Growing up in North Carolina (a large agriculture state), I was accustomed to pick-your-own berry fields every few miles, roadside vegetable stands, backyard gardens, and bustling farmers markets that were open every day of the week. Summer afternoons were reserved for picking green beans, shucking corn, and plucking weeds from the abundant, thriving backyard garden. When it was too cold in North Carolina for abundant crops and roadside produce, they were replaced by Christmas tree farms and winter themed crafts made from tree branches and dried hay.. It was a year-round luxury that I assumed was a normalcy for 20+ years of my life. After moving to Florida five years ago, I was in for a huge shock. 

Suddenly, summertime was not for fresh produce—it’s when the farms closed down, the CSA owners went on vacation, and the only fresh, local produce I could find were oranges and mangoes. Roadside stands don’t exist because for 75% of the year it’s too hot to stand on the side of the road, even with shade. Pick-your-own fruit fields only open in early spring, and I’m lucky if the farmers markets open for one day of the week, though once a month is more common.

Since fresh produce wasn’t available around me and the grocery store produce was typically shipping in from other states, I decided to take action by starting a backyard and windowsill garden. The backyard garden failed three of the five years I’ve been here. At least one of those failed gardens was a result of poor planning. I would tell myself I could care for the garden after work; however, after a long day of working at Walt Disney World (often outside), the last thing I wanted to do was spend more time in the sun, weeding and pruning. I also treated my gardens like the ones I had in North Carolina, which meant my garden was perpetually parched and pests I had never seen before quickly overtook my delicate tomato plants.  Thankfully, I’m finally seeing progress and have learned what my plants need to survive outside in the extreme climate.

Below you can find my top seven tried and tested (and retested over the past few years!) secrets for handling heat and sun in your own garden. 

1. Spend time in your garden, BEFORE you plant your garden.

This one might seem obvious, but from personal experience I can attest to exactly how important it is to know your garden space. For years I tried to put my garden directly against the house to shade it from the sun; unfortunately, that ended up being the worst place for a garden. It only saw the sun during the hottest part of the day, in the afternoon. It was also pummeled with rain, hail, and anything else that happened to roll off the roof (including roof tiles during hurricanes). The soil was always sandiest by the house and there always seemed to be a wasp’s nest dangling above my jalapenos. Between the hazards and the unrelenting sun, this was the worst place I could have decided on. 

As I spent more time outside and understood the natural shading in my yard, I was able to find the spots that experienced the morning sun but avoided the oppressive midday Florida sun. Against a short fence at the back of the yard ended up being the sweet spot. My plants started to experience the morning and evening sun, avoided the onslaught of hail, and enjoyed a richer, less sandy soil. If I had spent more time looking for sunny spots throughout the day, I would have saved myself a lot of hard work (and a lot of tomato plants).

2. Consider how and when you water your garden.

When I started my garden, I used the same techniques I learned while growing up in North Carolina. I watered my garden around midday with the garden hose. As it turns out, that was both the wrong time and the wrong method. My tomato and basil plants always ended up with yellow/brown spots because I watered them from above. Water droplets act like a magnifying glass on the leaves of plants and the amplified light and heat can essentially burn plants. The water sat on the leaves during the hottest part of the day and damaged the area underneath. Now, I opt for watering in the early evening. Because the sun doesn’t fully set until 9 p.m. in the summer, I water my garden around 7 p.m. everyday, which allows the water to soak in without worrying about mold. My entire yard is very sandy so moisture is pulled into the ground very quickly, making the later watering time ideal for me. In North Carolina, we watered the garden with a spray nozzle garden hose during the middle of the day; however, that would (and has) scorched my plants, which is why it’s vital to understand your own soil and how it absorbs water to avoid mold and burning leaves. If I must water my garden during the day, I use a watering can so I can focus the water on the ground around the plants rather than their leaves. Just be sure you know how much water to give them, and don’t overwater in your quest to protect them from the heat.  

Many people prefer to use mulch to keep the ground cool and the soil moist; however, I like to be able to feel the soil. Much like a baker knows how a dough should feel, once you start gardening, you’ll quickly learn how the soil should feel. When using mulch, I almost always end up breaking roots or even knocking the plant over. I’m not able to feel for the delicate roots and ensure neither my hand nor the mulch ends up hurting the roots. Aside from the physical damage it can cause, mulch impedes my movement and makes assessing the needs of my soil more difficult. In the past, I’ve dug my hands into the ground and unknowingly felt fine ground mulch rather than soil. I assumed my plants were well watered (because mulch holds moisture so well) so I only watered them once that week. Needless to say, my plants were very thirsty and nearly died, which is why mulch seems like more trouble than it’s worth to me. Despite my personal preferences, I know that mulch is something constantly cited as one of the best ways to cool down a garden; however, now that I work from home I have more time to spend with my plants than most people. This time means I can keep a close eye on the needs of my plants and water, shade, or fertilize throughout the day whenever they need it. I know that isn’t plausible for most, so if you don’t have the luxury of time to baby your plants, mulch might be a good option for keeping your soil cool.

Soil matters! Photo: Abigail OBrien

3. Invest in good soil when you need it.

In North Carolina, I was accustomed to rich soil that held moisture. In Florida, the soil is much sandier and can manage to feel dry even after a rainstorm. If you’re experiencing something similar, consider mixing in some store-bought soil before planting and during transplanting or even weeding. It might require a full weekend to mix in the new soil with what’s already there, but it will make all the difference when trying to cultivate a healthy garden. I use a simple topsoil from a local farm supply store (see below). It’s only about $2 a bag, but has drastically changed how quickly my garden starts producing.

If you notice your plants are looking droopy or brown, I’ve also found that fertilizer can be exactly what my plants need to help perk them back up. My family always used Black Kow in North Carolina and it works just as well here in Florida! 

4. Shade, shade, and more shade.

The best way to protect yourself from the harmful UV sun rays is to cover up. The same can be said for plants. Unfortunately, it’s not always realistic to be able to plant a garden under a tree or natural shade, which is why I try to implement what my mom calls a “bean bonnet.” Simply put, a “bean bonnet” is a bedsheet (or other thin material like an old curtain, thin beach towel, or even old t-shirts if you cut them open!) used to cover a garden to protect it from the sun. We would do this in North Carolina when we wanted to extend the life of cooler weather plants like strawberries and sugar snap peas. We almost always used bean poles to hold the sheet a few feet above the plants, hence the name “bean bonnet.” 

When I know it’s going to be a sunny day, I unroll it and attach it to a post in the yard to provide filtered sunlight rather than direct sunlight. A lot of people swear by sunshades or a shade trellis; however, I’ve found that a bedsheet, is far more practical for a few reasons. Bedsheets can be completely rolled up, making it easy to show off my hard work and allow for mobility when I want to move my garden between seasons. Plus, when it gets dirty, I can easily toss it in the wash or replace it, making it the best, most affordable heat-combating solution. Not to mention I smile every time I get to replace my bean bonnet! 

Simple and affordable garden shade. Photo: Abigail OBrien

5. Know and use your resources.

While the big box hardware stores often have a large variety and everything you could ever need to start a garden, I’ve found they don’t offer the same knowledge and expertise as my local farm supply stores and nurseries. If you have a local plant nursery, stop in to talk with the owners. Chances are that they know how to fix any gardening problems you run into. “Why not Google it?” you ask? Google can be a wonderful gardening resource, but it can also result in more questions than answers and can overwhelm newer gardeners. The family who runs the local nursery has helped me narrow down the options and offer solutions to my problems. I’ll bring them a picture of a dying plant and because they’re familiar with the environment, local soil, etc. they’re able to save even my most hopeless plants. They’re the ones who suggested that I use a topsoil in addition to fertilizer to help with my sandy soil!

While I suggest staying away from Google if you’re looking for a specific answer, the internet can be a wonderful resource for gardeners. Look for information that is backed by experience like classes at your local community college or even courses that are strictly online. These locally-based courses will offer advice from gardeners who have personal experience in protecting their gardens from the extreme heat. Experience is the best teacher and learning from others who have lost plants to the hot weather will help you understand what not to do and how to properly care for your garden.

6. Be realistic about type and variety.

As much as I would love to have alternating berry bushes and rose bushes lining the fence of my backyard, I know that’s not realistic in Florida. Some plants simply require a cooler temperature. I’ve worked out what will grow in my garden during the different times of year and how much care they require. 

Generally, I’ve found that cherry tomatoes (for some reason they do better than their larger counterparts), peppers, summer squash, pineapples, and cucumbers do well in the hottest part of the year while peas, asparagus, and cantaloupe do well in the cooler parts of the year. 

Some veggies fare better than others. Photo: Abigail OBrien

Fruits require the most care but are incredibly rewarding. I fertilize my citrus trees every other month, even in the winter! During the summer, they are surprisingly heat tolerant but they seem to prefer certain spots in the yard. There is a slight slope to the yard and the trees grow faster on the higher end. This can probably be attributed to better drainage but could also be because they thrive in the midday and evening sun that part of the yard gets.  We’ve been nurturing a grapefruit and lime tree for almost three years and they’re finally starting to produce! They’re easily the sweetest grapefruit and juiciest limes I’ve ever eaten so it’s well worth the wait. If you aspire to grow other fruit like watermelon, cantaloupe, or any sort of berry during the summer, shade and constant watering are mandatory. Melons are a little more forgiving but berries should only have filtered sunlight (via shade) during the day. Personally, I find that growing strawberries indoors and in pots is ideal because you can control the temperature and sun exposure. If you don’t have an available windowsill, just moving them outside for a few hours will be enough sunlight to get them growing! 

7. Know yourself. 

If you’re anything like me, you dream of going out to your garden once a day, filling a basket with fresh produce and immediately using it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Unfortunately, that kind of garden requires a lot of space, time, and effort. I know myself well enough to know that during the summer I can only spend so much time outside and my garden will ultimately feel the repercussions. I have learned to be realistic about what I have time to take care of and the amount of time I’m willing to spend sweating in the Florida heat. The best thing I have done for my gardens in the past five years is downsize. I went from fifteen tomato plants to five and typically only have two of any other kind of plant. This allows me to spend quality time with the plants I do have and never feel overwhelmed with the amount of weeding, pruning, or watering I need to do. 

The summer heat can be rough on your garden (not to mention yourself!), but hopefully, my experiences will help you when cultivating your own plants. Creating shade, ensuring the soil stays rich and moist, and only taking on what I can manage, have all been instrumental in the success of my garden. Use these tips to help keep your plants cool this summer and you’re sure to be rewarded with happy plants and a generous garden!