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The Daunting Task of Gardening Through South Florida's Hellish Summer

Summer -- if one were to go by the calendar -- hasn't yet arrived, though you'd be hard-pressed to find someone in South Florida who hasn't yet felt its effects. The realities of the season already are making themselves known in my plot at the Boca Raton Community Garden, which officially wrapped its first season on Saturday, June 2. 

Original plans set forth by BRCG organizers called for everyone in the garden to shutter his or her plot once the June deadline hit, but the policy shifted after many of us expressed a desire to soldier on through the heat (and bugs, unrelenting sun, etc.). Instead of covering my plot with weed barrier or some other protection against undesirable elements, I've chosen to keep it active for the duration. I'm now starting to wonder if that's not just a touch crazy.

Anyone who's maintained a garden, or even just a lawn, in South Florida knows the approach of summer is something of a death knell. The consistent afternoon showers are good for letting slackers off the hook for watering duty, but those hours when the rain relents and the sun is allowed to shine? It's literally a killer. 

"Most produce burns," Aaron Grauberger (managing partner of Market 17) said last week when I spoke with him for an unrelated story. He was referring to the challenges of sourcing local produce, particularly during the summer. His words echo the sentiments of many culinary experts in the region, not to mention seasoned growers. 

If the professionals have trouble making a go of it, why in the hell would someone who kills tomato plants like it's her job fare any better? I likely won't, but I have to at least try. Nearly all of my vegetables have already been harvested, so those are out of the equation. The herbs are a mixed bag; the rosemary is hearty and green and as delicious as ever. The basil won't stop growing, but the leaves are shriveling under the sun and are starting to taste a little old. The summer pests we were warned of by master gardener Betsy Pickup are coming in full force. Armies of ants, various unidentified flying insects, and the bane of many a Floridian's existence: the dreaded whitefly.  

The tight-knit network of the garden's most active and engaged participants has been sharing tips and insights with one another about surviving the summer, including lists of summer-friendly crops (beans are a safe bet, while greens are basically dead in the water) and videos on how to fight pests with organic methods. 

For now, I'm mostly letting nature take its course, allowing my "volunteer" milkweed to turn into butterfly habitat and waiting for my last two carrots to reach a size worthy of harvest. If nothing else, this will be a time to rotate and experiment with new crops, work on improving the soil's quality with worm poop, and plan next season's planting. Growing successfully in South Florida's "hell swamp" of a summer may be a losing battle, but I have to at least give it some effort.  

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Tricia Woolfenden

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