Lessons From The Econ Farm

The central theme of Simple Living Institute Inc.’s mission is education. The Econ Farm is used for educational purposes in a variety of ways. Of course we demonstrate gardening methods and educate attendees about Florida’s ecosystem and farming environment in our Econ Farm Workshops. However, we also use the Econ Farm to develop Central Florida gardening best-practices, with the hopes of sharing them with you!
Below are answers to common questions Central Florida gardeners and would-be gardeners have asked our Farming Expert, Tia Silvasy. If you have a question that you would like to see included here, please do not hesitate to contact us!

Where to get dirt?
The best way to get dirt is to make your own by composting, but for those who need it immediately, go to the dump! In Orlando there is great dirt you can use for garden beds or potted plants available. At the Orange County Landfill, off of Dean Road and Curry Ford Road, yard waste compost is available for free! So bring your pickup and a shovel, buckets, and containers and load it up! The landfill is open daily from 8am to 5pm. To get to the compost, bypass the scales and make your first left off the main road when you see the big pile of dirt. Warning: This compost is not certified organic (or certified anything!) and small amounts of plastic or glass may be mixed in, so wear gloves.

How to Compost?
Composting is the process of breaking down organic matter until it becomes dirt or compost. Composting has many benefits including improving soil structure and nutrition, holding water, attracting beneficial microorganisms and more. There are many contraptions available that hold the compost and aid in the process, but fundamentally it’s very simple and can be done with nothing more than a pitchfork or shovel. The most technologically advanced composting method uses composting worms and is called vermiculture. There is a vermiculture farm in northwest Orlando called Vital Earth and they sell worm bins and worms. Worm composting is the fastest, most efficient method, and yields the highest quality compost and fertilizer.

To compost without worms, just take all your kitchen scraps, grass clippings, go get some manure (or not), and mix it up in a big pile. Make sure you do not leave any food scraps uncovered or it will attract pests. Also, do not use any meat scraps (egg shells are ok). Let your compositng pile sit for about 3 months, and turn or mix the pile every week. The compost is ready for your garden when it is a rich black or dark brown. You can use it for new plantings, or mix it in with existing beds to enrich the soil.

Some people prefer the three-bin method where you start one bin the first week and let it compost, add any new stuff to the second bin during the second week and let it compost, and then start a third bin the third week. By time you’re finished with the third bin, the first bin should be ready. The three-bin method also makes it easy to do your weekly mixing by incorporating rotating bins. There is tons of information on the web for basic concepts to fancy gadgets. For backyard gardeners, I recommend putting food scraps for composting in a large Tupperware container in the refrigerator and emptying it once a week into your compost pile, being sure to turn the new scraps into the pile.

What and When to Plant in Florida?
The best reference book on this subject is available at our office downtown and titled Month-by-Month Gardening in Florida written by Tom MacCubbin. There are three growing seasons in Florida. First, the spring planting is done in January and February for crops such as broccoli, onions, beans, peas, carrots, lettuce, and other cool weather crops. The second spring planting is March and April for warm season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn, squash, and melons. For summertime, meaning June, July, August, and early September, you have two options. #1: Replenish your garden by adding manure and mulch #2: Grow summer veggies such as sweet potato, okra, cassava, and others that can survive 100°F+ temperatures. Your third season mirrors the first season, plant warm weather crops from September to mid-October and cool weather crops October through December.

What Kind of Fruits Can I Grow?
Central Florida is a zone 9 subtropical climate which means the lows can reach around 30°F. There is a wide variety of fruits that can be grown in this climate including blueberries, pineapple, papaya, bananas, fig, citrus, guava, blackberries, strawberries, some varieties of tropical fruits, and Florida varieties of apple, pear, and peach. Most fruit trees need full sun and should be planted in the fall or spring. The Tropical Fruit Club meets monthly at East End Market and is a great resource.