Gardening in Florida can have its challenges. The heat, humidity, insects and diseases can get the best of even the most experienced gardener. But after 15 years of gardening in USDA zone 8, Detlef Vandermeer has learned to love it. "I've gardened in Colorado, Nevada, Oklahoma and Texas before settling in Florida," say Detlef. "I like gardening here best because I can grow food year-round," he says.
It's easy to see where Detlef gets his gardening passion. His father was a Dutch immigrant and horticulturist. He worked for Van Bourgondien Bulbs in New York for years. "I remember following my dad around the fields trying to help," says Detlef. Sadly, Detlef's dad died of liver cancer. "I think working with all those chemicals in the fields for years contributed to him dying young," says Detlef. "Since then, I've sworn to garden organically," he says.
Though gardening organically has it challenges, Detlef has experimented and found what works best. He has a 2,500-square-foot organic vegetable garden with raised beds, a fruit tree orchard and a wildflower meadow on a 30-acre horse farm.
Florida's temperate climate allows Detlef to grow three vegetable crops a year. In spring he starts with cool-season crops, such as lettuce, asparagus and radishes. The summer garden consists of tomatoes, melons, eggplant, peppers, squash and cucumbers. Come September, he's planting cool-season crops again, such as cabbage, broccoli, greens and radishes. Detlef's fruit orchard consists of common fruits, such as peaches, pears, cherries, apples and blueberries, as well as some uncommon ones, such as pomegranates.
Detlef particularly likes his tomatoes. He grows a dozen varieties and loves the beefsteak types for sandwiches. "I plant my tomatoes only 8 inches apart to save space and get a bigger harvest," says Detlef. To keep the tomatoes upright he uses the Tomato Spirals. "I have about 50 spirals and all I have to do is guide the tomato shoots through the spirals. No need for tying," he says. Detlef attaches the spirals together with a wire and then fastens the wire to end posts. "Even during an intense thunderstorm or hurricane my tomatoes don't blow over," he says.
Detlef also loves potatoes but has a hard time growing them in the ground because of fire ants. "My solution is to grow potatoes in barrels," he says. "I have 12 potato barrels set up and now I have no problems with ants and get lots of potatoes," he says.
"When I first started gardening here, the land was all pine trees, grass and weeds," says Detlef. "The first thing I did was buy mushroom compost. I like the mushroom compost because it has few weed seeds," he says. Now Detlef revitalizes his growing beds each year with composted horse manure and organic fertilizer. "I also like using the organic Energy Buttons," he says. "Before I just used compost and while everything grew OK, I noticed a big jump in production, and a reduction in chlorosis, when I started using the Energy Buttons," he says. Detlef sprinkles organic fertilizer on the beds each spring, and adds supplemental doses throughout the growing season.
Insects are usually a big problem in Florida gardens, but Detlef has them licked. "The key is balance," he says. "I released a bunch of ladybugs years ago and now they live in my garden eating aphids," he says. Detlef still periodically has to handpick cabbageworms or trap slugs in his homemade beer traps, but generally nature takes care of itself. "I like to encourage birds, lizards and skinks in my garden and let them eat the bugs," says Detlef. "I even let the chickens in every once in awhile," he says.
His strategy for handling disease problems is to simply remove diseased plants early. "I always plant more than I need so I can lose a few plants," says Detlef. He also relies on beneficial nematodes. "Every few years I spray beneficial nematodes on the soil to help fight the bad nematodes we have. The good guys keep the bad ones at bay," he says.
While it has taken time to adjust to gardening in Florida, Detlef enjoys the rewards nearly every day of the year. "I have a strong sense of pride while eating Sunday dinner, knowing I grew all the produce and it's all safe and organic," he says. Clearly, earth-friendly gardening makes good sense all the way around.
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