For anyone with questions about gardening in Northwest Florida, the University of Florida’s (UF) Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Extension Service is a good place to begin.
“Extension takes research-based knowledge that’s coming out of the University of Florida and gets it out to farmers, landscapers, home owners, and the general public,” explained Mary Derrick, residential horticulture agent in the Santa Rosa County Extension.
Every one of Florida’s 67 counties has an extension office. Funding is a cooperative arrangement through federal sources, UF, and each county. The public can e-mail, call, or stop by their local extension, where no question is too elementary or complex.
Beth Bolles, extension agent for horticulture and natural resources with the Escambia County Extension, says their office receives many inquiries from people just beginning gardening or people who have gardened elsewhere and aren’t experienced growing in Northwest Florida’s climate. “If someone comes in and hasn’t gardened before, we go through the basic steps—how you prepare either the soil or container, the timing to plant, and successful things to start with.”
Both local extension offices offer courses on a range of gardening-related topics. Course listings are available on their respective websites. From growing herbs and vegetables to setting up rain barrel and aquaponics systems, the courses are usually a combination lecture and hands-on format. The extension agents and Master Gardeners—who train and volunteer at the extensions—also give presentations to public groups, tailored to the audience.
Escambia Extension’s 24,000 square foot demonstration garden has a number of stations, including raised beds and a therapeutic sensory garden that is raised for wheel chair accessibility. Likewise, Santa Rosa’s Demonstration Garden features various types of garden beds and trellises, showing off what vegetables, herbs, and flowers for natural pest control it’s possible to grow locally.
For those who are planting in their own soil, the extensions also offer soil testing for a fee of $7, which measures pH and the level of nutrients in the soil, and comes with fertilizer and/or liming recommendations. Nematode (microscopic worm) testing is available, too.
In addition to on-site education at the county Extensions, numerous free guides such as the “Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide,” are available through IFAS Extension’s Electronic Data Information Services (edis.ifas.ufl.edu).
IFAS Extension offers free e-mail subscriptions as well, through which they spread new research-based information. “We don’t provide products or services, just advice,” said Derrick, assuring that there are no sales or advertising, through the system, “It’s strictly getting information from UF experts.”
For additional information, visit escambia.ifas.ufl.edu and santarosa.ifas.ufl.edu.