Yes, you can have a summer vegetable garden in Miami (but maybe not the plants you expect)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

As published in the Miami Herald

There are all kinds of heat- and deluge-tolerant edible plants we can grow with little trouble here in summer in the deep Southeast. While the northern, more temperate regions can grow tomatoes and other vegetable staples, we must look toward the tropics for plants suitable to our torrid springs and soaking summers.

Spicy to eat, beautiful to behold, peppers like hot summers. PHOTOS BY KENNETH SETZER Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

▪ Katuk (Sauropus androgynous) is a leafy green common throughout much of Asia. I recently picked a handful and ate them in front of my amazed coworkers. I assured them I would never eat anything that I’m not completely sure is edible.

The next question is taste. Katuk greens taste a lot like raw green beans to me — quite good. Katuk likes the understory, with dappled shade, but not deep shade. It’s grown for the foliage, so a common practice after harvesting leaves is to add fertilizer for a good nitrogen boost. Manure, especially of poultry, is a good source, and it improves our sandy soil.

Sometimes called tropical asparagus, katuk forms a compact bush that can be cut down to near the soil and will regenerate. The leaves contain almost 50 percent protein and can be cooked like any other leafy green or tossed raw into salad. The small red flowers and fruit are attractive and used in some recipes as well.

A health craze in parts of Asia encouraged consuming huge amounts of raw katuk, which led to illness for a few people. But just about any food eaten in huge quantities to the exclusion of others can be dangerous (raw lima beans, for instance).

Katuk is a favorite of mine because it is attractive and does not need constant attention. It is easily grown from cuttings placed in damp soil or water, and it thrives in heat and high humidity. Small plants are sold online.

A katuk bush forms edible landscaping. KENNETH SETZER

▪ Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a succulent, evolved to grow in dry places and tolerate periods of drought, though unlike some other succulents, it doesn’t seem perturbed by heavy rains, poor soil and direct sun. You can find it on lawns as the weed with long, purplish red stems with small teardrop-shaped green leaves.

Purslane is rich in alpha-Linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid), vitamins A, C and B, as well as beta carotene, and plant pigments shown to have anti-mutagenic properties, meaning they may inhibit cells from mutating.

As a companion plant, purslane provides ground cover and retains humidity, and the deep taproot breaks through difficult soil and extracts nutrients nearby plants can use. Since you can’t know what’s been sprayed on wild plants, I do not recommend eating purslane you find. Seeds are available online.

▪ Did you know nasturtiums are edible? Tropaeolum is the genus of this tough but elegant plant (genus Nasturtium is that of unrelated watercress). The seeds you’ll find at most stores are probably those of T. majus, common garden nasturtiums. Both flowers and foliage are edible and add a little kick to salads, similar to arugula.

It thrives in poor soil; if fertilized, it is known to produce fewer flowers but more foliage. The neon orange flowers have been observed to “flash” against the rounded, water lily-shaped leaves in an optical illusion. A common pest to watch for is moth caterpillars, which can be hosed off.

▪ If you really want to grow tomatoes in the summer, try Everglades tomato(Solanum pimpinellifolium), naturalized to South Florida. These are small currant tomatoes — about the size of a large pea — but to me very flavorful.

They are indeterminate and like to sprawl, but the small fruit is light and won’t necessarily need a support to keep off the ground. These thrive in our summers, and while short-lived, they produce so much fruit that some is bound to fall to the ground and regrow. It has volunteered unexpectedly in parts of Fairchild (even in shade), but plants can be found at native plant nurseries. I’ve had minor success with Florida 91, a heat-loving, determinate tomato variety growing to about 3 feet.

They’re known to resist cracking from intense rains, but problems come from tomato hornworms that devoured my plant mercilessly. Soapy water helps kill hornworms. Otherwise provide at least six hours of direct sun and well-draining soil.

Everglades tomatoes sprawl inches above the soil. KENNETH SETZER Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

▪ Nearly any mint provides seasoning and variety, and tolerates summer. Grown easily from seed or bought as seedlings, Mentha species need shade from our harsh midday sun. They also prefer moist, rich soil — a good candidate for pots. Mentha spicata, spearmint, has been crossed with other species to produce peppermint, chocolate mint, and citrus-flavored mints.

▪ Try as we might to grow basil (Ocimum basilicum), all the sweet varieties are prone to downy mildew, and there’s not much we can do about it. Red or Thai basils are less susceptible. You can however buy a sweet basil plant and keep cuttings in water, thus increasing your supply a little as the original dies.

But I’d be remiss if I forgot to mention that we have a native basil, Ocimum campechianum. Also called least basil, it is hard to find and listed as endangered in South Florida but is more common in the West Indies and tropical America.

▪ Lastly, peppers grow well in summer. From sweet bell peppers to habaneros, peppers like full sun and well-draining, nutrient-rich soil. Start from seeds in small containers to avoid the small seeds washing away, or buy plants. General fertilizer is fine, but avoid one with excess nitrogen once fruits appear.

Even if you don’t love eating hot peppers, they are really beautiful ornamentals in shades of green, orange and deep red.

Purslane is a nutritious weed
Purslane is a nutritious weed KENNETH SETZER Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

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