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Gardening in the Florida Panhandle – Why is it SO HARD?

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Bruce the Bad writes to ask why gardening in the Florida panhandle just isn’t working out:

Help!

Retired pre-pandemic in the Florida mountains. Northern Walton County, elevation 300+ ft. Zone 8ish. Pine and cedar are the old established trees, some small hardwood and lots of yaupon holly, wild grapes, poison ivy. 

Have been unable to establish a productive garden/food forest on our 5A hobby farm/homestead.

Found your book this year and have started containerized (gardens) in 5,10 and 20 gal fabric grow bag. With a small greenhouse and 400Sq tilled garden plot. Compost with chicken, goat, horse. Have been raking up and burning pine needles to reduce fire risk.

Lemon trees died, mulberry and plum trees look sickly. 6 inch tall Fig trees still in pots in the greenhouse to plant this spring.

3 of the 5 acres are goat pens another acre is county road right away. Half of the remaining acre is full shade under larger old pines.

House, carport, pool, chicken house, greenhouse and garden make up the rest.

What am I doing wrong?

Let’s see if we can help.

The Location

Retired pre-pandemic in the Florida mountains. “

Ah-ha, a transplant to one of the most difficult Florida biomes for gardeners – the miserable soil of pine lands, far enough from the ocean to experience temperatures down in the teens, yet deep enough south to suffer temperatures over 100 in Summer.

This is a rough area for gardening. Florida’s highest point, Britton Hill, is located in Walton County, measuring in at an altitude sickness inducing height of 345′ above sea level.

That height also doesn’t help with the climate, as it’s more extreme in winter.

There are some really nice places to garden in Florida, like the fertile area south of Okeechobee where the climate is almost totally tropical, and Ft. Myers, near the ocean, where mangoes and moringa and pineapple can be grown without protection. Or the Redlands area, south of Miami, where you can grow all the bounty of the tropical Caribbean.

Yet Walton County is not like that. It’s too cold, and too hot. This means your temperate species suffer in the summer, and more tropical species are killed in the winter.

The Soil

Pine and cedar are the old established trees, some small hardwood and lots of yaupon holly, wild grapes, poison ivy. 

Alas, these species love terrible, acid soil. If you have pine, cedar and yaupon holly, it indicates that your soil is less-than-suitable for most agriculture. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, it just means that everything is uphill.

On the upside, blueberries should grow well – especially rabbiteye types.

YouTuber Florida Bullfrog does only small patches of gardening at his poor, acid soil farm in North Florida. Instead, he focuses on raising chickens, turkeys and guineafowl for abundant eggs and meat. Since you already have goats, you might get the idea. Animals are easier to raise in these conditions than gardens. Tough breeds of chickens, ducks, cows, pigs, sheep and yes, goats, can make sense. Fence some animals in, let them forage through the scrub, then get eggs or meat or milk or all of the above.

As for gardening, it’s not actually impossible – it’s just hard. We spent two years gardening in similar conditions in Lower Alabama. We had some luck with burying biochar and with deep mulching, and managed to start getting some decent yields. However, our yields went way up when we moved to a place with better soil.

That said, the primary issue with your pineland soil is that it needs lime. Lots of lime. Probably more than you think. I’ve seen lovely green pastures established on what was terrible pine soil, thanks to good liming. Use pulverized limestone, like the cattle farmers use, and in a year or less, you’ll start to see results.

And compost everything! That soil needs organic matter as well. Ours was less than 2%, and that’s terrible for plants trying to get nutrients from the soil.

Other Considerations

Found your book this year and have started containerized (gardens) in 5,10 and 20 gal fabric grow bag. With a small greenhouse and 400Sq tilled garden plot. Compost with chicken, goat, horse. Have been raking up and burning pine needles to reduce fire risk.

Container gardens are fine, but you have lots of land. I recommend you learn how to garden right in the ground. Are there any gardeners in your area? I would try to meet them, and see what they’re doing! Or watch some of our old videos from The Sandpit of Death, where we lived from 2020 – 2022. This is the full playlist.

Also, compost from animal manures can completely wreck your gardens, as North Florida farms are riddled with Grazon and other long-term herbicides.

Be very careful, unless you’re growing your own animal feed. I don’t take manure from anyone else, either, unless he is not buying in hay off-site and raising his animals on ground never sprayed with long-term herbicides.

As for the pine needles, that makes sense; however, you might consider using them to mulch some blueberries instead.

Tree Problems

Lemon trees died, mulberry and plum trees look sickly. 6 inch tall Fig trees still in pots in the greenhouse to plant this spring.

Though the Meyer lemon is moderately cold-hardy, the freezes in your area will kill them every few years if they’re not well-protected. They’re good into the 20s, but you’ll hit the teens sometimes, like what happened this last winter in December.

The mulberry and the plums probably need some lime and a lot of mulch around their bases. That helps a lot.

Figs like to be fed with ashes and also appreciate deep mulch.

 

Final Thoughts

What am I doing wrong?

It’s probably a combination of soil and climate more than you, though if your manure is contaminated with herbicides, that can also cause a lot of damage and stop your trees and gardens cold.

My advice:

  1. Build the soil and garden in the ground, as you can see us do with our Grocery Row Gardening videos. We added lime, biochar, ashes, alfalfa and “clean” cow manure, as well as planted lots of cover crops – particularly black-eyed peas, winter rye and clover – to improve the ground. We also made swamp water to feed the plants.
  2. Once the soil is a little better, plant plants that thrive in Florida. Sweet potatoes, turnips, true yams, okra, Seminole pumpkins, black-eyed peas, Everglades tomatoes and yard-long beans. That will give you plenty of food.

That’s most of it.

Just build your soil – and don’t be afraid of foliar feeding – and then base your gardens around plants that will thrive in your climate.

If we did it, you can do it. You’ve not even that far away from us.

Good luck, and thank you for writing.

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