10 Mistakes Florida Gardeners Make

Everyone makes mistakes, including myself. The problem is that rather than learn from those mistakes, self-proclaimed 'Black Thumbs' get turned off to gardening just because they kill a few plants and never give it another chance. Things are totally different in Florida, so cut yourself some slack and listen up: Here's a short guide to gardening in Florida for newbies and master gardeners alike.

Planting Vegetables at the Wrong Time of Year
When it comes to vegetables, the normal rules don't apply here in Florida. While folks in northern states are planting cool season crops in spring, we should already be planting 'summer crops' like tomatoes and corn. The information on the seed packets is often incorrect, lumping Florida in with regions as far north as Arkansas. To top it all off, there's a big difference between planting times in north Florida, where lows reach 15 degrees in places; and South Florida, where freezing temperatures are extremely rare.

Lettuce is a winter plant in Florida, and will bolt and turn bitter in the heat.
I'll give you an overview of what to plant throughout the year. Here in Florida, winter is a great time to garden. In north Florida (zone 8b) and central Florida (zone 9) you can grow carrots, cabbage, kale, lettuce and just about all of the cool season crops; while In south Florida (zone 10) you can even grow warm-season veggies like corn, tomatoes, squashes, peppers and beans. Those are the vegetables that zones 8-9 can begin growing in March after the last frost. Summer is so hot that only okra, hot peppers, eggplant, yard long beans, peanuts and a few other vegetables will thrive. In September and August, all Floridians can start planting warm and cool season crops again.

Growing Ornamental Plants that Won't Work Here
As mentioned above, the rules are different in Florida and vary dramatically throughout the state. On one hand, you might be tempted to grow such favorites as daffodils, hostas or Japanese maples, which need cold winters. There's nothing wrong with experimenting, especially if you find hybrids and selections that can handle it, or if you're willing to grow the tender plants in pots or protect them in winter.

Don't even think about growing tulips in Florida. If you must have them, order some cut flowers.
It becomes a problem when you're sold a plant or bulb with the understandable assumption that it will grow here. My local Lowes locations are stocked with loads of the same tropical plants that they sell in zone 9b Central Florida, and while I relish the opportunity to push their limits here in zone 9a, most shoppers just assume they're fine and plant them fully exposed to the elements in their front yard. Check out this USDA map and know your zone. Then check the labels and make an informed decision.

Growing Vegetables and Fruits that Won't Work Here
Have you ever planted a tomato that seemed to die a slow and painful death despite your best efforts? Maybe you found a pear tree at the garden center and ended up finding a buzzard roosting on its branches instead of a partridge. Some fruits, such as pears, cherries, apples and berries, require however many hours of cold (below 50) temperatures in winter, but you might be able to find some rootstocks that don't need as much cold. Many tropical fruits, on the other hand, require temperatures above freezing or even warmer. A good example of a tropical fruit that won't grow in much of Florida is mangosteen, which is killed below 40 degrees and is highly sensitive to the native soils of extreme south Florida - the only place warm enough for it to survive. If you're serious about growing fruit in Florida, I recommend the book Florida's Best Fruiting Plants.

Tomatoes will grow well here, but choose varieties that are resistant to heat, nematodes and wilt diseases
Another common problem is trying to grow vegetables that aren't resistant to diseases and pests in our area. For example, here's something that I've been doing wrong for some time: Growing tomatoes that aren't resistant to nematodes. Nematodes sound like an alien race that's hellbent on destroying the world, but that's only partially true. Nematodes are hellbent on destroying your vegetable garden. Wilt diseases are also common in our soil, and make it look like the plant needs water when it really just needs to be put out of its misery. To choose appropriate tomatoes and peppers, you can download an iPhone app by Bonnie Plants called HomeGrown (featuring my illustrations!) that takes the guesswork out of things. Here's another list of good tomato choices for Florida.

Buying Unhealthy Plants 
If you've ever purchased a plant that started going downhill the minute you brought it home, the plant was probably a goner to begin with. While there are exceptions, big-box retailers are especially bad about selling plants that have been poorly cared for, or in some cases, are already dead. One time I visited a Wally World with a whole section of the parking lot devoted to selling off plants for shoppers with spring fever, but unfortunately many of the plants were dying from spring fever: Houseplants and landscape plants that require lots of shade were placed right in the searing sun of the parking lot. I even saw some of these 'dead plants walking' in a shopper's cart, along with Miracle-Gro - presumably with the misguided notion that it would magically bring them back to life.

Don't ever buy plants with pests like this Japanese beetle hitching a ride (From Bonnie Plants' Homegrown app)
You can avoid buying dying plants a few ways. First, find a garden center that you can trust to properly care for their plants. I shop at my local Hagan Ace, and there are many other reputable garden centers here in Jacksonville; Trad's Garden Center being my favorite. If you're shopping at a big box store, test the waters by asking the staff questions about the plants. Wherever you shop, thoroughly inspect the plants to make sure that they're full and healthy without yellowed or limp foliage and that they have no pests. Gently wiggle the base of the plant: If it's loose, it's either weakly rooted or has rotted roots. Slip the plant out of the pot and inspect the roots. There should be enough roots that the mass of potting mix keeps its shape, but not so many roots that it's bound together in a hard, tangled mass. The roots should be white and firm, not brown, black and mushy.

Committing Crepe Murder
Have you ever seen crepe myrtle trees hacked down to bare, grotesque stumps in winter? This is crepe murder, which for some reason has really caught on here in North Florida. This deplorable practice weakens the tree, ruins the form and promotes a proliferation of weak excess stems that still manage to reach tree-height by summer. These stems are floppy enough to dangle over your car in the driveway and weak enough to fall on that car in a storm. Trees that are already doing poorly may spend their last gasp on that flush of new growth, and then die. When pollarding is done correctly on crepe myrtles, it's a major hassle at best, but to landscaping crews, it's no hassle at all to lop off the stems with power tools and move onto the next house, especially when their clients ask for the service to begin with. It also keeps them employed through winter, to which I can hardly object.

Here's the thing, though; you and your landscapers can and should prune crepe myrtles and other dormant trees in winter. It's an excellent time to prune out crossing, damaged or diseased branches, and it's also a good time to prune and shear any summer-flowering shrubs to promote extra blooms. Just put a note on your crepe myrtle and talk to your landscaper about other pruning tasks… while the saws are out, maybe they can remove a small tree or take out a tree limb that's too close to your house. When it comes to crepe myrtles; just choose smaller varieties, don't plant them too close to the house and continue pruning (correctly) in winter… or just choose a different shrub entirely. If you or your landscaper have already 'murdered' the form of your crape myrtle, the best thing to do is cut it back to the ground and continue to remove all but a few of the stems that come back.

This is the #1 killer of houseplants and potted plants because when a plant is doing poorly, your natural instinct is to give it a drink of water. But the plant is doing even worse now for some reason, so you decide that it needs another drink and continue the Chinese water torture until you're watering a dead plant. I've killed many a cactus this way - that is, before I decided to turn to a book for help.

Now that I've read many more books and even written one of my own, a lot of frustrated 'black thumbs' have sent me pictures of their own cacti sitting in a pot of water. Now I can confidently tell them "oh, I used to do that!" and offer advice. Sometimes the pot is to blame. If your plant has a pot without a drainage hole, the water has no way to drain away and instead sits there, rotting the roots.

Not Knowing what You're Growing
It seems like it would be pretty obvious, but you need to know what you're growing in the first place. Whenever I'm out plant shopping, I'm always sure to look the plant up on my phone or read about it at home before making any decisions. The plant might be invasive and weedy, or it might not do well in our area.

Because I took the time to learn about these plants, I know that they can live on this stump without any soil.
Look at the plant tag, make a note of it and learn more about that plant by using one of the resources at the end of this post. If possible, get the scientific (latin name) in italics so that you can get the most detailed and accurate info. Be sure to look at other details, such as height and width, moisture requirements, shade-tolerance and cold-tolerance. If you take the time to learn about what you're growing, you'll be all the more successful in your efforts.

Making Mulch Volcanoes
Much like 'crepe murder', this is a practice that needs to die - preferably faster than it takes for trees to die when encircled with one of these thick mounds of suffocating mulch. Mulch volcanoes look just like they sound, except the volcano is actually a huge mound of dumped mulch, and the plume of smoke and lava is replaced by the trunk of a doomed tree. Mulch is still a good thing when used properly; it prevents weed seeds from sprouting and conserves moisture. Unfortunately you don't really want to conserve moisture at the base of a tree because it promotes rotting and fungal infections. Use a thin layer of mulch around new tree plantings, but leave a gap against the trunk. Large, established trees don't need mulch because their roots make it difficult for weeds to get a foothold; just remove them occasionally as needed.

Growing Plants in the Wrong Place
Whenever someone asks me how to save their dying plant, my second question (after asking 'Which plant?') is usually 'Where in the garden is it growing?', followed by a string of related questions: 'Does it get a lot of sun, or is it under a tree? Does the soil stay soggy, or does it dry out quickly? Which other plants are doing well in that area? Is the soil acidic?' If the person is still there, that information makes it easy to find a solution.

If your yard has lots of puddles, choose plants that are tolerant of 'wet feet'.
When a plant is growing in good, fertile and well drained soil with the right amount of sunshine, it's sure to be healthy enough to combat pests and diseases much more easily than one grown in the wrong place. Though pesticides are the first solutions some people think to use, I have yet to use any myself. If the plant is grown in the right place, pesticides are rarely necessary.

Giving Up on Gardening
A 'black thumb' is just someone who has given up on growing plants. So you think you're bad at gardening because you killed a cactus or a tomato? I can guarantee that I've killed far more. Look - just because you can't grow a tomato to save your life doesn't mean you can't grow something easier or read up on tomatoes before trying again.

If you're going to give gardening another shot, do these things. First, read the above list. Already have? Okay, the next thing to do is read up on whatever you choose to grow, either online at davesgarden.com, floridata.com or edis.ifas.ufl.edu , or by picking up a book specifically geared towards our region. The Florida Gardener's Handbook is a good one, as is Florida Fruit and Vegetable Gardening. If you need an encyclopedic reference to plants, The Southern Living Garden Book is my go-to resource whenever I buy a new plant. Last, don't be afraid to ask for help. The Soiled Again Facebook group is a good place to meet other gardeners of all experience levels, and the University of Florida IFAS Extension has the most accurate information around. I'm happy to help as well. If you have a specific question, you're welcome to leave a comment, email me at steve_asbell@yahoo.com or contact me via Facebook message. If you need info on houseplants, I wrote just the book for you.


Please feel free to share your questions, ideas and suggestions!