It seems the further south you get, the weirder vegetable gardening gets. You see, while gardeners in more northerly climates plant their vegetables according to the clearly defined seasons of spring, summer, fall and winter; gardeners in zones 8 to 11 should throw their traditional planting schedules in the compost pile where they can be of more use. It varies according to area, but generally speaking, summers in these zones are often too hot to grow anything but the most heat-tolerant of vegetables like okra, peppers, sweet potatoes and eggplant. The incredible upside is that winters are mild enough to grow frost-tolerant vegetables like salad greens, peas, onions and collard greens in the middle of winter.
Container gardening gives you even more flexibility in warm climates because it allows you to move tender heat-loving vegetables like peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes indoors during frosty nights, as well as move heat-averse veggies like salad greens to a shadier spot when temperatures rise. When you combine mild winters with container gardening along with the right approach for the climate, you end up with a truly versatile year-round vegetable garden.
Here are some popular vegetables and suggestions for successfully growing them in a warm climate.
You just couldn’t ask for a more agreeable summer vegetable for a warm climate than peppers, and their woody, bushy growth habit makes them ideal choices for growing in containers.
Hot peppers with small leaves and fruits such as ‘Cayenne’ and ‘Habanero’ are prolific despite their short and bushy stature, and they bring spicy heat to the table throughout the year. Sweet varieties like ‘Cubanelle’ and ‘Purple Beauty’ are mild enough to enjoy in salads, stuffed or fresh as a snack.
Plant pepper plants after the last frost, but continue growing them outdoors throughout the year. You can also start them from seed after the last frost. Just cover them or bring them inside and put them in a sunny window whenever temperatures dip near freezing. Provide at least eight hours of sun and keep the potting mix moist (but not soggy) at all times. Peppers adapt well to drought but will produce better with regular waterings.
Despite their heat-loving nature, tomatoes are one of those vegetables that we just can’t plant in summer. In zone 8 they should be planted from February through March and in August. In zone 9, plant tomatoes from January through March and in September. In zones 10 to 11, grow tomatoes from August through March.
Growing tomatoes in containers can be also be challenging because they require a lot of space, water and support, but the good news is that potting them up also allows you to move them (if they haven’t gotten too big) indoors during frosts and to slightly shadier spots during our hot summers.
Also, self-watering containers or grow boxes, are a great solution for tomato success, especially in warmer climates because they ensure the plants get a consistent level of moisture. Some grow boxes have soil covers which can help conserve water as well as protect the plants from getting too much water in a deluge. Plant three tomato seeds or one tomato plant in a large container, and provide a support such as a to keep the plant growing upright. If you planted seeds, remove all but the most vigorous seedling after several leaves have formed so that only one plant will occupy the container. As a general rule, the bigger tomatoes need the biggest containers. Big slicing tomatoes require massive containers (think trash cans) but vining cherry, grape or pear tomatoes are a good bet because they are prolific, yet small and manageable enough to prune, support and relocate as needed.
Growing Lettuce and Greens
If it’s leafy greens you want, start planting them in fall so that you can enjoy them all the way through winter and into spring. You can either plant lettuce seeds in seed-starting trays and transplant them to larger pots or scatter them lightly in larger pots so that they cover the surface with edible goodness. Once the seedlings have begun getting crowded, snip off every other one and add them to your salad.
In a warm climate, it’s best to avoid ‘iceberg’ and other so-called ‘crisp head’ varieties because they bolt quickly and require a longer cold season than you can provide. That’s okay though. The best lettuce varieties can be grouped into the categories of butterhead, romaine and leaf lettuces and include such favorites as ‘Deer Tongue’, ‘Oak Leaf’, ‘Freckles’ and ‘Bibb’.
Spice up your salads with other greens too; Swiss chard, mustard greens, spinach, kale, collards and radicchio offer enough variety to make salads a first-class experience. Kale and collard greens are Southern standbys, but be sure to transplant each seedling to a big container of their own so they can reach their massive potential.
To keep lettuce and other greens from bolting (producing flowers) and becoming bitter, keep them watered and harvest before temperatures heat up in spring.
The big and fat bulbed onions that you would usually use in the kitchen take up a lot of space, but smaller ones such as green onions, shallots, chives and multiplying onions are easy to grow in pots. The best part about growing small onions like these is that you can harvest their mild tasting leaves as often as you’d like to add to your meals.
Plant from fall through winter in soil that’s been amended with compost, feed regularly and keep the soil moist at all times. The richer the soil, the better the flavor. Remove weeds by hand when they appear, taking care to not damage the onion bulbs. Though you might choose to wait until they reach maturity, you can harvest onions anytime after planting, even as you thin them out to make more room.
The tricky thing about cucumbers in a warm climate is getting the timing right since they suffer in our heat and humidity but languish in the cold. Your best bet is to plant them in the months of August, September, February, March and April, depending on when you plan to harvest. Powdery mildew can be a problem in the humidity of the Southeast, but it can be treated with Neem oil if used before temperatures reach 90 F.
Cucumbers are heavy feeders, so begin fertilizing with fish emulsion, bloodmeal or a high nitrogen fertilizer once they’ve reached a few inches tall (though be cautious too not to over-fertilize, by following the directions on your fertilizer).
When it’s time to harvest, don’t leave cucumbers on the vine past maturity or they will cause the plant to stop producing.
Of the two types of cucumbers, bush varieties are easiest for containers because they’re sturdy and don’t tend to sprawl. However, vining types can be useful where space is an issue. Just give each plant a large container and train the stems up a strong trellis or fence.
Eggplants like heat so much that they need to be planted late, even in hot climates. In early summer, plant seeds in small pots or seed-starting trays and transplant them to 3 to 5 gallon pots once their roots have begun to fill their original container.
Apart from giving them heat, a few rules to follow for steady production are as follows: Provide plenty of moisture, only allow several cucumbers to develop on each plant, feed lightly and provide support to keep eggplants from reaching the soil and rotting.
Eggplants are ready to harvest when they’re colorful and glossy, and are past their prime when the skin takes on a dull, matte finish. Some great varieties for containers are ‘Fairytale,’ ‘Hansel,’ and Asian eggplant.