Edible Backyard Basics
Here's what you need to know about planning your fall garden.
I'm ready to start my backyard garden this year. How do I get started?
First, evaluate the physical characteristics of the space in which you'll start planting. How much sun is it getting? This is as simple as learning the directional orientation of your yard, looking up at the sky and deciding how much direct light from the sun enters into your yard throughout the day. With most edible plants, more light equals faster growth and better health, as long as the soil gets enough moisture. Remember, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and as we approach winter, the sun shines into our hemisphere from a southern angle. If you have good exposure to the east, west and south, generally you're well positioned to start a successful edible garden.
WHAT ABOUT IRRIGATION?
Are you only going to rely on rain? Yes, it rains a lot here, but that's mostly in the summer. Many edible plants are not drought tolerant and need additional irrigation in between rains. How will you water your garden then? If you have the time and the willpower, watering by hand can be a good way to cater to the varying irrigation needs of different plants and different parts of your space. Watering by hand also helps you pay better attention to your garden.
Perhaps you'll rely on your lawn sprinklers. They can serve as an automatic watering system, but generally the frequency and duration for which they are set to aren't ideal for a vegetable garden. Younger plants in particular appreciate more regular watering at a shorter duration than a typical sprinkler system. Do you want to set up an automatic watering system specifically for your edible plants? These are often a combination of drip line and microsprayers, and can vary widely depending on what you're growing, your space and your budget. An automatic watering system designed for your edible garden can simplify your gardening experience by improving growth and saving time but they cost more, require maintenance and can break over time.
You may want to collect rainwater to water your garden. Ways to do this can range from changing the slope of your land to create areas that keep water from washing away to sophisticated large-scale cisterns (giant rain barrels) connected to pumps to supply water to your garden.
HOW'S THE SOIL?
Learn more about the soil. Is it sandy? Mucky? Rocky? In South Florida, it can be any or a combination of these. Most often, our native soil is sandy and rocky. To grow most edible plants, you'll need to improve the soil by adding compost and protecting the soil from sun, wind and rain with a layer of natural mulch. If it is mucky, you might just need to dig a little deeper to find sand and rock. But if you still can't find it and want to plant in the mucky spot, you may need to do the opposite and add sand or gravel to improve drainage. Most edible plants prefer rich soil that also drains well, so plan on having a combination of compost (organic matter) and sand or other amendments that improve drainage (gravel, perlite, vermiculite).
WHAT TO PLANT?
Once you've concluded that your site has adequate sun, can be watered enough and has soil that can be planted in, you've reached the beginning of a new fun step: the design of your garden and plant choices.
Do you want to design your garden based on the plants you want to eat or what's hard to buy fresh? If I were designing the garden for myself, I'd want lots of dinosaur kale and other salad greens, cooking greens, a variety of herbs, fruit trees and – if I had a space with tons of light – fruiting veggies like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans and cucumbers. Generally, larger plants and those that need less frequent tending are positioned further from your entrance to the garden and often to the north side of the garden to optimize sunlight.
Or you can plan a design based on where you think different plant sizes, shapes, colors and textures would work best in your landscape. Then, you find the plants that fit those preferences, as long as they can grow well in South Florida when you're planting them.
There's a third approach to designing an edible garden: designing your garden based on how much work you want it to be! Generally, perennials and fruit trees (lasting many years) are less work than annuals that have to be planted every year.
Once you have a general design of your garden, it's time to figure out how to make it, what to plant, and when to plant. The amount of work required to make it can vary depending on how large of a space you have, how easy it is to bring in materials, and how much work there is preparing the land for planting – grass/weeds removal, irrigation setup, soil improvement and the method for plant propagation or acquisition. What to plant is up to you, but please research what will grow here. Choose plants that are able to thrive in the heat. Avoid plants that require a lot of cold weather to do well. When to plant varies, but generally plant cool-weather-loving plants when the weather gets cool in fall and heat-loving plants that like hard rain in late spring or summer.
The world of edible gardening is vast, and there's no end to what you can learn. The best way to learn about gardening is by gardening!