Keys Homes
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Growing vegetables and herbs in the Florida Keys

By robin robinson Key West Garden Club

"Throw out all the advice you get in gardening catalogues when you grow fruit and vegetables in the Keys," advised Richard J. Campbell at a recent Key West Garden Club lecture. "And don't think that it is going to be easy. Its hard to garden in the Keys."

He should know. He's the head of Williams Grove, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden offshoot that does research in genetic resources in tropical fruit. This experimental station is located about 15 miles from the Fairchild gardens. As a father of three boys, he also has a vegetable and herb garden in his back yard for personal use.

There are five important principles to remember when setting up a vegetable garden here. First, our soil is terrible for growing, and everything is dependant on how good the soil is. We are not Nebraska. In order to grow well you need about 16 inches of good soil, so a raised bed is a necessity. You can see examples of raised beds at the GLEE Community Gardens at the corner of Leon and Seminary streets behind the May Sands School. The composting units that are set up there provide a continual source of good soil for the gardeners.

Second, sunlight is mandatory. Don't plant your tomatoes in a place that shades your lettuce. If the temperature is below 70 the tomatoes won't set, especially cherry tomatoes.

"Florida loves its lettuce," Campbell said. "It grows easily from seed, and the gardener can replant it until about mid March. If the germination temperature at night is below 65 the lettuce won't sprout. Peas, however, must be cool at night or they won't germinate." Don't forget that you can eat the delicate pea shoots and flowers in a gourmet salad.

Third, avoid salt spray and too much wind. Winter winds in the Keys are often northerly at 20 or 25 miles an hour. Winds like that can result in leaf fry on tomatoes or peas. Where you place your garden is important.

Fourth, pay attention to the seasons. It is difficult to garden in the summer as the temperatures are too high and the sun is too hot for any but the most hearty of plants. Start planting your garden in October and continue through the winter. Rotate your plants.

Campbell approves of mulching until a month before it is time to plant, but organic matter ties up the nitrogen in the soil, so it should not be applied during planting season.

Finally, practice what Campbell called "rational gardening." That means plant what you like to eat. Set your garden up the way you want to. Please yourself.

"Grow vegetables from seeds," he recommended. "There are a few good reasons: virus, virus, bacteria, virus, virus," he quipped. "Herbs started in nurseries are full of problems."

Campbell dehydrates fecund herbs for use during the hot summer months when the ground lies fallow. Onions, basil, chives, parsley, shallots, oregano, thyme and rosemary all do well in Keys gardens.

Pesky pests can destroy a garden. Campbell suggested a rainy evening for snail picking. The rogue chickens can be controlled with a fence around the garden. Iguanas will not climb a chain link fence, but may slip under it.

Gardening like this is not for sissies, but the gardener ends up with organic, local produce, so the hard work of creating a raised garden is worth it.

Mark your calendar. March 7 and 8 is the Key West Garden Club's orchid sale and tour of five spectacular gardens.

Key West Garden Club's master gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist at the Chicago Daily News and syndicated by Princeton Features. Her book, "Peeling the Onion: Reversing the Ravages of Stroke," can be found on This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. Visit

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