Getting Started

Learn about gardening and how to get started if you have never tried gardening before.

Gardening Tools

by Shelly Martin-Vegue

Cutting tools should be kept sharp for easier cutting without injuring surrounding tissue. Injured tissue is susceptible to disease and decay, which can lead to long-term health problems for the plant. Sterilize pruning tools with alcohol or diluted bleach after working on each plant to prevent the spread of disease (bleach may discolor aluminum tools).

Basic tools that are necessary to ensure good gardening include the following:

Pruning Tools

  • Hand pruners (curved and straight blade), used for cleanup of small branches and twigs. Use for branches less than 1/4 inch in diameter
  • Loppers for pruning branches ½ inches in diameter
  • Pruning saw for branches larger than ½ inches or in diameter
  • Pole saws and pruners allow for pruning difficult to reach branches
  • Hedge shears to trim closely clipped formal hedges only

Digging and Planting Tools

  • Pick axe and digging bar for digging holes in Keys rock
  • Auger for digging holes. Hire help. Hand held augers are difficult and dangerous for inexperienced users
  • Sifter or ½ inch hardware cloth to fit over bucket or wheelbarrow for sifting rocks out of soil
  • Water pressure, which is helpful in loosening sand around rocks

Maintenance Tools

  • Scuffle hoe to remove weeds from yards covered with gravel
  • Grass rake for leaf removal from areas that are not self-mulching
  • Shovel for compost pile turning
  • Fertilizer spreader that can be calibrated
  • Backpack or handheld portable sprayer for pesticides (hopefully only least toxic chemicals will be needed)

Consider Container Gardening

by Vera Dunmire

The Keys’ land is difficult to dig. It is also alkaline, and many plants prefer more acidic soil. In addition, saltwater lies just below the soil surface. For many plants, if the roots reach the saltwater, the plant will die. Container gardening is a way of avoiding these potential problems.

What is a container? Use your imagination. It is a pot. It is a raised bed. It is a mound. It is a cement planter. It is a large hole dug into the soil and filled with store-bought or homemade soil. It is any of the junk in your garage that has a place for soil and a place to drill holes for drainage. It is pond or baby pool for water gardens.

In our windy Florida Keys, a container needs to be unlikely to tip over in a strong breeze. A container also needs to hold plenty of prepared soil mixes, so that it will not dry out too rapidly in our hot, dry, and breezy winter growing season. Containers must also allow water to escape, or our summer rainy season will fill them with water, no air, and the roots will rot.

The location for a container requires knowing the amount of sun or shade needed. Check the light requirements (i.e., full sun, partial shade, shade) of the plants you wish to grow before building permanent containers. The soil in a container should also be appropriate to the type of plant desired. Plants may prefer heavy organic or sandy soil, and/or acidic or alkaline soil.

A soil mixture can be made from compost, washed seaweed, cow manure, store-bought sand, peat moss, and dolomite lime (for calcium). Remember that this Southernmost County’s high year-round sun burns up organic material rapidly and needs to be replaced.

Pots are movable, and allow placement for appropriate sun, shade, watering, and display. Pots need to be heavy to maintain plants upright in our wind. Rebar driven through a plastic pot’s holes and into the soil will stabilize a top-heavy plant. Other options are placing a heavy rock in the pot to weight it, placing rocks on the ground around the pot, or setting it into another larger container. Also, remember that mosquitoes love standing water in pot liners, so do not use liners or drain when needed. Where decks or patios might be stained/discolored liners are used. They must be checked regularly and drained after heavy rains. Don't leave water standing for more than two days.

Raised beds and mounds have sides and no bottoms, which prevents soil or water leakage from the side, but allows water to drain freely from the bottom. Raised beds and mounds should have a planting medium at least 2 feet high. Raised beds and mounds can be constructed with treated lumber, railroad ties, cement, large native rocks, or similar materials. Corrugated plastic roofing or heavy plastic can be cut and molded to fit the sides. Size should allow easy maintenance. Four-foot wide beds allow reaching in from both sides.

In-ground containers are dug into the rocky marl and require a pick, digging bar, or auger, and caution not to break through caprock, which might let saltwater leach into a low-lying planting. These dug beds moderate the temperature of the roots, and retain moisture well. Many find our rocky terrain too hard to dig, even when the ground has been soaked and partly washed out by water pressure. 

Water gardening is also a type of container gardening. Here are some tips on water gardening: 

  1. Different plants prefer different water coverage, from 1-18 inches over the pot
  2. Use 1 plant per 2 sq. ft. of pond surface area
  3. Some water lilies need to be divided every year
  4. Do not fertilize dormant plants
  5. Place 1 large mosquito-eating fish per 50 gallons water
  6. Fish do not have to be fed if you chose plants carefully
  7. Use 1 scavenger per 1 sq. ft. Scavengers are tadpoles or snails, such as Black Ramshorn, Mystery snail, or Japanese Trap Door snail- not Colombian Ramshorn or Apple snails.