A growing number of First Coast families are embracing home gardening as a way to improve their access to fresh produce and to build a foundation of healthier eating.

Unlike many of our eastern seaboard counterparts, the winter season in Florida is one of the best times to cultivate a garden. Our temperate climate and abundant sunlight create a pleasurable and productive gardening experience, under the right circumstances.

“In winter, we do not get as much rain as we do in the summer and it does not get as hot,” says Zak Furey, the founder of Garden of Eatin’ which designs and installs customized garden boxes for families in North Florida. “What we grow in the winter are things like lettuce and greens, including the southern greens such as turnips and collards.” These greens are tolerant to colder temperatures and can constantly be harvested which makes them such a popular addition to the winter garden. “A lot of people say that collards taste best after the first freeze too,” adds Furey.

Setting up your garden requires an understanding of your surroundings. If you have yet to develop your green thumb, a 10 by 10 foot plot is an ideal size for beginners. You want to make sure the area is well drained and close to a source of water. Do not go overboard on the water however, “Leaves tend to turn yellow and spotty if they are getting too much water or shade,” says Furey. The ideal amount of direct sun exposure is six to eight hours a day. You also want to ensure you are working with good soil, as this is what provides the additional nutrients plants need to thrive. North Florida soil is typically sandy and the addition of organic matter, such as animal manure or compost, helps add vitality to the soil. According to the University of Florida’s Cooperative Extension Office you may need 25-100 pounds of compost or composted animal manure per 100 square feet of space. This should also be mixed into the soil at least a month before seeding.

Celebrate the cooler weather outdoors this year by planting a winter garden. It is a project that keeps on giving throughout the year. But you better get started soon in order to enjoy Spring’s bounty.

You can reach Zak at ‘Garden of Eatin’ Plants’ on Facebook and the University of Florida’s Cooperative Extension Office at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.