Early Spring Gardening

Greetings from sunny… rainy… windy… no clue what will happen next Northwest Florida! It has been a crazy winter here this year. It’s mid-March and the weather is on a roller coaster like I have never seen. The temperatures have been swinging like crazy, and every day it seems I get a little something different. Hot, cold, wet, dry, and windy weather conditions have been alternating where I am like some jacked up weather slot machine. It makes it hard to know what to do, and what to plant. Since I’m confident that I will not get another frost (unlike our friends up North that got snow a few days ago out of the blue), I also feel confident that Summer’s heat will not arrive faster than I can get some nice cool weather crops going and harvested before the long days and hot sun limit what I can grow.

Kale seedlings ready for thinning

So what am I planting amidst the weather chaos? Quick growing crops like lettuce, mustard, arugula, spinach, radishes, salad turnips, and beets. I’ve already planted some kale which germinated nicely despite the temperature swings, and I’m going to sow some early carrots which aren’t considered “quick” but they won’t mind the odd-ball temps as long as it doesn’t freeze. I do, however, expect the unexpected and know that germination may be off a little depending on what happens with the weather. It’s no big deal if 30 day lettuce takes an extra week or if radishes speed through in 20 days instead of 28 if it gets colder or hotter respectively. You just have to be okay with whatever happens.

Fortunately, I have begun building a greenhouse (more on that later), so I should have some seeds started for the summer plants like peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, squashes, and other summer favorites while I wait for things to even out. I dare not put them out just yet. Last year I planted okra too early, and they stalled out until the first good heatwave hit. They exploded in growth all at once, and the plants grew a little taller than I expected. Yields were also varied from a tiny bit to buckets full right up until a hard November frost. Tomatoes suffered the same fate, and I am sad to say I really did them an injustice by not monitoring them more closely. We were in severe drought last summer, and I was not at all equipped to irrigate properly. I know better now… and we learn by doing! It’s okay to fail if you learn something from it.

Getting back to early spring planting, it seems that plugs are the way to go with lettuce, and you can stagger planting depending on your needs, but keep in mind that when temperatures stabilize as the season goes on, your plants will mature more quickly. My advice is to watch them, and when they are halfway through their growing cycle, plant some more until temps are warm enough to sow/plant every week. Days to maturity (DTM) will also stabilize and even quicken for some crops along with the weather. Remember as we move toward summer, the days get longer, meaning more sunlight for longer and more active growth time as well. Pollinators are soon to start buzzing about if they aren’t already. A bee visited my new blueberry bushes just yesterday as I was standing nearby.

If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to start spreading compost to amend the soil, and get ready for those heavy feeders. Don’t worry, the quick growing crops tend to be low feeders, so you shouldn’t really be worried about them taking up much of the nutrients. It won’t hurt a thing to spread it where they are planted already in a bed you plan to plant a heavy feeder in succession after you “crop out” (a term I’m borrowing from Curtis Stone that means to harvest and remove the current crop so you can turn over the bed and plant something else.) You mulching maniacs can just sprinkle it around and let the rain do its thing to push it down to the soil level. (That’s what I do.)

Whatever you do, get started! Happy planting!


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Dave Palmer

Dave Palmer is the owner and operator of Florida Farmers Market & Cafe in Paxton, FL. As a volunteer he serves as a guest educator for middle school agriculture students at Paxton School (K-12) teaching a hands on approach to plant science as well as the business of growing and selling organic plants and produce. His focus is, no surprise, growing food and eating it!