Northwest Florida is a challenging gardening environment. The summer heat can be extreme for many plants, and a sudden frost can catch a perennial off guard when it hadn't gone dormant for the winter. Half the year the land is parched, and the other half, excessively wet. Even with its challenges, Northwest Florida, falling in USDA growing zone 8, is well suited for herb gardening. With proper planning, many herbs will thrive in Northwest Florida, and gardeners can enjoy an extended growing season and bountiful harvest.
Choose a spot for your herbs. Most herbs will lose their pungency if they get less than six hours of direct sunlight each day, though some, such as lemon balm and chives, will thrive in partial shade. Of course, having your herbs within easy reach is convenient.
Test the drainage of your plot. This is essential when gardening in Florida. During the rainy season, dig a hole about a foot deep and pour two to three gallons of water into the hole. It should drain within the hour, if not immediately. Good drainage is essential as constantly soggy soil will result in root rot, fungus or mold. If the water doesn’t drain quickly enough, consider another site or planting in pots.
Mix some compost with your topsoil to make it richer. In Northwest Florida, garden soil is usually less sandy than in other parts of the state, and herbs grow well in imperfect soil, but any soil type can benefit from organic matter. Spread compost an inch or two thick over your herb plot and work it into the soil with a fork or spade.
Plan to do most of your herb planting in the early spring or early fall. Most herbs will be least productive during the middle of the summer and winter in Florida, but will bounce back nicely for the spring and fall.
Mulch your herbs heavily. This will keep them clean, help discourage weeds and retain the moisture in the soil during the dry season and warmth during the winter. Mulching with organic matter such as grass clippings, shredded leaves or compost will also help add nutrients to the soil.
Provide herbs with some shelter from the worst of the summer heat. A screen, or even an overturned cardboard box with a few rocks on top to weigh it down, will help prevent the leaves from sun scorch or steaming themselves to death.
Water herbs deeply two or three times each week, or as often as necessary during the hottest part of the summer or driest part of the winter. The soil should be moist but not soggy, and dry out slightly between waterings without becoming parched. Water early in the mornings to give the foliage time to dry, or in the evenings while avoiding getting the foliage wet. Never water in the middle of the day in the hot weather or under strong sun or you may steam your plants.
Don’t fertilize a lot. Herbs actually grow better with less fertilizer. If you started by preparing the soil with compost and mulch with organic matter, you can fertilize twice a year. If you are growing herbs in pots or if your soil is particularly sandy, fertilize lightly every three months. Use a water-soluble fertilizer or manure tea.
Harvest your herbs regularly. Constant pruning helps promote better growth. The growing season in northwest Florida is long and lush, so enjoy your fresh herbs often.