Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Gardening by the square foot

At our office, huddling over midday lunch is not uncommon. What smells so good in here? What is that? Wait, you grew it in your GARDEN!?  For those of us who prefer an urban lifestyle with no backyard, fresh produce doesn’t seem attainable. The reality is quite different! It’s amazing the amount of food that can be produced in tiny spaces.

The "monster" pineapple plant
The last apartment I lived in had a fairly large patio with full sunlight that scorched anything I put out there. I experimented several times, but had only one survivor – a pineapple plant (which took on a life of its own) but bore the most amazing fruit I have ever tasted. When I moved to my home, I started getting the itch to garden on a larger scale. Almost a year later I've got a decent little vegetable, fruit, and herb garden in little pots and containers in my patio. I’ve experimented with scotch bonnet peppers, passion fruit, garlic chives, basil, mint (almost exclusively for cocktails), tomatoes, carrots, arugula, lettuce, squash, and beets in small containers and pots.

I have to admit, I'm a Caribbean girl, and gardening is not unfamiliar to me. We had potted herbs growing at home among large almond and mango trees, and an estate where larger crops were grown, harvested and the excess sold to nearby restaurants and hotels. Watching plants nurtured from seed to deliciously prepared on a plate is both fascinating and rewarding. It really does make you appreciate the course nature has laid out to nourish us, and it feels good to be eating more local – it  can't get much more local than your own backyard! Whether you live on a rural farm in the Redlands or in a tiny South Beach apartment, growing your own fresh produce should not scare you!

Container gardens are great for small spaces
Container gardening allows urban residents with small yards, patios balconies or a sunny window ledge to grow practically any plants in any container. You can use almost anything for a garden planter as long as it is big enough and has good drainage; old coffee cans, wooden or plastic barrels, used tires, burlap sacks, jars, tins, buckets, old watering cans and even shoes are among the items creative container gardeners use – reduce, reuse, recycle! If you’re a total novice and growing vegetables seems intimidating, try herbs first; they’re easy to grow and require little maintenance. A quick snip of rosemary for meat dishes, or mint for a cocktail is right at your fingertips! If you’re willing to be more adventurous, try different varieties of lettuces, tomatoes, peppers and arugula.

For some amazing inspiration, check out the journal at  Path to Freedom is the urban homestead of the Dervaes family, from Pasadena, California. They grow almost all of their own food on tiny plot (1/10 of an acre) in addition to raising chickens and ducks! They also keep bees, brew their own biodiesel and live as self-sufficiently as possible. Try doing that in Kendall!

A Roots agricultural trainee
works on a patch of collard greens.
If you prefer to get your hands dirty, and join others who enjoy cultivation, community gardening may be your best bet. There are an estimated 10,000 community gardens in the U.S. alone, allowing people who don’t have access to land of their own or who simply want the holistic community experience of growing food, connecting with the environment and interacting with other members of the community. In community gardens, residents share the responsibility of maintaining the garden. Some community gardens are collective – instead of dividing land between members – so everyone shares in each other’s efforts. Excess produce is either shared among members or sold for a profit at local farmers’ markets and CSAs. In basic terms, CSAs consist of a community of individuals who support a farm or garden operation so that the land becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.*   Members of the farm cover the anticipated costs of farm operation in advance and in return, they receive shares in the farm’s produce throughout the growing season. Shares and produce vary by farm, and some CSAs include the option for shareholders to buy shares of eggs, homemade bread, meat, cheese, fruit, flowers or other local farm products along with their veggies.  CSAs benefit you by providing a constant supply of fresh, locally grown produce offered at the peak of the season for ripeness and absolute freshness. Small farmers are able to grow produce that is better tasting and more nutritious than that of larger commercial farms, which grow fruits and vegetables (sometimes genetically modified...eek!) designed to be mechanically harvested and transported greater distances to get to your local supermarkets.

Miami is slowly getting up to speed with the rest of the country; community gardens have sprouted in Miramar, Liberty City and Overtown. There are still lots of hurdles though; in certain areas, the City doesn’t have an adequate permitting system to allow urban farmers to take full advantage of their lots. A few local organizations have been meticulously working to bring awareness of the benefits of urban gardening to the public, especially in disadvantaged areas. Roots in the City was founded in 1994, focused on community development, creating jobs and beautifying Miami's inner city. The organization has established several community gardens and tree nurseries in the Overtown area. The Urban Oasis is geared toward eradicating urban food deserts where you can't find a fresh tomato, but can easily buy packaged processed food. Their goal is to replace an urban food desert with an urban food oasis one community garden at a time. The gardens allow residents to pick more or less free produce, while engaging in outdoor activities with the entire family. The Little River CSA, run by Muriel Olivares (who also created the garden and runs it on a daily basis) is a vegetable, cut flower and herb garden.  Although the garden is not certified yet, only organic and sustainable practices of agriculture are used.

If you have sunlight, an empty container, and a curiosity to grow your own food then give it a try. Container gardens are limited only by imagination, so get planting Miami!

For tips on urban gardening in Miami, or to volunteer with any one of the organizations in this article, please visit:

     Miramar Community Garden -
     Roots in the City -
     The Urban Oasis -
     The Little River CSA -


  1. Great post! I remember when you first sent a the picture of your first home grown pineapple!

    Good job Honey!

  2. Excellent post!!!
    You are not only preaching it, you are living it!

  3. Fantastic Post El. Well done!

    Funny topic that. When I was in St. Lucia, as far back as I can remember I was never able to care for any plant. And I will stress I have tried and tried. Eventually I decided to give up.

    Now in the UK I thought I should give it another go. Robin bought me a Bonsai Tree and that too was dead in no time or so I thought. (Before long I disposed of this dead tree only later to find out the leaves had fallen out because of-course it was in the winter) Foolish uh! You see I didn't give it a second thought at all. All I say to myself is I can't plant anything!!!!!

    Is it that I DO NOT have Green Fingers? Well that's it for me.

    Saying so, over the Easter Holidays Tia, Cathy and I went to Hull, East Yourkshire in the UK. The surprising thing is Tia help her Nana Carol plant a tomato plant which she enjoyed. It's now been a couple of weeks and so far so good. She is looking after it better than I would. (Way to go Tia!)

    Well I will update you on this tomato plant.

  4. Good stuff! Very informative. My dad is all into growing tomatos in earthboxes now. Thought he was crazy at first when I saw him bring storage containers home...but, now I am really enjoying the tomatoes :) Completely organic and free! Nothing better than that...