Tending Your Winter Garden
Tips for taking care of plants in cooler weather, using compost and gardening in low-light conditions.
My yard doesn't get six hours of sunlight because of trees. Is there anything I can grow in low light?
Generally speaking, food-producing plants are most productive when given as much sunlight as possible. When choosing a garden site, I strongly recommend looking at all parts of your property to find a spot with the most light. Keep in mind the different positions of the sun throughout the day as it moves from east to west as well as the changing angle of the sun during different times of the year. If you don't have any sunny areas in your space, another option is to help a friend or family member with access to a sunnier garden site instead. It's usually much less rewarding to garden in sites with limited sun, and I find that the main mistake beginner gardeners make is not choosing a garden site that is sunny. Remember, more sun equals more photosynthesis.
If your only choice is to garden in low-light conditions, consider plants that you grow for the leaf (herbs, salad greens, cooking greens). They're more worthwhile to grow in limited light conditions than plants grown for their fruit – fruit trees, tomato, peppers, eggplant, cucumber, etc. Some of my favorite plants to grow in low-light conditions include:
Katuk (Sauropus androgynus) – Perennial shrub (6-8 ft) that has edible oval leaves and flowers. Good both raw and cooked. Best grown from cutting. Originating from Asia.
Cranberry hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella) – Usually grown as an annual, it has dark reddish maple-shaped leaves and grows to 6-8 ft tall. Leaves are usually eaten raw as a tangy addition to salads. African origin. Propagated by seed or cutting.
Okinawa spinach (Gynura bicolor) – Perennial bush (1-2 ft tall). Leaves are dark green with purple undersides. Young shoots good raw or cooked. Propagated by cutting.
Malabar spinach (Basella alba), pictured left – Vining tropical spinach that can grow as a ground cover or be trellised. I usually like to cook the leaves and young shoots or use them in small quantities raw in salad (leaves are mucilaginous). Usually grown as an annual from seed or cutting.
I have a good compost pile working. How do I use it?
One of the best ways to tell if a compost pile is working is to pay attention to its temperature. From the beginning there should be a proper balance of carbon-rich matter and nitrogen-rich matter. If the compost pile is hot, it's a sign that there is a lot of decomposition happening as microbes feed, converting the organic matter into a form that is more easily absorbed by plants. Moving the compost around, or "turning" it, will help to speed the process by putting more oxygen in the pile. Eventually, as most of the matter becomes well broken down, the pile cools off and there will be much less recognizable leaves, twigs and food waste. It will appear to mostly look like what we know to be compost. At this point it is usually a good time to harvest it.
When harvesting compost, leave some in the compost pile to help make new compost for your next batch. This will be rich in the soil biology required for jumpstarting your pile. If you want to make your own seedling germination mix, you may want to sift it to remove larger chunks that haven't completely decomposed, which can be re-added to the pile.
Generally the ideal time for amending your soil with compost is before a major replanting of your garden. It can be mixed in evenly, or added to the top of the soil around plants that could use a boost of fertility.
How do I protect my edible garden when we get a cold snap?
Usually I don't bother protecting plants from the cold unless it gets into the 40s or 30s. If we're expecting particularly cold weather, I recommend watering more than usual in the night of extra-cold temps as water helps to hold heat in the soil. For extra protection, cover plants with a sheet or an insulating agricultural fabric such as Agribon. You can also use tarps and plastic bags to cover plants, but remove them before temperatures rise the next morning. Annual plants that typically need the most protection from cold are tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumber, cilantro and basil.
One of the nicest parts about gardening in South Florida is that we don't often need to worry about the cold weather being an issue. Heat and humidity, yes, but less so now that it's winter.
Have a gardening question? Email Dylan at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about edible gardens, email email@example.com or call him at 786-436-7703.