programs in the area of sustainability. She has focused on grassroots roots initiatives to help innovators grow more sustainable, dynamic and diverse communities with organizations such as Earth Learning in South Florida and Idea Me in Latin America. Thais studied Landscape Architecture at the University of Florida and holds a Masters in Environmental Science from FIU researching sub-tropical perennial polyculture systems. She is currently a partner in FoodScape Designs a design/build landscaping firms with a unique vision to create self-sustaining edible and productive ecosystems, along with relevant programming in civic and private spaces. Her specialties include project management, teaching, program design, and landscape design.”
Devi Pagan “Devi is a mother, herbalist and holistic consultant with over 20 years of experience. She has a deep relationship with the plants and draws on her Indigenous ancestral background to connect with those who work with her. She’s a traveling consultant and teaches internationally. Fluent in wild native plant medicine and edibles she is a pioneer in local wildcrafting. Her certifications include: Over 1,200 hours in Hatha and Kundalini yoga, Ayurvedic Medicine, Permaculture Design and Montessori Educator.
Devi utilizes the wisdom gained from her education and life experiences to accomplish her dream of working with others to bring healing and wellness to her community. Devi is a raw food enthusiast and environmentalist and in her free time loves to plant bee and butterfly gardens.”
Judith Gulko, PhD is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist for over twenty-five years. She has had a private psychotherapy practice in Coral Springs, Florida since 2002. She specializes in deep healing from childhood trauma, but also works with general life issues. She has done individual and group therapy in hospitals and clinics in Montreal, San Diego, and Broward, Florida. She has done research work, and has led many workshops and presentations on a variety of subjects from childhood learning of gender norms, to mindfulness, and healing from trauma. She incorporates perspectives and methods that allow healing and weaving together of the complex self-system that is the mind, brain, body, spirit, and relationships. In 2010 she began to study permaculture: a true awakening. Psychotherapy – which can be framed as part of social permaculture – and ecological design and gardening have somehow each enhanced the other. Judi served as co-organizer for the 2013, 2014, and 2015 Florida Permaculture Convergences, and treasures the connections that have emerged from that. She spends much of her time as co-organizer and developer of the Rotary Community Garden and Food Forest of Coral Springs, which just won the Mayor’s Award for community and school sustainable gardens. She is a passionate supporter of local food.”
Wow! What an incredible amount of area specific information and resources you have at your fingertips! There really is no reason to go at gardening alone. Embrace the community, offer to help and volunteer, and you will find yourself feeling supported rather than alone in your yard with no clue what you are doing!
Before moving onto the “how-to” of gardening I now want to share local resources with you of where you can get what you need to start your garden!
Where to Get Seeds
Local seed companies.
I have not found a substantial number of local seed companies in Central Florida. It really seems to be lacking both here and across the nation. Upon arriving one of the first things I did was ask around for local seed companies and to my surprise most of my garden experienced friend told me that there are none. I was certain that there must be some out there, so I searched, and so far I have found three! Perhaps small seed companies aren’t the most skilled at marketing, so it’s worth digging around to find them.
Crispy Farms in Apopka– “At Crispy Farms we offer organically grown non-GMO heirloom seed. All varieties are locally acclimated to a Southeastern climate and chosen for their abilities to withstand heat, drought, and common Southern pests.” “Our mission is to help people learn to love growing their own food. They have a great resource section on their website as well. Run by Alicia Crispy
I highly recommend purchasing seeds as locally as possible. Local seeds are adapted to our climate and will improve your success rates. Typically local seed companies will sell you only what grows here.
Because local seed options are limited, you are most likely going to want to purchase seeds from other seed producers as well. Here are companies that I like and have come highly recommend to me.
Sow Exotic– I visited them in April 2019 and was amazed at the variety they have, something around 500 different species throughout the year. They ship, so this is an amazing resource for people both in Florida and around the USA. I do feel some of the plants are pretty expensive, however for starting a food forest it is truly amazing resource. Also, purchasing a plant just once, and then saving the seeds to plant hundreds in the future, would be extremely worth the cost per plant.
(This list is not extensive and I’m sure there are many more.)
St. Pete/ Tampa Bay area Nurseries and Other Resources
I do not recommend buying your starts at big box stores if at all possible. They are not grown for our specific region and I think the varieties are more likely to fail.
Where to Get Mushroom Compost
In my gardens I use mushroom compost as my soil.
You can pick up mushroom compost from Monterrey Mushroom at 5949 Sadler Ave Mt. Dora, Florida. They are open Tue, Thur, and Sat from 7 AM to 3 PM. It is $25 cash to fill a pickup truck. They dump it into the back of the truck or trailer. The phone number is 407-905-4000 and I would call ahead to confirm because this information could easily change.
This is an incredible deal compared to purchasing compost or soil in bags at the store.
If you do not have a truck to pick up mushroom compost you could find a friend with one and share the compost with them, or rent a truck or trailer. I have also found a few options for it to be delivered.
Alex (407-867-1514) picks up from Monterrey Mushroom in a 20 cubic yard truck. This is a huge dump truck, about 10-20 pickup trucks worth. He delivers for $225 to the central Orlando area. For other areas the cost may be higher. If you call him, he will let you know the price. This is an amazing deal. If you were to do 10-20 pickup truck loads it would cost you more and it would take a few days of labor. 20 cubic yards is a HUGE amount though. A great way to make this effective would be to coordinate with your neighbors and friends to start gardens at the same time with you.
You can get mushroom compost delivered in much smaller quantity by Leroy of Genesis Backyard Gardens. His phone number is 321-297-2736. It is $75 for a cubic yard dropped in your front yard or driveway. For a small garden, a single pickup truck load goes a very long way.
“Yard waste collected from Orange County homes is composted and made available to County residents at no charge. Get free compost at the Orange County Landfill between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. during days of operation.”
Requirements from their website:
“You must provide your own shovel and containers.
You can take up to one pickup truckload of compost.
You should call the Solid Waste Hotline to confirm compost availability.”
What is mushroom compost?
Here are a few links explaining it:
Recently a new compost company started in Orlando, O-Town Compost. O-Town Compost has a two-part mission that aims at both reducing the amount of food waste going to Orange County’s landfill, and making compost to support the local food system. You can subscribe for them to pick up your food waste, they turn it into compost, and then you receive some compost back. You can also purchase compost from them. Learn more on their website.
Where to Get Mulch
Tree companies create mulch when they cut down or trim trees and then grind it up. It’s easier to transport when they grind it up because it drastically reduces the space that it takes in the truck. The mulch/ chips is a waste product for them and they often have to pay to dump it to the landfill. So their problem is our solution and we are helping them at the same time. This is a great resource for us gardeners.
www.getchipdrop.com This is a site where you can get mulch for free. You simply put your information in the site and you will get mulch dropped at your location for free. Some people have had success getting it immediately, while others have waited months. I’ve had pretty good success with it. To increase the chances of being picked, you can tip up to $80. If there are a lot of people on the list, this will put you ahead of them for many of the companies.
You’ll typically get a 10+ cubic yard truck, which is a lot, so it’s a deal that can’t be beat.
If you see a tree trimming or maintenance truck in your neighborhood talk to them and ask if they will have wood chips/ mulch and if they’d drop if at your place. They will often do it for free if they have it. I’ve done this multiple times with success. It’s extremely convenient for them if you live nearby as it saves them time, gas and money not having to drive to the landfill.
Leroy of Genesis Backyard Gardens delivers for about $60-$75 per cubic yard. This is a far more expensive than getchipdrop.com or finding a truck in your neighborhood. But if you only need a cubic yard it’s a pretty good option, because the other options could be too much for you to handle.
Where to Get Cardboard
Cardboard is a waste product that is not hard to come by. Just check the dumpsters of any stores near you. You might be amazed how much cardboard is thrown in the trash dumpster instead of the recycling dumpster. By taking it out of the dumpster you are diverting it from the landfill. Second best to that is taking it out of a recycling dumpster.
I’ve had my best success with liquor stores.
Liquor store boxes seem to have far fewer, or no, tape and staples, which saves a lot of work not having to remove them all. Appliance shops are great because the boxes are huge. It’s a lot less work to work with larger boxes. Costco is great for not only boxes but also pallet slips. These are very large and have no tape or staples on them, making them the ideal cardboard to work with.
Where to Get Drip Irrigation
You can get this at any hardware store. I recommend supporting a local business such as Miller’s Hardware or you can also check a nearby Ace. Check in with your local hardware store and see if they carry it. You can also purchase online.
Hiring Garden Help
Perhaps you have the funds but not the time to start your garden. There’s definitely resources out there for you. Not only do some places offer the services to build your garden for you, but many will also maintain and teach you.
Leroy of Genesis Backyard Gardens does both installations and/or maintenance. 321-297-2736
He can be hired to do the manual labor of spreading the mushroom compost all the way to building an entire garden for you. Its best to contact him and discuss your project with him.
Another suggestion I have is to post in the Orlando Permaculture Facebook group as there are numerous permaculturists in that group that do hired garden installs and maintenance.
Now finally on to the logistics of gardening itself…
When I first got to Orlando I spent countless hours researching how to grow food here. I went online and looked up each individual food that I wanted to grow and made notes on them. I didn’t know when each food could be grown so I spent many hours making a chart of when I should plant each food. I had spreadsheets with all sorts of information. It was daunting and fairly overwhelming… And then I found out that there are a bunch of people who’ve already done all that work and put it together into great books, guides, and websites for us! So I hope that you don’t have to make that same mistake, and instead can go right to the expert local material.
First and foremost I would recommend you buy Robert Bowden’s book, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Gardening: Plant, Grow, and Harvest the Best Edibles. A majority of my success has come from reading that book and using it as a reference. You could pretty much stop reading this guide now and just go get that book. It’s exceptional. One of my favorite things is the planting charts that tell you when to plant different foods, how far apart, direct vs. transplants, etc. I cannot stress enough how much I would recommend this book. This guide and information is largely based off of Robert’s 25 years of knowledge. It is focused on growing annuals (most of the stuff you would get at a grocery store like greens, carrots, tomatoes, herbs, etc.) so it’s a perfect match if that’s what you are excited about. However if you are more into permaculture and perennials, it’s not as good of a match. However, I would still recommend it as it goes through all the basic information about gardening in Florida and can help with that foundational knowledge.
I am still going to go over the basics of gardening in Central Florida, even though I again urge you to get that book, as I think a quick overview could be very beneficial to new gardeners. This will not be extensive. However, it should ease your tensions if you are in a place where you don’t know where to start.
Where should you place your garden?
Where you have easy access. You want to locate your garden where you will naturally go every day. If you tuck it into an unnoticeable spot you are much more likely to neglect it. If it’s a task just to get to it, you’re more likely to get lazy and not maintain it. For example, if you walk through your front yard every day to leave your house, then your front yard is a perfect place. You’ll have your eye on it multiple times per day and are more likely to do the quick things needed like weeding and pest control when you notice them. If there’s a tucked-away side of your house where you haven’t been in weeks, then I’d recommend choosing a different place if you have the option.
Near the water source with easy access. If you make your garden a hassle to water, it’s more likely that you will neglect watering it. For example, if you’re using a hose, make sure the hose easily reaches all corners of the garden. If you’re using rainwater, make sure the rain barrel is near the garden with a clear path.
In an area with good drainage. You don’t want to plant in a low-lying spot that is always soggy and wet. This will drown your plants. Similarly, in a dry climate you don’t want to plant in the place most likely to dry out, such as the side of the house that always gets dry wind.
In one location to get started. If you are spread out all over and have to water and maintain many different places, you are more likely to forget or neglect plants. Start in just one place, and once you establish that garden, you can start spreading food everywhere that it will grow.
In full sun. The typical recommendation is to have your garden in full sun, however, in the heat of the summer in Central Florida, the sun is very hot and is one of the biggest challenges. So people play with shade in the summer. That’s a bit more advanced though. For new gardeners I would go with full sun if you can. More on this below.
Away from tree roots that can suck up all the water and nutrients leaving less for the plants in your garden. This is not a must in my opinion, but if you can then I would recommend it.
How much sun does your garden need?
You should plant your garden in a location that receives full sun. Full sun is at least six hours of direct sunlight. Any amount over eight hours is a sure bet for full sun.
You may not be accustomed to knowing how much sun an area receives. To learn this, simply take note of when the sun first hits the location in the morning and check periodically throughout the day to see when the area becomes shaded. Keep in mind that the sun changes positions in the sky. This change can be extremely drastic depending on the location. An area that gets full sun at one time of the year may only get a few hours at another time of the year. The amount of sun the location gets will typically be much greater in the summer than during the winter. Pay attention to whether the location will be shaded by trees when the sun changes position in the sky.
Plants that are grown with too little sun are less likely to produce fruit and will grow spindly and stressed, opening them up to pests. One of the simplest pest controls is making sure to plant in the right areas.
Now with that being said, Central Florida is a different ball game than much of the rest of the country. We deal with extreme heat and humidity in the summer, so too much sun is a thing here. I feel that this is more advanced gardening and I don’t know exactly what to say here, except acknowledge that it is a reality. For any beginner gardeners I would recommend starting your gardening experience off with full sun and not playing with shade as that is more challenging. With time you could experiment with that more. There are some plants that do better in partial shade too. Again, I’m not an expert here, but I feel that summary would have been really helpful for me when I got started.
What size should your garden be?
My recommendation is to start small. It can be very overwhelming if you start really big when you don’t know what you are doing. I would start with a manageable size that will produce some food for you and anyone you’re going for. With each season you can increase the garden as needed. After a couple years perhaps you’ll have your whole front yard as a garden! That’s just my advice though. If you want to make a massive garden right from the start, I’m not going to hold you back!
I would say just a few good-size kale plants can be enough to provide the kale needs for a small family. Don’t underestimate the amount of food just one tiny seed can make.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, I’d encourage you to choose jus start with five or ten foods. You can always plant more later in the season once you are feeling more confident. You are more likely to be successful if you keep the gardening manageable for you. The size of your garden can always grow as you grow in confidence and skill.
“A small, well-maintained garden is better than a large, unkempt one. There is no shame in growing one tomato plant or one cucumber plant.”
What plants to grow?
My recommendation for new gardeners is not to start by choosing the favorite foods you buy at the grocery store, but instead to focus on what grows exceptionally well in your area. This will drastically increase your chances of success and your skills at the same time. Once you have successfully grown the easier vegetables in your region, then you can try growing specialty foods that you may be eager to have in your garden. A new gardener who starts with specialty items is likely to walk away from gardening for good saying they have a “black thumb.” Rather than focus on what you can’t grow, focus on all the amazing things you can grow in your region.
Purchasing from the local seed companies and local nurseries that are listed in the resources section is a great place to start. They are likely to carry what grows well in the area. And if you tell them you’d like to purchase the varieties that are easiest to grow, you’ll give yourself a great head start. Going to your local community garden is another great way to see what’s growing well in your area.
With all that being said, do focus on growing foods that you, your family and friends will want to eat. There’s little point in growing a bunch of food that will never be eaten.
I’m not going to cover all the different foods that grow well here because there truly is an incredible amount. The resources I’ve given cover that information.
Here is a new video I produced, specifically for Florida:
Timing is very important to be successful with growing food. Because of the extreme diversity of climates in the United States, people all over the country have totally different schedules. For, example northern Wisconsin is in a different climatic zone from southern Wisconsin, so the planting dates vary between the different regions within the state. While the winters in Wisconsin make it nearly impossible for most people to grow food outdoors, the gardening in central and southern Florida is at its prime. And while gardening is at its prime in most of the northern states in the summer, the heat and humidity of mid-summer makes vegetable gardening far more difficult in Florida.
Generally fall and spring are considered the best time to grow food in Central Florida. Some will say that you can’t grow food in the summer, however that is not correct. You just have to be growing the current things. This summer I managed to be eating fresh food most of the summer. Perennials and permaculture produces more of a year around food supply than annual foods.
I would say summer gardening is more advanced and also far more strenuous. I would not recommend starting of as a beginner in the summer. But once you are skilled, if you want to grow food in the summer, I would absolutely go for it. Fall gardening seems to start in September/October at the end of the summer heat. This is my first fall so I have no experience here. Spring gardening seems to go until about May. But there is overlap in all areas, and I have successfully been able to grow some food at all times in Florida so far.
These take the guess work out of when to plant and will help you incredibly.
Here is some more information that I put together as a general guide for anywhere in the USA that you could find useful. If you want to keep things simple, I’d skip over this and onto the watering section, as the planting guides listed above pretty much cover what you need.
The Garden Calendar Planting Guide from The National Gardening Association is an extremely helpful tool. Simply enter your zip code into the guide and they will provide you with information on when you should plant in your area. The guide includes both spring and fall planting dates and information. It also gives advice on whether you should directly sow seeds into the garden or sow them indoors to transplant seedlings into the garden.
As far as accuracy of this guide, they say: “For nearly all locations, we are confident in the dates. There are, however, some difficult areas of the world that don’t match up perfectly with the dates we have given. For that reason, we recommend you use this guide as a very good starting place, but don’t interpret the dates as absolutely perfect for every location.”
You can also do an internet search by typing your state name or region along with “planting schedule.” For example: “Tucson planting schedule.”
Here are a few additional tools, but they are not needed for beginner gardeners if you use the planting schedules I listed above.
Once you know your average last frost date or “frost-free date” you can use Johnny’s Seeds Seed Starting Date Calculator. This tool figures the dates when it’s safe to plant particular early crops outside based on the frost-free date that you specify.
Look up what Plant Hardiness Zone you live in. This map will help you find your zone. You can also look it up by zip code here. The “USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location.” “Hardiness zones are based on the average annual extreme minimum temperature during a 30-year period in the past, not the lowest temperature that has ever occurred in the past or might occur in the future. Gardeners should keep that in mind when selecting plants, especially if they choose to “push” their hardiness zone by growing plants not rated for their zone.”
Once you know your hardiness zone you can use that to decide what you should and shouldn’t plant. Take note of what zone you are in, as you are likely to use that information in your gardening as you advance.
How often and how much should you water the garden?
When you first plant your seeds and your garden is getting established, the soil should be kept moist and should not dry out. The soil should be watered every day until the plants sprout and then every day or every other day while they are establishing, whether it is a substantial rain or your hose. If you transplant veggies they also need frequent, light watering for their shallow, young roots. I would say they should be watered every day for the first 2 weeks at least. If it is really hot and dry you may have to water twice per day as the plants are establishing. There are some tips below that will help you know whether you need to water.
Water the soil where the roots are, not the plant. Soaking the plant is more likely to open it up to diseases. The water is needed in the roots, which are below the soil. If you are watering by hand then aim the hose at the soil rather than spraying it around overhead. This is extremely important in the humid summers of Central Florida.
Water in the morning, not during the heat of day or in the evening. If you water in the evening the plants are likely to be wet overnight and are more prone to diseases and fungus. By watering in the morning, the plants are able to dry out before nightfall. However, if your garden is dry in the evening and the water is needed, its better to water it than not water it.
Watering during the heat of the day is wasteful, as a large portion is burned off through evaporation and water droplets on the leaves can intensify the sun and burn the leaves.
Deep, infrequent watering is better than frequent shallow watering. By watering deeper, you encourage the roots to grow deeper where they will stay moist. Frequent shallow watering will result in roots near the surface, which creates weak plants that are more likely to dry out and need constant water.
A very easy rule of thumb for watering is to stick your finger into the soil up to the second knuckle. If the soil at your fingertip is dry, then you should water your garden. If it is moist, then you don’t need to water.
Another rule of thumb is to look at the plants and see if they are drooping. If they are drooping in the morning or evening, then they are most definitely in need of water. However, if they are drooping in the midday heat only and not in the morning or in the evening, then they may not need water.
Know your soil type. Overly sandy soil has high drainage and doesn’t hold on to moisture, meaning it will need to be watered more often. This is what I have in Audubon Park and what most yards I’ve been to have. Soil that is overly abundant in clay is heavy and difficult to work with. I don’t think there’s any clay in Central Florida. Soil that is too heavy in silt will not drain properly. There are locations I’ve visited such as Oviedo where this is an issue. Knowing your soil type will help you know how much to water.
What I grow in is straight mushroom compost. You can use this in raised beds or directly on the ground. This is my top recommendation.
Top Tips for Using Water Wisely
Mulch. Mulch reduces evaporation by protecting the soil from direct contact with the sun. It also helps to moderate soil temperatures, protect the beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil, suppress weeds (less weeding for you!), and adds organic matter to the soil as it breaks down. Two to three inches of mulch is ample. You can use leaves from your (or your neighbor’s yard), wood chips, straw, and many other things. It is a good idea to give the garden a good watering before you lay down mulch the first time.
Amend your soil with compost. Organic matter holds moisture. Sand, on the other hand, which is not organic matter, holds very little water. Adding compost to sandy soil will increase moisture retention, meaning you have to water less. No matter if your soil has too much sand, silt, or clay, compost will help. I’ve seen yards that were nearly 100% sand turn into a dark rich soil by using mushroom compost and mulch.
Do not use above ground sprinkler systems. They are the most inefficient of all.
Grow plants in the correct season. If you grow crops when they shouldn’t be grown they are likely to need more water than in the correct season resulting in using far more water.
The most efficient watering systems are drip irrigation or ollas. Both also save a lot of time spent watering. For beginner gardeners, I highly recommend drip irrigation. That’s what I use in my main demonstration garden and it’s been highly successful.
How far apart do you plant your seeds?
Each plant has different spacing needs. This is covered in depth in the planting guides:
There are two common rules of thumb for the depth of planting seeds.
One is to plant small seeds 1/8 to 1/4-inch-deep and larger seeds ½ to 1 inch deep.
The other is to plant seeds as deep as the seed’s diameter.
Basically, they are not planted very deep at all.
Seed packs will have this information on them and it’s also covered in the planting guides above.
Direct sowing seeds vs. transplanting
Both directly sowing seeds into your garden or planting seeds indoors and then transplanting the seedlings outdoors have their pros and cons. Some seeds prefer to be directly sown into the garden and typically should not be grown indoors to transplant seedlings into the garden. This typically includes beans, peas, and squash.
The main benefit of transplants is that you can get a head start on the growing season by starting them in a controlled environment where they are protected from weather. It also allows you to have them in a controlled environment away from things that would eat them while they are delicate and small. The downside is that the plants can undergo transplant shock, get root bound in the container and it takes more materials and can take more time than direct sowing.
You don’t NEED to start any seeds indoors or have a greenhouse to have a successful garden. Just know that. You can direct plant most any seeds and you can just not plant any that are strongly suggested to be transplanted.
But the real good news is that the planting guides I’ve listed above tell you exactly what to do.
I am not covering this section in depth, but I do have a few tips and things to share with you.
-Keep on top of your garden by walking through it and observing it every day. If you see a problem beginning, deal with it right away. This can work wonders. If you see caterpillars eating a few plants for example, hand pick them and kill them. This can prevent major outbreaks.
-Plant at the right time of year when plants will do their best.
-Put your garden in full sun.
-Keep your plants healthy and water them when they need water.
-Plant high quality organic seeds
-Look into companion planting
-One of the most common organic pesticides used in Orlando is Neem Oil. It’s a single ingredient and quite safe. There are a few other organic pesticides like this and many other tricks. It’s not something I have much experience with though. I’ve never used a pesticide.
I have primarily grown food in yards with plenty of space, so I don’t have a lot of experience to share with you on this subject yet. It’s a question that is frequently asked though, so I want to give some information.
This is the first yard that I was offered to grow food on. As you can see it was just a lawn.
This is that same yard about four months later.
And here it is after about a year and a half:
Here is my simple process for turning a yard into a garden. I learned this from Fleet Farming and others in the area. I did not try to reinvent the wheel in Orlando, because the wheel had already been invented. This is at 1304 Tanager Dr. Orlando, Fl 32803 if you want to check it out. This is also where I teach free gardening classes.
Lay down cardboard over the entire area that will be a garden. One layer is fine, but the a few layers is better. It’s important to overlap the cardboard at all edges. The cardboard is serving to kill the grass. By blocking the light to the grass, it will die. You don’t have to do anything else to the grass to kill it.
Lay down mulch over the entire area that you put down cardboard. I would recommend a thick layer of at least 6″. You can get away with 3″ and you can do as much as 12″. I did closer to 12″ in this garden. The mulch serves many purposes. It suppresses the grass and blocks light to it, killing it. (Note: you do not need to do cardboard if you do a very thick layer of mulch, but I’d still highly recommend it.) Mulch holds in water and water is life, so that is key. By holding water it creates an environment for life to exist. There’s a saying that goes, “How do you know if you’ve got good soil? If half of it walks away while you’re holding it in your hand.” Mulch also builds soil. Mulch breaks down over time and can turn a sandy yard into a rich soil over a period of a couple years. I could go on about mulch for quite a while, but the important thing is just that you use it.
Pull back the mulch where you will place your rows of soil. A garden rake or a hoe will get the job done. Lay down mushroom compost. This is your soil. The whole sides of your growing rows will be covered by mulch. This will help to conserve water. By putting the soil directly onto the ground/cardboard the roots of the plants will spread deep into the ground. You can also put the mushroom compost down directly on top of your mulch. That’s what I did in this garden and it worked, however all the experienced gardeners have said it’s better to do it the first way I explained. If the mushroom compost is hot and steaming when you get it, which it will be if you get it directly from the mushroom farm, then you should wait a good week before planting in it.
Plant seeds or transplants directly into the mushroom compost.
It really is as simple as that. This method has worked extremely well for me. It may or may not work for you. I can’t guarantee anything. I use drip irrigation to water the plants, but when they are establishing I water by hand with a hose for the first couple of weeks to get them established. I have not used a single pesticide yet, even an organic one. I have had insects kill off some of my crop, but it’s been okay. I just expect for some of my crops to fail.
To plan how much mulch and mushroom compost you’ll need, I’m sharing these formulas and a calculator:
Formula to calculate cubic yards: length x width x depth x .037 = Cubic yards
In this garden I did 6.5 rows that were 50′ long, 1.5′ wide and 9″ deep
To calculate the mushroom compost needed for one of my rows would be would be 50′ x 1.5′ x .75′ x .037 = 2.1 cubic yards.
I have 6.5 rows so that would mean this garden (which is a very large garden took 13.5 cubic yards of mushroom compost.
I used about the same amount of mulch, maybe 20 yards of mulch.
Update December 2019:
My two years in Orlando has come to an end. I am so grateful for everyone that I met and everyone that I spent time in the gardens and the woods with. While here, I started Gardens for Single Moms (which later became Gardens for the People),Community Fruit Trees and Free Seed Project. All of these programs are still active and you can get involved with them. I also taught free gardening for beginners classes in my gardens. Now that I’m no longer present in Florida these are not happening but there are plenty of places to learn to garden as you’ve seen in the resource guide above!
I successfully completed my year of growing and foraging 100% of my food. This is proof of what is possible in Central Florida.
Below is a video playlist sharing the experience.
You can read much more about my experience and learn about growing and foraging food in Central Florida on the Food Freedom homepage.