Gardening 101 in the Sunshine State

Florida is called the Sunshine State for good reason. However, the heat and humidity can be a challenge for growing everything from roots to roses. That shouldn’t deter you, though, because you can create a fantastic garden in just about any space inside or out if you plan carefully. And let’s be honest – there is something really satisfying about growing your own food or tending your own garden. Not everyone has the luxury of time or space for a giant garden, though. With a little creativity and innovative thinking, however, gardening is a fulfilling pursuit that is accessible to everyone.  

Florida offers the benefit of indoor/outdoor living all year long, so why not make the most of it? So, let’s dig into helpful tips on how to get your garden growing. 

Know Your Zone

Person planting flowers in container garden box.

You need to understand the growing conditions of your area if you want to create any type of outdoor garden. Weather and climate conditions play a huge part in what to plant and when.  

Florida has three main growing zones: North, Central, and South. All of our Garden Communities properties in Florida fall within the Central Florida range. This means the following when it comes to gardening: 

  • Experiences frosts and light freezes in January and February 
  • Brief moments of fall in November and December 
  • Spring exists in March and April 
  • Mostly warm and humid throughout the year. 

Very little is more beautiful than a flower garden. But when it comes to flowers in Florida, heat and humidity are killers, as is the sandy soil. If you want to make it easy on yourself, plant flowers and other plants native to the region. Besides being less work overall, it’s better for the environment and will attract colorful guests like butterflies and hummingbirds.  

If you don’t go with native plants, you’ll want to make sure whatever you plant is heat-, salt- and sand-tolerant, wind-resistant, and can handle torrential rains and periods of drought. Sandy soil is nutrient poor and is very common in Florida. When in doubt, go native.  

Want some ideas on what to plant? Here are 21 flowers that will bloom all year in Florida: 

  • Aster 
  • Begonia 
  • Blue Daze 
  • Bougainvillea 
  • Bulbine 
  • Firespike 
  • Gerbera Daisies 
  • Hibiscus 
  • Ixora 
  • Knockout Roses 
  • Lantana 
  • Mexican Heather 
  • Night Blooming Jasmine 
  • Oleander 
  • Pentas 
  • Petunias 
  • Plumbago 
  • Salvia 
  • Spurred Butterfly Pea 
  • Star Jasmine 
  • Vinca 

Of course, this only pertains to an outdoor garden. If you are looking for an indoor garden, read on.  

Fruits, Roots, and Vegetables  

Raised wooden vegetable garden with declerative rocks around it.

That pesky sandy, salty soil makes food gardening in the Sunshine State a challenge, which is why, if you want to have a backyard outdoor garden, you’ll want to go with raised beds or vertical gardens. Why raised bed gardens? In addition to the poor soil quality, there are plenty of soil-borne plant diseases and nematodes, both of which will destroy your plants.  

Follow these tips when choosing where to place your garden bed: 

  • Location: Near a water source or garden hose 
  • Direction: North to south OR east to west 
  • Exposure: A minimum 6 – 8 hours of full sun daily 
  • Plant far away from trees  
  • Size: Make beds accessible from all sides  
  • Width – beds up to 5 feet wide  
  • Length – as long as you need   

Hint: Never walk on raised bed soil. 

When planting, avoid using topsoil and instead go for composted cow manure or plain old compost. You can also use traditional potting soil.  

While you want to space out your plants, use your space wisely. Keep in mind, larger plants like tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, eggplants, collards, and broccoli need about 1 square foot per plant. Medium size plants such as leaf lettuce, beans, and spinach can be planted 4 plants per square foot. Smaller plants such as carrots, green onions, and radishes can have 16 plants per square foot.  Sweet potatoes need a lot of space and should have their own bed. 

Vertical Gardens (Outdoor)  

Multiple small containers with strawberry plants mounted on exterior wall.

Another option for outdoor space is vertical gardening (which you can do indoors as well). This type of gardening utilizes upright structures like fences, trellises, and wall-mounted garden planters. Plenty of plants thrive in vertical gardens, like cucumbers, pole beans and peas, vine tomatoes, and vine-growing melons, squash, and gourds.  

Need some ideas of what to grow? Here are 15 best crops to plant in your vertical vegetable garden: 

  • Cucumbers 
  • Tomatoes 
  • Peas 
  • Summer Squash 
  • Pole Beans 
  • Peppers 
  • Jicamas 
  • Pumpkins 
  • Cantaloupes 
  • Watermelons 
  • Strawberries 
  • Grapes 
  • Greens – kale, Swiss shard, spinach, cabbage, lettuce 

No matter which way you choose to plant, remember to place taller plants on the northern end to avoid leaving smaller plants in the dark.  

Container Gardening 

Detailed shot of various vegetable plants thriving in a container with hooks suspended from a railing.

Container and pot gardening are the way to go for balconies and indoor plants. You can grow just about any veggie in a container, and this is a time when getting dwarf varietals is especially helpful, as they take up less space. As for rules, the same rules apply to balcony gardens as backyard gardens – you need good sunlight, good soil, and plenty of water.  

Pick your plants wisely and keep in mind how much space you have. Larger plants have larger root systems, so if you choose a plant that requires lots of room to spread out and grow, it’s likely not going to fare well in a pot or a container. Fear not, though. This is where dwarf plants can really come in handy, as they are simply smaller versions of their counterparts.  

GCFL Tip: While veggies may be more difficult to grow in containers and pots, herbs like basil, dill, cilantro, and parsley do exceptionally well in them.  

One of the benefits of container gardening is you can move your plants indoors and outdoors, if and when necessary. You can also replant them and replenish the soil easily, which helps to prevent diseases. Another huge benefit is cost saving. If you grow your own food, you don’t need to buy as much. Simple math.  

Here are some crops you can grow in containers: 

  • French Bean 
  • Beet – Babby Ball 
  • Cabbage – Baby Pixie 
  • Carrot –  Little finger, Parisian, Round Romeo, Atlas 
  • Cauliflower – Snowball 
  • Cucumber – Very Kuhl, Spacemaster, Bush Champion 
  • Eggplant – Bambino, Pot Black 
  • Kale – Dwarf Blue Curled 
  • Lettuce – Tom Thumb, Little Gem, Bambi, Claremont 
  • English Pea – Little Marvel, Half Pint 
  • Pumpkin – Jack Be Little, Small Sugar, Baby Boo 
  • Tomato – Patio, Small Fry, Tiny Tim 

Dwarf varieties are available for a number of these plants, and they produce plenty of food while taking up a lot less space.  

As for herbs, you can grow pretty much any herb you want in containers.  

To get your container garden going, follow these tips: 

  1. Make sure your container has good drainage. 
  1. When planting seeds directly into a pot, fill the container almost to the brim with soil, leaving a small gap of around two inches for mulch.  
  1. When transplanting plants, add a few inches of soil to the container before placing the plant inside. Position the plant’s base at the top of the container and fill the remaining space around the transplant with soil.  
  1. Avoid compacting the soil as this will restrict the roots’ ability to spread. Loose soil is essential for the optimal growth and development of plants.  
  1. The best time to plant is in spring and fall. Avoid planting in summer. 

Vertical Gardens (Indoors) 

Indoor vertical garden with variety of both flowering and vegetable plants.

As with containers and pots, vertical gardens allow you to bring the outdoors inside. And they are ideal if you don’t have the outdoor space appropriate for a garden. Also, as with containers and pots, vertical gardens mean fewer items at the checkout counter and more money in your wallet.  

Indoor vertical gardens have a different set of conditions and challenges to outdoor vertical gardens. For one thing, they aren’t exposed to the same environmental conditions, they often have to rely on artificial light, and they typically need more frequent watering because of drier air. As a result, not all plants can grow in vertical gardens.  

But then, what can grow in them?  

Plenty! Herbs, flowers, berries, succulents, and tropical plants, plus roots and veggies like summer and winter squash, cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, and peas.  

There are clear advantages of vertical gardens. For one, you can grow more with less. Because you can control the environment, you can also control possible pest and disease issues more easily, which typically means a higher yield overall. And they are just plain pretty. Plus, plants do that wonderful thing of making oxygen, so they will actually make your air cleaner.  

Wall Gardens (or Living Walls) 

Artistic, decorative wall garden mounted on wall above couch.

Wall gardens (AKA living walls) do double duty as decorative pieces as well as functional food producers. Like the name suggests, wall gardens grow on a wall (or in pots on shelves on a wall). And much like vertical gardens, they take up minimal floor space and help purify the air. But they have the bonus of beautifying your space as well.  

Some plants that thrive on living walls are ivy, spider plants, peace lily, lucky bamboo, creeping jenny, inch plant, pothos, and philodendron, not to mention plenty of herbs. Just be careful what you plant and where. Putting a succulent next to a water-loving plant will not end well for either plant. Light requirements must also be a consideration.  

As for what to plant and when, this handy calendar from Urban Farmer will give you everything you need to know.  

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are living in a rental unit, be sure to contact your property management before you do any planting or hanging anything on walls. Each property has its own policies and procedures pertaining to gardening and growing plants both inside and outside the apartment.