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Vegetable Gardening in South Florida

My experience


Updated 30 July 2008


  If you don't want to read this article on my experience with growing a vegetable garden in south Florida and want to skip to

viewing my garden photos - go ahead - the link to the photos is on the left.


NEW! A comments section has been added to the bottom of this page. Please feel free to share your own gardeing experiencing from all across America and to comment about my experience or what I've written on this page.




  In the fall of 2007 I began planting tomatoes, lettuces, collard greens, kale, green, purple and yellow bush beans and herbs such as parsley, cilantro, basil, oregano and mint.  With having so many guinea pigs it was becoming increasingly expensive and time consuming to go to the grocery store or farmers market to buy produce and then pack it in the refrigerator so it would last at least a week.  Besides, being a vegetarian myself I would prefer to eat my own home grown produce than buy it, especially since a majority of our produce comes from overseas and we have absolutely no idea what pesticides and chemicals were used to grow it.  And talk about leaving a carbon footprint! As with the majority of products that we buy in the United States nowadays that are made for "cheap" in countries like China, Taiwan, Mexico, Thailand and other developing countries, when we import them we create a huge carbon footprint in transportation alone to get to us. On top of that, these countries have deplorable working conditions for humans, virtually non-existent environmental laws and low wages for the workers who are forced to endure long working hours.  There is not much I can do about our country's lethal economic and environmental outsourcing of manufacturing products and produce other than NOT buying products and produce made in these countries (which is damn near impossible!) BUT I can grow my own food which helps on many levels!  As my green thumb developed over the fall and into early winter 2008, I began to add different herbs and vegetables. As a result, I now only have to buy apples and carrots for the guinea pigs, in addition to their daily requirement of a lot of hay and guinea pig pellets. For me nothing quite rivals the reward of tasting my own home grown food and all just by merely walking out into my yard and picking my own greens and vegetables for a delicious salad at lunch or dinner! I always tell my guinea pigs as they congregate at the feeding bowl to enjoy the home grown greens and veggies, "I grew that especially for you and I just picked it this morning!" I'm sure they totally appreciate it, right??? Well...even if they don't "dig it" I certainly do and I'm extremely grateful to be able to have the space, ambition and just enough of a green thumb to pull this all off!


  I had tried to grow vegetables over the years here in south Florida and had some limited success.  However, between the insects and creatures of the night who came and took bites out of the produce, I ended up not having much to show for all my time, expense and hard work. Also, years where we had droughts didn't help. But because I now have so many guinea pigs and they seem to always be willing, able and ready to eat, I decided to try vegetable gardening again in order to reduce expenses and improve the quality of food that I fed them. Unfortunately the soil in south Florida is basically a poor quality of gray sand and silt mixed with plenty of limestone rocks, both big and small. I had to dig out the areas I wanted to put my garden in and then import new topsoil which I mixed with Canadian peat moss in alternating layers. Peat moss is an important component since its a pre-made compost and aids in retaining moisture.  One of the smartest things I did was to use as much of my compost dirt as I could. I had to remove all the worms which was time consuming (I put them back in the compost bin where I raise them for the pond turtles) but it was well worth the effort because I swear it made it a positive difference compared to not having used it in prior attempts over the years.  Using the compost dirt also aided in retaining moisture and in south Florida you need all the help you can get to keep the soil from getting too hot and dry.  I believe the nutrient packed compost was also a positive influence on sustaining the vegetable plants this far into the season.  I have occasionally added more compost dirt to the beds as well as adding peat moss, especially to cover up newly laid seeds such as lettuce, kale and collard greens. So because of the insufficient soil we have here for growing vegetables, it can be expensive to set up a planting bed initially. Having said that, once you do it you should have a cost effective method of growing your own food in the long run. Adding up the cost of the seeds though does also increase the start up costs.  I have had to continually add more seeds for the greens because I pick so much of it every few days but if you wait long enough, the lettuce, kale and collard greens do grow back, albeit slower than you want them to.  This is why it is imperative to have multiple beds that have been seeded in stages over several weeks.  I typically seed the different beds in two to three week intervals.  I am also blessed that the guinea pigs absolutely love the Mexican petunia plants - the leaves and the flowers - which are more than abundant in my front and back yards so they get a large portion of that every day which reduces the amount of greens that I must pick for them. I also eat the greens so that reduces the availability for the guinea pigs but I need to eat too you know!


  In order for the bush beans, tomatoes and pepper plants to grow properly, they need some type of support.  The bush beans are supported by a metal white fence that I bought at Lowes. It was easy to set up and works quite well .  The pepper plants are in a large pot so I used wood stakes and old hibiscus tree branches to support the plants, tying them to the supports with twine.  The tomatoes can get huge and branch out all over so they require much more work to be supported and sometimes you have get clever. I used a combination of a circular support system that I purchased off of the internet and 6 foot high wooden 2 x 2's that I pounded into the ground. Then I used a lot of twine and tied the plants to the circular system and the wooden stakes. The plants have grown as tall as six feet now and I continuously have to tuck branches under the twine to keep them growing up instead of out and all over the place where they will not be supported.  So everything was growing quite well for months but when the summer heat hit in June 2008 the garden began to decline rapidly. The bean plants were still producing beans but sparingly and the leaves and beans began to show signs of disease - rust colored beans and leaves. I don't know what disease it is but its something! The tomatoes all got old and had to be ripped out and I've got plenty of new plants growing from seed. The kale and collard greens are completely gone - they don't tolerate hot weather at all, even if it rains everyday. The lettuce is doing OK but not great. The pepper plants likewise aren't doing well in the summer heat, despite the terrific rainy season we've had this year. Bottom line...summer is NOT the best time to grow a garden in south Florida - the fall through spring is and that is OK since its still a lot more time for growing vegetables than most of the United States has so I'll take it!


  I also used my supply of volcanic ash to aid in growing the gardens. I have plots all over the place so it takes hours to dilute the ash and then pour it onto the plants but it is worth it. What I do is take the ash which is basically a heavy powder and put a few scoops in a large bucket and using the high pressure hose setting mix it up. I still have to take a spoon to stir it up and mash it but then once its all liquefied I pour it on the plants. The master gardener from my local agricultural extension told me that it would indeed be beneficial so keep doing it. Perhaps since I've not done it in several months that is why the garden has not done as well as it did in the cooler months when I was doing it every two weeks. I do highly recommend using the volcanic ash if you can and just for fun, seeing if it makes a difference. You can always just do one part of the garden or one plot and not another plot to see if it makes a positive difference. Go ahead...create you own experiment!


  First, growing your own food gives you extreme satisfaction of growing it yourself - the pleasure of seeing something literally grow from seed into a plant and then harvesting the produce off of it. There is just nothing like it in the world except perhaps making your own baby!  Second, I've always heard that gardening is good for the body, the soul and the spirit. I can attest that this is all true! I feel a little "bushed", pun intended, after a full day or gardening, but it is a good feeling to have your muscles and back ache a bit knowing you helped to reduce carbon emissions and chemical pollution just by doing your small little part in your own yard.  Sometimes it simply feels good to get out and exercise and strain your body somewhat, especially when all that work and pain "bears fruit!" 


  I tried growing zucchini squash and had early success with the plants. They grew fast from seeds in the ground and rapidly flowered and even made some squash but after a few weeks all the plants began to wilt. I don't know if it was disease or insects that killed them all off. I tried several different locations over the span of months but nothing seemed to help. My neighbor encountered the same problem. Perhaps south Florida is just not the ideal squash climate.


  So if you are ambitious and want to grow your own food I say GO FOR IT! The rewards are great but there is labor involved but remember it is a true "labor of love!"


Diane's Zoo Plantation Produce List!


Vegetable Plant

Variety and Comments









  Some are big boy but most of the plants growing are from seeds from tomatoes that I used and I had different varieties like roma and God knows what else. I find that tomatoes are the only vegetable that grows from seeds right from the vegetable or fruit. I only bought a few plants, all the rest of the tomatoes I have growing I grew from seeds. The seeds grow into plants within a week but it can take over a month before you see any buds on them and then weeks more before you can have a ripe tomato. All of the tomato plants I started last fall have been ripped out of the ground now as they were all finished producing fruit and began to decay. I have plenty of new seedlings growing at the moment. In my experience the plants last about 3-4 months and then need to be replaced. I did have very good results with most of the plants though. My biggest problem were rats eating the tomatoes at night but once I found out where they were nesting I got rid of them and the problem went away. I don't want to go into it here but suffice it to say the rats were pretty clever at where they nested and it was not far at all from the tomatoes! They nested under my concrete patio - who would have believed that one! - so it was literally a hop, skip and a jump for their free buffet at Diane's Zoo! I do prune the plants to keep them looking good and definitely take off all dead or diseased and icky looking leaves and branches. I haven't had any major insect problems so far which is quite surprising but I do have tomatoes that crack open and get insects that way. For the most part the tomatoes have been a huge success and a huge economics $avings! I was spending a ridiculous amount of money on tomatoes for the guinea pigs but not anymore! I don't have ripe tomatoes every day at all so when there are ripe ones the guinea pigs get a treat, otherwise they simply do without. I certainly love eating them too so they are a treat for me as well and it seems that I'll have a bunch of ripe ones at once and then won't have any for a while.



Bell peppers:






  They all start out green but if you leave them on the plant long enough they begin to turn color and its fun to watch because you never know what color you might get. I have all the peppers in one large pot out in full sun and they seem to do well. I also recently put more seeds in the pot and also put seeds in the ground in partial sun so we'll see how well they do. I originally bought two plants in the fall and then added some seeds to the pot a few months ago so now the plants are looking a little haggard. I thought it was time to add some more seeds. They don't do well in the hot hot summer months here in south Florida but mine are hanging on only because we've had an excellent rainy season this year in 2008.  I believe once fall kicks in the plants will begin to do better but we'll see.






  I ended up pulling most of the carrots out after they started growing because I wanted room for more greens which is what the guinea pigs eat a lot of. Carrots are cheap to buy but greens are not and they don't keep as long as carrots in the refrigerator so you have to buy them more often which is a pain in the butt. I have a few carrots growing so it will be interesting to see how they turn out but the guinea pigs love the carrot tops! The carrots grow too slow to really make it worth my while since greens are really more important to grow for the guinea pigs.



Bush beans:










  The purple beans took longer to grow than the green and yellow beans but once they began to bud they really grew fast. The purple beans can get rather large actually. They taste different than the yellow and green beans and are flat and wide as compared to the long, thin yellow and green beans. The section of beans in the tortoise pen don't get as much sun so they didn't fare as well and actually got a fungus on them after a few months. I took all the plants out and put in new seeds. In fact, after about 3-4 months the plants are get icky and need to be removed and new seeds need to be put in the ground. I find that it takes about 4-6 weeks from planting to harvesting the beans which isn't too long. Then the plants produce beans for several months. Its actually very economical considering the price of a bag of fresh beans in the grocery store - well worth the effort in my opinion. But I did put in A LOT of bean plants in four separate areas and I spread out my planting time over two months so that I would have beans continuously once I started getting beans. It was very smart to do that considering I've already had to replant seeds and while I'm waiting for those to mature I've still get enough plants still producing beans that I will continue to be able to feed the guinea pigs beans every day. In the hot summer months the beans have NOT done well at all. Some plants are OK but the majority have gotten some disease and the beans and leaves have turned a rust color. The plants are not producing many beans either compared to the bumper crop I had in the spring. I actually had way too many and made the mistake of freezing them thinking I could thaw them out and give them to the guinea pigs. BIG mistake as they were watery mush that were not fit to feed to the gippers. The pigs need crisp beans, not soggy beans! Dumb dumb me should have known better but not that I learned my lesson I'll never do that again! They keep for at least a week in the fridge so its not a big deal to store them for a while.






Collard Greens









  The lettuce, kale and collard greens were all grown from seeds. Amazingly the lettuce seeds come up in just a few days and you don't even need to cover them with much dirt! The collard and kale seeds take longer to sprout and should be covered adequately with soil or peat moss. I used peat moss to cover the seeds most of the time because it added compost to the soil and because it retained moisture. The majority of the lettuce seeds that I used were a mescalin mix which is a variety of seeds including endive which the guinea pigs and I like.  I also added romaine, salad bowl and other varieties I cannot remember at the moment! The lettuces all came up relatively fast but the growth is not as fast as I would like it to be since I have hungry guinea pigs screaming for their food every morning! I love growing the lettuce and the collard and kale greens but honestly, its somewhat more convenient to buy it since its so much bigger. However, aside from that, I think its WAY more convenient to go out and pick it when I need it and have it fresh and toxic-free versus what you get from the store which is God knows what!  Usually the lettuce I picked was small because I just couldn't wait months until it got big like you get in the store or the farmers market but thats OK - they guinea pigs don't mind! The point of growing the greens was really to reduce my trips to the store and to reduce my grocery bills. Considering that I had to import the soil and buy the seeds and then add fertilizer, the cost was not so cost effective but I think if I continue to use the same plots then it will be cost effective over time. Plus, I had to set up the plots which took a long time and a lot of work but in the end it was worth it since I've been growing lettuce since the fall - almost a year now. I also like the fact that grass has grown in the plots as well and at first that irritate the heck out of me but now I love it since grass is a main staple of the guinea pig diet in their natural habitat of Peru. So I make sure there are no bugs on the grass (which surprisingly there is!) and then clip it and put it in the bag with the lettuce. I put the lettuce, herbs and grass in a ziploc bag and store it in the fridge for several days to a week, depending on how much I collect at one time. I now have basil growing in the same lettuce plot which is working well.
















  The herbs are another treat for the guinea pigs since they are really true "herbivores."  I don't know how much herbs or what herbs they would eat in nature but I do know they are herbivores/vegetarians and love grass and herbs. I give them herbs on occasion - not everyday because I don't have enough growing to give them a good amount on a daily basis so when they get some herbs they absolutely love them! I have been growing parsley, cilantro, basil, oregano and mint. I can say that the parsley and cilantro grow relatively well both in pots and in the ground but the mint I have not had success with at all. It will grow from seed but wither rather quickly. The oregano grows from seed but takes a long time and then doesn't last long either. The parsley and cilantro grow well but with all the guinea pigs I have it doesn't take long to deplete what I have growing. I think you have to have a ton of it growing to feed it to them everyday. I have had some bugs eat on the herbs and also some lizards or rats I think - who knows what happens when I'm not looking!  I think growing herbs is probably the easiest of the plants I have to grow and they seem to do fine either in pots on the patio or in the ground. The basil is the easiest to grow by far - both sweet and purple varieties. The guinea pigs seems to love both kinds.  I often put them in the pots and just let them eat the plants by I must monitor how much they eat or they'll completely destroy the plants in seconds flat! I have herbs growing in pots and rectangular containers on the back patio and in the ground in both full sun and part sun plots. Overall they do well no matter where they are as long as they get enough water. Herbs are quite thirsty plants and need daily or every other day watering in order to keep alive in the hot summer months here in south Florida. In the cooler months they do not need to be watered as often. I also love the fact that I can go out and pinch the herbs I need for cooking besides pinching some off to hand feed the guinea pigs or adding to their morning bowl of food. I usually give them freshly picked herbs rather than store in the fridge because herbs don't last long in the fridge, especially basil. The basil, out of all the herbs I'm growing seems to get the biggest and grows the fastest.



Luffa Sponges





  Who knew that luffa sponges came from a vine plant??? When I first heard from a friend that she had grown the sponges in her back yard  I thought she was teasing me. Like most people, I mistakenly thought all sponges came from the ocean so the idea of growing your own on a fence or trellis seemed strange and intriguing. Nonetheless, I did some searching on the internet and verified that luffa sponges do grown on vines. As a matter of fact, they are members of the squash family - again who knew??? I ordered the seeds online and planted them in a pot and when the vine began to grow I wrapped it into the lattice fence off of the back patio. The flowers are yellow and off of the flowers the little sponges start to grow, just like squash. Not all of the sponges made it and many of them fall off after forming. So far I have "harvested" three sponges. They are loaded with seeds though and its somewhat of a tedious process to get the seeds out. I used a my hose nozzle on the high pressure setting to clean the sponges and get most of the seeds out and then put the sponges out in the sun to dry. If you leave them on the vine long enough they begin to dry up and then you know its time to pick them and take the thick skin off and begin the curing process of removing the seeds, cleaning up the sponges and drying them. The skin thins out a lot as it begins to dry up and if you leave it too long the skin actually crumbles and makes a mess on the sponge so its best to take the skin off as soon as it drys up enough to easily cut or peel the skin off. They come out a little slimy but the high pressure hose setting gets them into pretty good shape for drying. You can put them in a light bleach solution if you want to make them white, otherwise just wash them with soap and clean them up. It took about two months from the time I planted the seeds until I got my first ripe sponge. After the first plant did well I put more seeds in and currently have several plants growing with flowers and little sponges. I think it will be fun to keep a few for myself and then give the rest away as novelty gifts.


This is a great website devoted to luffa sponges:



Ponderosa Lemon Tree













  I have had a love affair with the Ponderosa lemon tree since I first found one shortly after I moved here to south Florida in 1994. After moving into my house in 1995 I planted my first Ponderosa lemon tree and it thrived until the state of Florida murdered it due to the citrus canker epidemic. For many years the state mandated that ALL citrus trees with in a certain amount of feet from a citrus tree infected with citrus canker must be removed even if it is disease free and healthy. I will never forget the day they came and murdered my healthy orange and lemon tree! I cried and cried and felt sick for days. The neighbors all gathered in the street that evening and vented their anger and frustration at having their healthy and beloved citrus trees removed without their consent. Big brother sure came in and wreaked havoc by destroying healthy trees that were NO threat and were not likely to even become infected. Years later after many lawsuits, the state finally reversed course and admitted their tactics of killing healthy trees in order to halt the spread of citrus canker DID NOT WORK! Citrus canker was still being spread and not because of available trees in which it could attach itself, but because of wind and other factors. Hurricanes had a huge impact on the spread of the disease but removing healthy trees DID NOT HALT THE SPREAD OF THE DISEASE! So now the ban has been lifted on having citrus trees in your yard again and the state has stopped killing healthy trees. I have since had a relatively healthy Ponderosa lemon tree in the back yard and in the fall of 2007 began planting the seeds from my lemons as an experiment to see if they would grow into little trees. By the glory of God they did! At first I was disappointed because I wasn't getting any shoots but it after about 4-5 weeks I finally got rewarded by seeing my first shoots coming out of the dirt! Now I have at least 60 little trees growing in pots and rectangular containers alongside the the herbs and so far so good. Yes, they have leaf minor like on the big tree but I guess thats to be expected but other than that the little trees are growing rapidly and doing just fine. I have photos of them in the gallery so be sure to visit the vegetable garden gallery from the link on the top left of the page. Someone told me that if you grow the trees by seeds instead of buying a grafted citrus tree, the tree won't produce fruit for 20 years if at all and if it does, the lemons will be small. Is is an old wive's tale? I don't know but I don't care because the fun of growing anything from seed is so thrilling that I don't care whether it makes lemons or not. And talk about the size of these lemons! The Ponderosa lemon tree is not a "true" lemon tree - but it does make the largest lemons of any lemon tree and it confuses people because they are so large they refuse to believe they are lemons - they usually think they are grapefruit!



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I have allowed all of you who have read through my experience as a "gardener" here in south Florida to post your own comments.  I welcome you to share your own gardening experiences from across America as well as adding your comments about this page as long as you say it in a civil manner without being nasty and profane. I will delete all comments I deem inappropriate and offensive. That having said, you are entitled to free speech and whether you agree with what I wrote or not, you are entitled to speak your mind here so long as it is not offensive. NOTE:  Your email address will not be displayed and it will not be shared, rented, sold or given out in any manner to any person, organization or entity.


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DISCLAIMER:  This website was set up to SHARE my OWN experience with my reptiles, guinea pigs, ponds/fish, gardens and local wildlife and to post pictures and video of them. It was NOT SET UP to offer my opinion or expertise on ANY QUESTION that I am asked and what I post on this website should not be taken as "EXPERT ADVISE" or how to take care of reptiles, guinea pigs, ponds/fish, gardens or local wildlife. I AM NOT A REPTILE RESCUE GROUP, GUINEA PIG RESCUE GROUP, VETERINARIAN, REPTILE EXPERT, GUINEA PIG EXPERT, PONDS/FISH EXPERT, GARDEN EXPERT OR WILDLIFE REHABILITATOR! I have limited experience with reptiles, guinea pigs, local wildlife, ponds/fish and gardens, therefore, I am NOT QUALIFIED to give out advise or answer questions and you, as a visitor to this website, should not take anything on this website as expert advise or accurate information.  I present this website for fun and fun only - NOT as a reference website to instruct anyone on how to properly take care of reptiles, guinea pigs, local wildlife, ponds/fish or gardens.  I share how I DO THINGS for my reptiles, guinea pigs, local wildlife, ponds/fish and gardens and this is not intended for others to take as expert advise or to mimic. Furthermore, my political views are my own and not intended to offend, annoy, hurt or demean any person, entity or organization. I express my views as an American who has the right to free speech under the Constitution of the United States of America. Please feel free to set up your own website and express your views, post your pictures and video and share with the rest of us in cyberspace what your little corner of the world is like. Thank you very much for your kind understanding in appreciating the value and contents of this website.


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