Florida gardeners work the land to grow food, escape impact of COVID-19

As COVID-19 causes Florida residents to take shelter at home, many are turning to a long-standing favorite pastime: gardening. As in growing their own veggies, fruits, herbs, and flowers to provide a healthy boost to their tables and their mental well-being. 

Gardening is not only an enjoyable recreational pastime but it is also a useful one for self-sustenance in times of crisis. During World War I and World War II, families on the home front in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and elsewhere grew “victory gardens” to help provide food for their households and bolster morale.

A recent National Public Radio story reports on the nationwide spike in home gardens to help supplement food supplies, especially eggs and vegetables, during possible shortages and supply-line interruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a trend that Dr. William Lester, an agent with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) in Hernando County, is seeing throughout Central Florida these days, too.

“We’ve seen a big increase in interest in growing edibles,” he says. “I’m happy that there is a new interest in becoming more sustainable and producing more food at home.” Even when there isn’t a crisis going on, he adds, it behooves people to grow more of their own edible plants. “One of the biggest advantages is knowing exactly where your food came from and how it was grown. Many people are nervous about food safety, pesticide use, and how their food was handled, even though we have the safest food systems in the world.”

Budding gardeners must overcome hurdles 

Lester admits that gardening comes with challenges -- they’re often relatively small ones, but they’re enough to throw budding green thumbs for a loop. He says among the stymied new gardeners are northern transplants who to try to grow in Central Florida what they did back in New England or the Midwest.

“Planting times for vegetables are totally different here and fruits like apples, raspberries, and cherries will not produce here. If you plant the right crop at the wrong time here, things will not work out well in your garden.”

Proper timing and amending your soil with organic matter can help solve a world of problems that many new gardeners encounter in Central Florida. The basics would be timing and building up your soil with organic matter. Then there’s the matter of pests and disease.

“Learning how to identify and control [them] come with experience and study,” Lester says. He recommends reaching out to UF/IFAS for resources on what to grow, where, and when to grow it, and other important tips before digging and planting any seeds. 

“Every county in Florida has a UF/IFAS Extension office with experts who are there to help with everything from vegetable gardening to turf grass to enrolling your kids in a 4-H program. Our agents are available by phone or e-mail even now, and many are transitioning their in-person classes to online classes through videos, Facebook Live, and Zoom meetings.” 

Getting our hands dirty 

Many homeowners and apartment dwellers in the Tampa Bay Area and beyond have been finding more time and inspiration to get out in the yard or to community gardens.

Some are just trying to escape the bad news on TV and the Internet. But many also want to avoid the potential for long lines and empty shelves at the grocery store and thus want to grow their own food. Others want to help attract more pollinators – the critical insects that help ensure veggies, fruits, and other herbs grow properly. 

Heather Foster, a St. Petersburg artist, recently joined her longtime gardener boyfriend in their yard.

“The pandemic has given me much more time to spend in the garden since I have been working from home,” she says. She loves a variety of edibles, including the ornamental sea grape and fragrant lavender. “I found a recipe on Pinterest on how to make lavender lemonade to help reduce headaches and pain.”

She also loves growing basil, a versatile herb that can add a kick to various dishes. “I love being able to go outside and cut off a leaf or two to cook with -- fresh ingredients are always the best.” 

Also growing in their garden are 10 different types of peppers, hibiscus, plumeria, and an array of seasonal and annual flowers. “They help brighten the garden.”

They also have a butterfly garden measuring about four feet by five feet.

“In that garden, we have magnolia, milkweed, porter weed, and passion vine,” she says.

For Foster, that butterfly garden is a dream come true. “I’ve been talking about a butterfly garden for months and months, and now that I have more time, I finally have the butterfly garden I’ve been wanting.” 

Another butterfly garden is growing across the bay in Tampa at the home of Gloria Brooks. She heads up the Tampa Monarch Project, an organization she founded last year to help protect and preserve the distinctive white-spotted orange-and-black butterfly that swarms in migrations between the United States and Mexico. A beloved pollinator species, the monarch butterfly has suffered tremendous population losses in recent years. 

“During this time of isolation, my monarch garden has brought me so much peace. It is my hobby and passion, and I’m blessed to be able to find peace and enjoyment right in my own backyard.”

Brooks says starting a butterfly garden is easy.

“Simply by planting milkweed, monarchs will visit your garden! It is the only plant on which female monarchs will lay their eggs.”

Brooks shares her love of butterfly gardening with her children.

“My children have learned so much about the butterfly life cycle as well as the importance of pollinators in our environment. My family and students all love to go into the gardens and find eggs and caterpillars and watch them create their chrysalids -- seeing the life cycle over and over again is truly amazing and never gets old!” 

Going vertical, especially when land is limited 

Mckenzie Kennedy had been wanting to grow a garden for years, but until recently buying a home with ample land had only limited space.

“I’m planting fruits, veggies, and herbs all for consumption,” says the stay-at-home mom. She’s also learned much about what to do -- and not to do -- to have a successful garden.

“Don’t forget to water your plants!” she says. “I’m super forgetful so that’s the biggest thing for me to remember. She also adds another key to gardening: “Be patient!” 

And while she enjoys having plenty of room to roam, she hasn’t forgotten her roots in working within tighter quarters. She continues using vertical garden methods that help make the most efficient use of space and also adds some crafty flair to her roomy garden.

“The pallets are awesome,” Kennedy says of several upcycled pallets that she has repurposed as tall, slender containers for growing a variety of herbs and spices, including cilantro, thyme, basil, oregano, sage, and chamomile, among others. “The pallets would be great for someone living in an apartment or condo.” 

Amber Garcia Hand may have a suburban spread in St. Cloud near Orlando, but she has found vertical gardening to be a wonderful way to maximize space while minimizing back pain in the garden.

“A stacked planter is amazing for small plants and herbs. It self-waters once the top gets water, all the way down.” Hers is on wheels so it’s easy to move around to help the plants as needed for weather and sun. She also has many raised beds flourishing with a variety of veggies, fruits, and herbs. She, her husband, and five kids love the home garden and wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“Just this week my husband made a pasta dish with tomatoes and fresh basil. It was so fresh and delicious! Plus, the kids enjoyed being able to help grow, care for, harvest, and eat from the yard.”

For Hand, gardening isn’t a recent venture. She’s been raising plants since her childhood. She tells those who have thought about gardening but haven’t gotten their hands dirty yet to “just try it!” She adds: “Seed packets are just a dollar or two and the soil is free! Give it a go, trying with something simple like mint for instant gratification.” 

Diane Stanton runs Mother Earth Tropicals, LLC in Winter Haven (east of Lakeland) and real estate is at a premium in her garden. So, to maximize her space and improve overall efficiency, she has turned to hydroponics, a method of growing plants without soil. This process, often conducted in vertical growing containers, uses nutrient-rich water solvents to help plants grow.

“The biggest advantage to growing in hydroponic systems versus the conventional soil method is the faster-growing rates,” Stanton explains. “The nutrients in the water go directly to the bare roots and are not lost in the soil.” 

She says knowing the basic fundamentals is the key to easy and successful hydroponic gardening.

“Water pH, nutrients, water temperature,” she says, reeling off of the important components of hydroponic gardens. “Water temperature is critical with the hot summer sun here in Florida, and it was my biggest obstacle to keep the water at a cooler level.”

Stanton learned much of what she knows about hydroponics from instructional videos online. Recent world events have only further sparked her do-it-yourself spirit.

“The COVID crisis has definitely given me the inspiration to expand my hydroponic systems,'' Stanton says. "Fear of the unknown and wanting to be self-sufficient definitely plays a part during this time of uncertainty.'' 

COVID compels gardeners to live off the soil 

The COVID-19 virus has given countless people more time -- and good reason -- to become overnight gardeners.

“My three children and I planted some fruits and veggies only three days ago and started a butterfly garden yesterday!” exclaims Sarah Branston of St. Petersburg. “In less than 24 hours we already have three caterpillars and have found butterflies swarming this morning.”

The virtually instant results have been very satisfying to her and her three young children. “We are all very new to the gardening community.” 

She, like so many others, are turning to the backyard for respite from the stressful reports of illness and death on the news. And, for Branston, the land is ripe with opportunities to keep visits to the grocery store to a minimum.

“My youngest doesn’t have the best immune system since he was born premature, so any chance I can avoid going out I’m going to take it.”

She’s skipping trips to the produce section by growing her own watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes, carrots, and green beans. Her success has come from her own can-do spirit and by joining Facebook gardening groups.

“Google what [USDA Hardiness] zone your county is in and join groups local to you,” she advises. “I’ve gained so much knowledge in such a short amount of time.” 

While many folks are just planting their first seeds, Kate Walkling of Sanford is a seasoned green thumb who hails from a long line of gardeners.

“I was very fortunate to learn gardening from my grandmother,” she says. “There is nothing more fulfilling than growing your own food and nurturing a plant from seed.” She’s been tilling the soil more than usual these days. “Absolutely COVID-19 has given me more time to work on various new projects in my garden that were relegated to the weekends before the virus.” 

Walkling likes growing her own food because she gets to know what’s in it.

“A friend of mine says, ‘live close to the ground to keep yourself healthy.’ When there was that romaine lettuce scare a while back, I didn’t worry, as I grow Parris Island romaine in my garden and Black Seeded Simpson leaf lettuce, use no pesticides, and make my own compost.”

She adds, “reduce, reuse, recycle is a rule in my house.” She loves her veggies, but she says herbs are her favorite. “I use them in cooking, and nothing is more convenient than just popping out the back door and nipping off some parsley or rosemary.”

And when people in her circle need a little of this or that from her garden for their own meals, she’s happy to share.

“Gardeners by nature are very generous with their harvests and I love sharing my garden’s bounty with friends and neighbors,” Walkling says.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.