In the previous post, I mentioned that summer in South Florida was like living in a green desert: day after day of heat made hotter by oppressive humidity and afternoon downpours. It’s for these reasons that many gardeners retreat indoors, contenting themselves to look at their green world from behind glass.
Imagine my surprise — and delight — when I came across an oasis in the heart of Fort Lauderdale, a green space that was not only green but was still producing even in the blistering summer heat.
Flagler Village Farm sits on a very busy downtown corner, partially shaded by sabal palms, moringa trees, and spreading sea grapes. On one particularly steamy morning, I stopped to take some photos of the 18,000 square-foot garden and met the urban farmer who is the keeper of this oasis, Michael Madfis.
Dressed in the zone 10 garments worn by many outdoor workers here — long pants, long sleeves, and a wide-brimmed hat — Madfis was a whirlwind tour guide. As I seemed to melt into a puddle with shorts, he easily walked along the rows of heavy felt pots, pulling weeds, explaining what plants needed to be started, planting seedlings five to a pot, and apologizing for the condition of some crops that were beyond their prime.
“These peppers,” he said, “should have been pulled or at least cut back, but they’re still producing — and I hate to get rid of them just yet.”
An architect by profession, Madfis has rolled up his long sleeves to redesign how we look at urban farming and sustainability on a much more local level. To emphasize this idea, he nodded at the apartment buildings that surround the lot, explaining that the residents are the consumers of his produce.
“When I started, I was told the same thing as you, that you can’t grow anything down here during the summer months,” he said, as he showed me two rows of twining Malabar spinach, a vegetable of the tropics. “But something about that didn’t make sense to me. Seminole Indians have been gardening here long before Europeans arrived, and I’m sure they didn’t go hungry in the summer. It’s the same with the Caribbean islanders. I was sure they were able to farm in the summer.”
NGDM: After meeting you, I’m so impressed with your refusal to accept no — as in, “No, you cannot grow vegetables during a south Florida summer.” You learned what is able to grow in this steamy climate, such as Malabar spinach. What should south Florida gardeners try in their own backyards?
Michael Madfis: January — Plant seeds of English peas, mustard greens, turnips, carrots, and radishes. Plant transplants of broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts. Start potatoes. Raise tomato transplants indoors to set out after all danger of frost has passed. Choose varieties that are suitable for your area and have disease tolerance. Remember to keep mulch around your vegetable plants to conserve moisture and reduce weed problems.
February — Sow seeds of English peas, mustard greens, turnips, beets, kale, kohlrabi, spinach, lettuce, radishes, and carrots outdoors. Start tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and okra seeds indoors. At the end of the month, organic gardeners can incorporate manure into the garden for planting in 3-4 weeks. Use 20 lbs. of cow manure per 1000 sq. feet. Start herb seeds indoors in a protected area — basil, borage, chives, parsley, summer savory, and thyme. Provide as much light as possible. Make sure Fall-planted strawberries are getting enough water so they produce fruit.
March — Cool season vegetables, such as mustard greens, turnips, and collards, may still be planted. Plant seeds of green beans, corn, carrots, lettuce, butter beans, cucumbers, and other warm weather vegetables. Set out transplants of tomatoes, and peppers, but be prepared to cover in case of a late frost. Mound up soil around potato stems to protect tubers from sun damage. Plant seeds or transplants of basil, oregano, dill, and lemon balm.
April — Plant seeds of green beans, okra, squash, corn, carrots, lettuce, butter beans, and cucumbers. Check the seed packet or University of Florida “Vegetable Gardening Guide” for correct planting depth. Transplant tomatoes, peppers, onions, and other vegetables if you did not in March. Moisten the soil before removing the transplant from the container. Plant gourd seeds in rich organic soil one inch deep. Give them plenty of room to climb. Stake tomatoes at the time of planting or soon after with a rigid stake that is at least five feet tall. This will help keep fruit off the ground.
May — Continue planting warm weather seeds and transplants. Keep the transplants shaded. Plant seeds of southern peas. Cut back the stems of Irish potatoes when they die but leave the tubers in the ground about two weeks to toughen the skin. Carefully dig potatoes so you do not bruise the skin. Wash off the hose and dry in the sun before storing.
June — Plant seeds of lima beans, okra, and Southern peas. Also plant sweet potato slips. Root tomato suckers for a fall crop.
July — Start broccoli, cauliflower, collards, and cabbage so you will have transplants for the Fall. Fertilize peppers, okra, and other warm season vegetables so they will produce throughout the summer. When nighttime temperatures stay in the 80s and above, blossoms of tomato, bush beans, cucumbers, and peppers may drop. If temperatures stay cooler, plants will still produce. Remember to pick cucumbers, squash, beans, okra, and peppers regularly so plants will continue producing. Blossom end rot on tomatoes or a similar rot on peppers is caused by a calcium deficiency or fluctuations in soil moisture. Try to keep plants evenly moist. Discard rotting fruit. Remove all diseased vegetable plants or infected leaves from the garden. Prevent the spread of disease by watering plants carefully at the soil level. As basil plants begin to bloom, pinch plants back just above a pair of leaves to encourage growth.
August — Direct sow seeds of cucumber, onion, pepper, southern peas, pumpkin, turnips, and watermelon. Select varieties that mature early in order to produce before the temperature gets too cool. Watch for pests and provide water when needed. Harvest Spring-planted garlic when the tops are yellow and withered. Dig the bulbs and allow them to dry in a well-ventilated area out of direct sun. Set out transplants of cauliflower and broccoli. Plant tomato suckers that were rooted earlier.
September — Prepare for your garden by incorporating organic matter into the soil. Plant seeds for radish, beet, carrot, leafy greens, green beans, and cucumber early in the month. Choose varieties that will mature in 7-8 weeks. Plant strawberries late this month through October. Choose healthy and quality transplants. Set out onions, broccoli, cabbage, collards, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. When planting fast maturing vegetables, make several plantings at 10-14 day intervals to have a steady harvest. Check cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower for caterpillars.
October — Plant garlic cloves now for a harvest next summer. Place a clove in the soil so that the pointed end is 1/2 inch below the surface and space cloves 6-8 inches apart. Herbs to plant include parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Rosemary will even withstand the salt and wind of coastal landscapes.
November — Plant transplants of broccoli, cabbage, onions, collards and Brussels sprouts. Start thinning vegetable when they reach between two and three inches in height. Apply organics to the rose garden to help build up the soil.
NGDM: What can northern gardeners learn from the south Florida gardening experience?
MM: Not much, except that too much sunlight should not be an issue for fruiting plants.
NGDM: Much of what you’ve learned has been through trial and error. What has been your biggest gardening failure? Gardening success?
MM: The biggest gardening failures were buying things at Home Depot and not knowing they were not appropriate for our area and climate zone. My success: that you grow a lot of food in a small space all year.
NGDM: I know the farm is a group effort, but you seem to be everywhere doing a bit of everything: seeding, planting, weeding, harvesting, and selling. Which part of the urban farming experience do you most enjoy and why?
MM: I am a social entrepreneur regarding urban farming. My excitement is developing an economical and environmentally sustainable prototype that can be repeated by others. I’m not so interested in doing the day-to-day activities, but they’re needed. We developed a prototype that works. Unfortunately, no one has developed this information in the past. So were starting from scratch, but we have a lot of information in place and now the manual should be developed.
NGDM: Ultimately, where do you see your urban farming initiative going and growing? What do you envision?
MM: I envision a local food movement that will support all of the local food entrepreneurs in Broward County. Strengthening our economy and our middle class and dismantling the wealth disparity, at least in our region. To do this we needed to organize as a local food cooperative.
Broward Food System Cooperative was formed to support the development of a local sustainable environment and economy based on food industry. At their 16th gathering since December 13, 2013, the group, whose total participants have grown to more than 250, chose the brand name “Growing Broward” to highlight the important interconnectedness of everyone involved in creating and sustaining a healthy, local food system. It defines the growing movement in Broward County of people desiring to create a healthy community, a wealthy middle-class, and a just food economy.
Our goal is the development of a diverse group of stakeholders representing all of the components and subcomponents of the food industry we all rely on. This organization has arisen out of the efforts of many who feel we can grow our way to a sustainable community by working together in a local food industry. A local food system will reduce the impact on the environment through the reduction of transportation and storage, reducing as much as 90% of the fossil fuels, and 80% of the water used in the production and delivery of food to the consumer.
Local farms and community gardens are only a small part of the local food industry. Like any industry, it relies on many components, including the production of food, food processing, distribution and storage, markets and consumption, waste and recycling, resources and supply, land and facilities, financial products and services, policies and outreach, charities, education, and human resources. Each one of these components offers many new opportunities for local businesses to develop and join together as one system, creating living wage sustainable careers, supporting each other, and the community.
It is our goal to create a replicable model of a local food system, though we feel scale and location are critical to making the model work. In fact, we feel Broward County alone could have three separate food systems, accommodating each of the bioregions. They each start with different needs, and resources need to be developed around those.
As we develop Growing Broward, we hope to define a methodology that will work well in South Florida. We have realized that food economies take on important roles related to the culture of the region. It is critical to understand the culture and history around food, in order to best apply a repeatable methodology for any location.