10 plants for your South Florida Summer Garden!

Yes! It's that time of year where we annual and veggie growers stand from our kitchen windows looking out at the dark sky and wonder how much more rain and abuse our gardens can really endure. The fact is that growing in South Florida can be extremely rewarding, AND brutal at the same time.  Our sometimes threatening climate can be stressful for many at home gardeners (flooding? pests? high night-time temperatures?) and unlike much of the rest of the continental U.S., the summer for us is not peak season for annuals.  The summer garden requires flexibility, and a grow-with-the-season attitude.

We're transitioning our own gardens at the moment, and over the summer I emphasize soil health, and garden versatility. At home, you have some leniency of what your gardens can look like, but in a public setting, we strive to make sure our gardens are functional, maintainable, and still attractive.

Here are a few summertime champions that I like to incorporate into my transitioning space but the list only just begins here! For a more complete list, contact us or visit the extension website for the list on Florida gardening: IFAS extension garden guide

Harvest of Summer grown sweet potatoes

Don't expect spinach, broccoli or even most tomatoes this time of year. Nope! Now is the time of year to get creative. Adapting your garden to the seasons is something we should all be doing- it's less work for us, and better for our landscapes (and it's delicious). Summer weather means new recipes, tropical varieties and tons of flavor.

1. Eggplant
Eggplant is a perfect plant for the South Florida summer garden. They are heavy producers, require little maintenance, and add color to your space! I like to grow small varieties, such as the Thai Lavender Frog Egg, but there are so many kinds that work well for summer in South Florida. Many of the eggplant's relatives, such as peppers and tomatoes, have issues with our humidity and high night time temperatures this time of year.  The wet air makes the pollen stick, so they have a hard time getting pollinated. No pollination, no fruit. With Eggplant, that won't be a problem!
*Great for a raised bed or container.

2. Okra
It's time to embrace southern cooking!  Okra, a member of the hibiscus family, malvaceae, is a summer time stunner.  It can get very big, produces heavy and its flowers are a great source of pollen for our flying friends.  Harvest the okra pods young (about the length of a finger), to reduce the slime, and for more tenderness. I personally prefer the spineless varieties, and there are crimson varieties that are gorgeous in the garden as well!
*Great for a raised bed or container.

Okra flower & fruit

3. Amaranth, shiso as spinach
Just because we can't grow kale and lettuce right now, doesn't mean we can't grow greens!  Tropical spinach varieties like shiso, and amaranth make a perfect substitute. Amaranth, traditionally grown as a grain has delicate (and pretty), leaves that you can add to a saut├ęs. As for Sisho, it's an asian green and can come variegated, in purple, and lime green. Shiso is under the genus Perilla, and related to mint.  Try these two out if you're missing your fresh garden greens. Beware the re-seeding amaranth, it's a prolific one.
*Great for a raised bed or container.

4. Garlic chives & scallions
I know you'll be missing some of those winter herbs, but the flavor doesn't have to end with the cool season. Garlic chives, regular chives and scallions will make it through most of the summer. The chive varieties propagate easily by clumping, and scallions are fun to re-grow from kitchen scraps.  Easy & rewarding!
*Great for a raised bed or container.

5. Zinnia
Zinnia is the summer time WINNER in my book.  Zinnias are big, beautiful, colorful, low-maintenance, pollinator friendly, and there are so many varieties. I love to start beginner gardeners with zinnias because they are really one of the most rewarding flowers we can grow. While we can, and do grow them year round, I like to reserve the summer garden space for them, so that I can get huge crop of beautiful flowers when I don't have to share space with my cool weather plants.  I grow heirloom varieties, and I encourage you to do the same- there are many to choose from. Don't discount sunflowers for your summer garden either!
*Great for a raised bed, or in ground.

'Peppermint Stick' zinnia in foreground, 'California giant' zinnia in background

6. Sweet Potato
Did you know that the leaves of sweet potato are edible? Use them as a substitute for greens too- just make sure they are cooked! I prefer sweet potato for large open areas of the garden.  I especially love them for raised beds, because in a few months, you can easily harvest the sweet potato roots, and your raised beds will be ready for fall planting.  Usually, I like to plant mine in July, and harvest at the end of September, just as cool weather growing season is kicking off.  Sweet potatoes give you the freedom to plant them and almost forget about them, which is kind of what we need in the summer garden. Just beware, they grow fast, and do appreciate some pruning. The more you prune the tops, the more root production you'll get. I highly recommend sweet potatoes for school gardens as the gardens tend to go dormant with help over the summer.  Having sweet potatoes fill the beds will minimize weeds and keep the beds growing. In the fall, you can harvest the roots with students. It's literal buried treasure!
Another bonus of sweet potato, is that you can plant your kitchen scraps, and get a crop from those. If you'd rather a tried and true method, you can order sweet potato slips.
*Great for raised bed, or as a ground cover in a large space.

Sweet potato harvest from one of our school gardens last summer from a 4x8 bed

7. Thai Basil & African Blue Basil
Don't even bother with the Italian sweet basil this time of year. Focus your energy on Thai varieties, and my personal favorite, African Blue Basil.  The flowers are amazing for pollinators, and you will get both disease resistance and heavy production. These varieties are perfect for our summer climate. *Great for in ground, planted as a perennial, but can be grown in a pot or raised bed.

8. Lemon Grass
What's not to like about lemon grass? It makes a stunning buffer (I have an affinity for grasses in a landscape, but thats a topic for another day) and it's so easy to grow!  Plant your lemon grass where it can act as the thriller of your garden because it's tall and bushy! Lemongrass will grow large quickly, but can be managed by dividing the root sections, making it perfect to share with friends. Lemon grass oil is great for DIY mosquito repellent, flavoring Thai dishes, and more. Keeping it as a perennial is something to consider when planting it.  Great for in ground, spacious area of the garden.  I've also grown it in pots to manage its size.

Lemongrass with a banana peaking out in the background for size reference

9. Roselle &  Cranberry hibiscus
Roselle has many names, such as jamica, Jamaican hibiscus,  flor de Jamaica, etc.  and is grown for its calyx.  The calyx is the part of the flower that protects the bud and eventually seed, and it's the part that is harvested and used for tea. As a member of the hibiscus family, roselle can get tall, and produces gorgeous pollen filled blooms.  This one needs space so it is not recommended for raised beds.
Cranberry hibiscus, also a member of the hibiscus family, produces deeply colored red leaves, that taste like cranberries! I love to add them to salads or teas. This one is also a bush type, so plant in a place that you have space.

10. Cover Crops
YES! Cover crops.  What are cover crops you ask?  Only the most important part of the South Florida summer garden! There comes a time in all gardens that we need to reflect and repair the space. Cover crops will do that for you with minimal work.  After the main growing season, or even after a short summer season, you can remove all of your crops and seed your bare beds with cover crops.  In zone 10b, I like to use buckwheat, sun hemp, clover, sesame and marigold for cover crop.  They will add nutrients and fix beneficial relationships in the soil, prepping it for next season.  These soil fixers require nothing more that direct sow and water to establish. Let them go unbothered for up to 6 weeks, and chop them down and leave them in place (we call this practice chop & drop, or living mulch).  As the cover crop begin to break down, it will return more nutrients back into the soil. Cover crops are perfect for people who don't want to bother with a summer garden. However, all gardeners should familiarize themselves with soil amendments. If you need more information on cover crops, spend some time on YouTube, reach out to local organizations, talk to a farmer, or each out to me and I'm happy to help!

As the Learning Garden isn't currently open to the public, it's a perfect and necessary time to give those beds a break and replenish for the fall. This year I've planted a mix of clover, buckwheat and marigold.

buckwheat cover crop flowering 

It's best to purchase seeds and starter plants from local places, because these are conditioned to our climate, and likely will perform better. I'm always an advocate for doing your own research, so a good place to start is this resource list from Little River Cooperative Little River Cooperative Resource List.  I get some of my seed from them, and some garden material, too! They're a great organization for us in South Florida and full of knowledge.

If you have any questions about a more in depth South Florida Summer Garden, comment away or reach out to us on social media!


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