The more I plant and the more I watch others at the GLEE Community Garden behind May Sands, the more the myth of not being able to grow things in the Keys is dispelled. Many people have said for a long time that it is impossible or at least very hard to grow much of anything in the Keys and certainly in Key West. I remember as a kid there used to be places in Key Largo where they grew melons quite well thank you. Of course, we also took a stab at growing pineapples way back when the railroad first came through in the early part of the last century but they never did very well, at least commercially.
This past summer I decided to grow peanuts and sweet potatoes. You can see by the picture, my peanuts came up quite well. Not only did they grow well, they also put nitrogen back in the soil. I highly recommend it as a cover crop in the summer. They like the hot weather and they don't take too much care. Once you harvest them, you need to put the peanuts in a porous bag with good airflow and hang it in a dark, cool place to let them dry out. Mine are still drying and I can't wait.
Anyway, it's early October and if you haven't already, it is time to get your soil ready to plant, which I have been doing for the past several years in the latter part of October when it starts to get cool. If you have the ability, it is always good to cover your soil for a while with a plastic sheet to kill the nematodes but, barring that, it is certainly time to start getting your soil ready. Here is what I have done in the past.
My favorite compost/mulch is the turtle grass seaweed that lies so abundantly (and free) along the shoreline. It is full of iron and other nutrients. Make absolutely sure you are getting seaweed that has been washed by the rain, which right now should be no problem. Anyway, if you do use seaweed, make sure you make some provision for washing the salt out of it or else you will have a problem. What I have done with the turtle grass is layer it on top of the soil and then turn the soil with either a gas-powered tiller if your garden is that big or by hand with a shovel. In any event, you should turn the soil to let it aerate. It is not good to plant in heavily tamped soil.
This year, I am not going to use the turtle grass but I will be turning organic manure into the soil in a couple of weeks. There are plenty of simple instructions on the GLEE and the Monroe County Extension Service websites to tell you what grows best, what works best together and which plants also help keep the pests down. Since the gardens at GLEE are organic, there have been some very ingenious ways to keep the pests at bay.
Here are a couple of things that worked for me this past summer that you might find of interest.
If you take a clay pot, put a cork in the bottom and then fill it with water. You will notice the water wicks out through the untreated clay. It occurred to me that if I buried a clay pot up to the rim and filled it full of water, it would provide a constant source of moisture for the plants. It worked! I also put a close-fitting plate inside, upside down, with a piece of nursery cloth underneath it for two reasons: the upside down plate channeled all the rainwater into the pot and the nursery cloth kept the mosquitos from breeding in the water in the pot. I also put a 5-gallon bucket in my garden with several drip hoses installed at the bottom and this, too, worked well to provide a constant watering.
I don't know about you but iguanas are a gardener's real heartbreak. You work for months and just when things are starting to look good, you come out one morning and your plant is denuded of flowers and sometimes most of the leaves. Keeping iguanas out is a problem in the Keys. While I am not advocating it, if you are going to do it, the only way to kill an iguana humanely is to put a pellet through its eye which enters the brain and kills it instantaneously. If being the great white hunter doesn't appeal to you, what worked for me was to stake a perimeter around the garden with metal poles and connect the tops with a stretched piece of wire. Then I clothespinned nursery cloth in a four-sided tent around my garden and secured the bottom with heavy objects like bricks. The iguanas cannot climb up the loose fabric and it was 100 percent effective at keeping iguanas out.
and Other Flying Critters
Tie strips of yellow surveyors ribbon (plastic, non-adhesive ribbon available from the hardware store) all around your garden. This attracts whiteflies. Spray, paint or dip the yellow strips (6 to 8 inches long) with olive oil. The flies are attracted to the yellow and the sticky olive oil does the rest.
I hope you have a great growing season and your bountiful and hopefully organic production is as much a treat to grow as it is to eat.
If you come across any good ideas let me know and I'll pass them along in this column.