A growing number of consumers — in the most literal sense — will attest that there’s no better consumable than fresh vegetables picked from their own backyards. Likewise, freshly laid chicken or quail eggs deliver a taste upgrade over the mass-produced supermarket variety.
More Southwest Florida families, even those in residential neighborhoods, are getting serious about producing their own food at home. Benefits include taste, a sense of independence and the satisfaction of “tending to crops and animals for the benefit of mankind,” which is how University of Florida/IFAS extension agent Roy Beckford defines agriculture.
“It’s a way for us to micro-farm, if you want, or urban homesteading — there are a lot of words for it,” said Dianna Caminos, who tends to several raised beds full of fresh vegetables with her husband Glyn and daughter Emma on their half-acre lot in Lehigh Acres. “It’s a way to take back control of the food we eat.”
Sometimes however, taking control has to be done furtively. Livestock, which is often just one aspect of the grow-yourown eater’s strategy to control what they and their families consume, is contraband. In many places, an egg-laying chicken in your possession can produce in a hefty fine if you’re caught.
In a Cape Coral neighborhood, Rachell Skerlec and her family eat vegetables they grow on their property and honey collected from hives they tend. They also keep pet hens, Lu, Basil and Emilio, who lay some pretty tasty eggs as well.
Keeping chickens in residential neighborhoods is not permitted in unincorporated Lee County, and commissioners recently voted to keep the prohibition in place. But Ms. Skerlec and Ms. Caminos just this month helped form Backyard Chickens of Lee County in hopes of changing that.
“We’re not talking about the 99 cent cheap Walmart eggs,” said one of the members, responding to the Lee County Commissioners backyard chicken study, which says keeping chickens doesn’t really save people money on eggs. “We’re talking about the really good, free roaming chicken eggs.”
A handful of Backyard Chickens members, and their children, were there to sign a petition and begin the push to make keeping chickens in residential areas an option for families like theirs.
“I myself and a lot of people I know are afraid to come forward,” because code enforcement offers might pay them a visit, said Ms. Skerlec, who along with Ms. Caminos helped found the group. An older gentleman didn’t give his name but called himself “Mr. Lee” said the chicken restriction was “unrealistic, unfair and unproductive.”
Others raise fowl for meat, including one woman (unrelated to the Backyard Chicken group) who tends to quail, as well as rabbits, in backyard pens. She chose not to give her name for fear of drawing attention from a code enforcement officer.
“It’s not an easy thing to kill your own food,” she said. “We take it seriously. We also know the animals had the best possible life and best possible death.”
Ms. Caminos had to remove her chickens after a code enforcement officer said she’d be hit with hundreds of dollars every day in fines, a risk they can’t afford. Producing their own food has been one of their strategies to save money.
Notably, keeping chickens is allowed (with restrictions or special permits) in many cities, including Sarasota, Tampa and New York City. In Key West chickens roam where they please, unencumbered by any restrictions, even in front of City Hall.
Beautiful and edible
What’s more common than urban fowl are urban vegetable gardens that produce a rich variety of nourishment. Sara Fitzpatrick Comito and her 10-year-old backyard helper, Rhys Comito, on many evenings or weekends like to get their hands dirty.
“It’s nice family time,” says Ms. Comito, a poet and freelance journalist. “Rhys and I have had some deep conversations doing worm compost.”
John Comito said this is also a common thing to hear around their household near dinnertime: “Honey, go get me some basil. I need a little rosemary, too, and a little thyme, and oregano — we’re making a pizza.”
He’s not talking about herbs as dry as dandruff flakes plucked from a grocery store shelf: these are fresh and just a few steps out the back or front door. In the front yard, the Comito’s landscaping includes a patch of sweet potatoes’ heartshaped leaves, a burgeoning blackberry bramble, mint, and basil, all mixed with ornamental plants like bromeliads, into a seamless landscape.
In the back, a jicama plant — a root vegetable with an apple-like flavor popular in salads and made into a beverage — grows along their fence like ivy. There, they harvest rainwater straight from their rooftop gutter into a blue, 55-gallon barrel, which has a spout at the bottom like a keg.
They have another similar barrel by the A/C unit, rigged to catch the condensation that builds up there; it’s overflowing.
“Once we turned the A/C on this season, it only took a couple of days (to fill up),” Ms. Comito said.
Like the Skerlec and Caminos families, the Comitos are just getting their fall produce started. Squash, lettuce and tomatoes are on the menu, Mr. Comito said, drinking a beer at the end of the day and surveying his seedlings — a farmer in his field.
“We’ve worked the soil for three or four seasons now, and we’re still learning,” he said.
Even the family’s two well-fed cats are appropriately named: Parsnip and Oshinko.
Many may recall First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous Victory Gardens, urging people to grow their own food as the country weaned itself from war and depression. Her modern counterpart Hillary Clinton had a garden on the White House rooftop, suggestive of farming in the most urban settings. And current First Lady Michelle Obama also urged backyard gardening with her own extensive vegetable patch on the White House lawn.
Larger underlying issues of health, economics and the environment may have created the latest push toward farming closer to town, suggests Gene McAvoy, regional vegetable agent with the University of Florida/IFAS extension.
“We see a continuing increase in interest in, I’d call it more suburban agriculture,” he said. “There’s the whole ‘local’ movement that’s driven up interest. Just in general people are paying more attention to diets. The economy has some people looking for opportunities.”
Backyard farming is certainly not “unique, historically,” admits Southwest Florida builder Mark Anderson, CEO of Benchmark General Contractors, and a backyard gardener. But he sees this common-sense feature of American life coming back.
Mr. Anderson suggests urban vegetables gardens make just as much sense now as they did decades ago before falling out of fashion, in the wake of cheaply processed foods and the rise of fast-food giants.
“Where we historically were at with our land use and lifestyle was the unique part — we were totally out of touch as consumers. Now we’re back to where we’ve been, which is a good place to be.”
And as a builder, he is in favor of sustainable developments that include deliberately designed space for gardens, in both residential and commercial settings. That includes not just backyard gardens but urban community gardens — ones that taste great and look good, too — in places like empty lots.
“It’s pretty easy to do,” Mr. Anderson said.
Andrea Guerrero, founder of the nonprofit Heartland Gardens in Fort Myers, has made it a mission to create 500 local, food-producing gardens on vacant lots or wherever you might traditionally see ornamental landscaping work. The goal is to make the gardens look as good as they taste.
“What it comes down to is creating an edible landscape,” she said. “If you’re going to landscape your home you’re looking to beautify it, right? Well, why not make it beautiful and edible?”
She points to the larger community health benefits of growing your own food, the preservation of fossil fuels it entails, and the economic benefits. Mr. Anderson of Benchmark General Contractors let her use a 1-acre space on one of his properties to create a scenic and edible garden in the shape of a labyrinth.
Ms. Guerrero says she plans to talk about this with other builders and landscapers to help explain a new way of looking at their work, based on the idea of “permaculture.” A permaculture certification course Heartland Gardens hosts in February is directed at the area’s professional builders, landscapers, gardeners and city planners.
“It’s not just about the food and the farm, but an entire system together that provides a living system, sustainable throughout the roughest type of economic pressure,” she said. “It’s really about longevity.”
You too can be a city farmer
Santiago De Choch was speaking to an outdoor crowd of well over 100 people — who appeared mostly in there 50s or 60s — without a microphone on a hot Saturday morning. They had gathered by the Alliance for the Arts GreenMarket stage to hear him explain how to produce vegetables in tight spaces: in a residential neighborhood, with or without a yard, and cheaply.
“This is one way, not the way,” said Mr. De Choch (pronounced coach), the market manager, as people took scrupulous notes and listened carefully.
He explained how to plant the seedlings in small containers — you plant more than you need to “ensure germination” and then trim back the excess later — then move them to 6-inch pots and later to a raised bed in the yard, or windowsill planter, or wherever. Make sure to poke holes in the bottoms of the containers (reuse old plastic ones if you want) for drainage.
He demonstrated different vegetables and succulents that can grow in your windowsill or on the lanai: carrots, garlic, onion, radicchio, lettuces and peppers. These are not the big, shiny supermarket variety, he warned; but they are delicious. Getting the right amount of sunlight keeps them healthy, and be sure to water them “every single day, a gentle rain.”
Southwest Florida soil, especially the stuff of residential backyards in family neighborhoods like North Port or Fort Myers Shores or East Naples, is famously lousy, full of sand. That’s why the Comitos say the key is worm compost. Mr. De Choch uses his own special mix that includes lots of very cheap soil as a base, with worm castings and a bit of something peatier.
Mr. De Choch and his daughter, who helped him put on the presentation, used a special “high-tech tool,” perhaps an old coffee table leg, to stir up the dirt mixture in a wheelbarrow. He offered tips such as: if you’re growing lemongrass, it gets huge, so it’s going to need some extra root space. Everglades tomato plants can also get big and tangled.
“It was killing the weeds,” Mr. De Choch said of ones he grew.
Because he was telling the crowd how to grow food organically, he said mulch was key. A method of pest control is mixing either cheap white vinegar or crushed red pepper flakes or dish soap with water and spraying the plants. This is “not a kill-all solution, like chemicals,” he said. But it’s organic and it helps.
He held up some green peppers in a pot. “This is what you can have, you know, even in your lanai,” he said. “I am a fan of peppers. They keep producing. They last years, years. Cayenne, green peppers, all those guys.”
An old woman walked up to the edge of the crowd, presumably with her husband, to see what Mr. De Choch was so enthusiastically explaining in his bright, personable style.
“What’s he selling?” she asked, a question directed at perhaps herself, her husband, or anyone in the vicinity.
Just a vision of urban agriculture. ¦
in the know
>> Here are some of the upcoming classes at Heartland Gardens. ¦ 5:30-6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6: Composting 104 Build a Pile. Composting is the basis for growing more and better quality vegetables. Students must bring a 5-gallon bucket of “green material” such as grass clippings, weeds and non-meat kitchen scraps. $10 ¦ 5:30-7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 12: Mushrooms 101 Growing Gourmet. Come away with the know-how to cultivate your very own mushroom log. Every participant leaves with an inoculated log. $30 ¦ 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20: Herbs 101 Build your Herb Box. Every student receives a fully stocked herb box complete with fertilizer, medicinal and cooking applications and full care instructions. $50 ¦ 9-11 a.m. Saturdays, Jan.15 through April 22: Grow Your Food. From seed to harvest, this comprehensive course will teach you how to organically grow your own food in Southwest Florida. Everyone shares the harvest of an array of crops grown in class. This class teaches a form of bio-intensive mini-farming which is sustainable and can yield as much as 300 pounds of food per 100 square feet. Course website: http://growyourfood.weebly.com. $125 ¦ 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb.12- 19: The Permaculture Design Certification Course. Attention all landscape professionals, builders, contractors, ecologists, gardeners, city planners. Do you want to make real changes in the economic terrain? Do you want to appeal to your supporters with edible landscapes and a truly self-sustainable food system? This invaluable intensive course is for you. Learn how to create self-sustaining and whole living systems around dwellings, towns and cities. Improve your local economy and increase nutritional wellness by bringing accessibility to whole organics fruits and vegetables. Course website: http://heartlandgardenspermaculture. weebly.com/index. html ¦ More information: www.heartlandgardens.org.