Transforming Your Landscape

By Willow LaMonte.

Long-time Florida gardeners know that October is the start of the best growing season for many plants including vegetables, perennials and trees. A fresh crop of books introduces even newbies to the joys of growing in Florida.

Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida, by Ginny Stibolt and Melissa Contreras, University Press of Florida, 2013

[easy-media med=”343″ size=”250,250″ align=”right” style=”transparent”]As an organic gardener for many decades, about a quarter of that time in Florida, I found myself engrossed in each section of Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida. There were lots of, “Ahhh, I didn’t know that” and “Wow, what a great tip!” moments. For example, I learned to recognize the rosy wolfsnail which eats other slugs and snails, not plants!

Two organic gardeners from different parts of the state have gifted growers of edible plants with a fantastic new book geared to planting naturally with our unique conditions in mind. Ginny Stibolt and Melissa Contreras provide a wonderful new addition to your library that complements Monica Moran Brandies’ classic Florida Gardening: The Newcomer’s Survival Manual.

Well organized with helpful illustrations by Marjorie Shropshire, the book simply yet thoroughly explains organic gardening practices and how to apply them in Florida. The primary reason to grow organically “is that you work with Mother Nature, not against her, by building fertile soil naturally, by inviting beneficial bugs and other organisms to your garden, by recycling plant materials, and by providing the ideal conditions for your crops.”

That’s even before you begin to count the fact that many people think that “organically grown foods are not only safer but also tastier and more nutritious.” Each chapter concludes with further resources to continue our garden journey. The book includes an excellent glossary as well.

I personally was pleased the authors discourage using peat moss in the garden, because “it’s acidic, has no nutrients, and it may actually dry out your seedlings.” They recommend instead working with coir, which is coconut fiber. (After using both for years in my organic nursery I’ve noticed that coir works much better in our sandy soils, plus it reduces plant diseases.) It takes thousands of years to create a peat bog, but each year there are hundreds of thousands of new coconut husks available for coir.

They also warn against pressure-treated wood in the garden (toxic heavy metals) which can lead to serious health problems. However, I was very surprised to see them include dryer lint in their compost. Most of our modern clothes contain synthetic fibers, dyes, formaldehyde, and/or flame retardants. I think it’s best to throw the lint away and only use natural materials in the compost (paper/cardboard are also filled with toxic chemicals and heavy metals in the ink).

I was also surprised they had examples of food growing right next to houses. This is not a good idea because of the chemicals used in homebuilding. It’s especially true in Florida where very toxic and long-lasting pesticides are applied under and around the foundation to deter termites.

The chapter on irrigation offers valuable tips for water-wise techniques in the garden, a highly critical concern in our state with dwindling water resources and wells polluted from non-organic farm/landscaping practices. They discourage the use of even natural pesticides in favor of integrated pest management techniques and methods for building healthy soil which automatically cut down on bug problems. Still, they do provide very helpful hints for those of us that do use natural botanicals such as the neem plant, “not to apply if temperatures are over 90 degrees or when plants are water stressed.”

Besides covering most of the common temperate climate vegetables, the authors include many of the tropical foods which do so well in much of Florida (roselle hibiscus, sugar cane, peanuts, sweet potatoes), as well as a few Florida native edibles.

The heart of the book is step-by-step instructions for specific veggies, herbs, tubers and fruit. An appendix includes a useful monthly planting calendar for north, central, and south Florida conditions, including when to plant and harvest regionally. Full-color pictures show a wide variety of garden bed styles from around the state, including some very clever container ideas.

One of the most inspiring chapters is “Trends in Edible Gardening,” portraying the rise in local/urban/community/school gardens. Included is information on growing for local farmers markets and how to obtain an organic certification in Florida. Sadly, some local growers misrepresent their produce and plants as “organic.” As consumers, we must learn to ask the right questions to be sure we are getting what we are paying for.

The authors warn “the USDA threatens a civil penalty of up to $11,000 (that) can be levied on any person who knowingly sells or labels as organic a product that is not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program’s regulations.” They also steer us away from buying seedlings from big box stores where veggie starts are sold at the wrong time of year (not to mention laden with chemicals). Instead, local farmers markets and nurseries have varieties for Florida at the right time for your region – usually along with good advice on how to plant and care for them!

Whether you grow in the ground, raised beds, or containers, have a perennial permaculture garden or potted edibles in a condo, Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida is an essential resource. Ginny Stibolt and Melissa Contreras close with this lovely mission: “Once you learn how to manage a garden using organic methods that consider the health of the surrounding ecosystem, you will have developed a skill worth sharing.”

Energy-Wise Landscape Design: A New Approach for your Home and Garden, by Sue Reed, New Society Publishers, 2010

[easy-media med=”336″ size=”250,250″ align=”right” style=”transparent”]Sue Reed’s Energy-Wise Landscaping Design offers readers a wealth of knowledge and wisdom based on her years of experience as an environmental writer and sustainable landscape architect. Although some of the material doesn’t apply to our Florida conditions, much can be adapted. It is also inspiring to see what transformations are going on in the U.S. and other countries.

Saving money and energy is the book’s focus; creating beauty and an environmentally safe landscape is part of the process. From efficient outdoor lighting options to solar and geothermal energy to green roofs, design and building instructions are presented in each chapter.

There are lovely sections on native plants and the critters they attract along with “nature-inspired associations” – which plants grow well in community together (or what permaculture growers would call “guilds”). We can do this kind of landscaping while cutting down on our heating/cooling bills if we plant for shade and wind reduction.

As oil prices continue to rise, we can expect the cost of chemical fertilizers made with petroleum products to increase as well. The sustainable design techniques presented here are not just a nice idea, but are becoming increasingly necessary. Here in Florida, where a year-round lush lawn is revered above all other plantings, we waste enormous amounts of water and toxic or synthetic chemicals to constantly fight against, not with, the natural processes.

The alternative? Sue Reed explains how to build healthy soil using safe, simple, inexpensive methods. She warns, “Conventional lawn treatments supply substances that feed the grass rather than the soil. Even worse, these chemicals often actually kill soil organisms that would help restore health if nutrients were provided. . . . instead of accepting dormant (tan) lawn as a natural part of grass’s survival strategy, we strive to keep grass green all year long. This consumes huge amounts of water and energy. And, when watering is done in combination with standard lawn treatments, on soil that often can’t absorb the water, the resulting runoff is laden with chemicals that pollute soil, streams, lakes and humans.”

This spells out one of the core rules of organic growing: we feed the living soil, not the plant. All the diverse life forms thrive in healthy soil and what they excrete is what actually feeds the plants.

The author also has a brilliant sidebar called “The Five Problems with Conventional Lawn Treatment.” I wish this could be shared with all homeowners associations so they can begin their transformative and transitional process.

Energy-Wise Landscape Design also touches on edible landscapes – although I would love to have seen this covered in more detail – with advice on mulching and conserving water. The author also wants us to be aware of toxic dyed mulches as well as the overuse of peat moss, again preferring coconut coir.

Whether you’re interested in greenbuilding or just building a healthy relationship with your watershed and local environment, this book is a superb resource. Good for the library and the landscape, good for the soil and the soul.

Sue Reed concludes by asking us to examine our rather limiting ideas of beauty:

“Might we imagine a new notion, one in which beauty is more than a pretty picture? . . . Instead of trees standing alone in lawn, imagine them in groves, growing close together as they do in a forest, in rich soil that’s constantly replenished by the rain of falling leaves . . . it’s time for us to dream a new idea of home, one in which beauty is not just a conventional norm or a familiar picture, but also an expression of our social values.”

Your Florida Guide to Shrubs: Selection, Establishment, and Maintenance, 2nd edition, by Edward F. Gilman, Robert J. Black, and Sydney Park Brown, University Press of Florida, 2013

[easy-media med=”340″ size=”250,250″ align=”right” style=”transparent”]The latest edition of Your Florida Guide to Shrubs offers clear, simple guidelines for creating your own Florida landscaping with not only beauty and ease of care in mind but also wildlife food and habitat considerations. While geared toward ornamental landscaping, unfortunately some of the edible Florida natives like beautyberry and firebush are not noted as food plants. If we’re growing them, we might as well share in their food value as well.

The book begins with a comprehensive section on how to select the shrubs that best serve your needs and location, how to select the best specimens and then check them for injury, root system health and potential cold damage. A detailed plant hardiness zone map for Florida is provided, while each appendix gives listings for shrubs tolerant of wet, drought and salinity, as well as the wildlife it attracts.

The shrub selection guide presents color pictures for each species with placement and maintenance details. And the importance of good irrigation methods and sensible water use are explained as well: “Frequent, light sprinklings waste water and do little to satisfy the water requirements of an established plant growing in hot, dry soil because water may not percolate through the mulch to the roots.”

Pruning and feeding tips round out Your Florida Guide to Shrubs, so we can continue to enjoy our colorful Florida landscapes for years to come.

Folk herbalist Willow LaMonte is a long-time organic gardener and wildcrafter. She is the proprietor of Willow Herbal Delight Gardens in Valrico. To learn more about her garden tours, classes and workshops, call 813-643-7285.

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