Home Grown

Get your gardening off the ground with a raised bed.
With the demand for local produce on the rise, people are turning to their backyards to create fresh, organic food sources. But developing a viable vegetable garden can be a bit of a challenge, especially with Orlando’s hot summer temperatures and Florida soil best described as “sandy.” Luckily, Central Florida has a wealth of resources that can help you produce your own edible ecosystem at home.

“If you choose to do an in-the-ground garden, you have to build up the soil with organic matter and that takes time, so we always suggest raised beds for people just starting out,” says Henry Melendy, owner of My Yard Farm, an edible urban landscape and culinary garden company (myyardfarm.com). With an open-bottom raised bed garden frame, you choose and control the soil, he adds. 

Melendy, who has created beds for Audubon Park’s East End Market and many of the Orlando-area Marriott properties, suggests cedar wood for creating the bed frame because “it’s naturally pest resistant and has a long shelf life, even in our humidity. It can last anywhere from 7 to 10 years.”

While the size is up to you, it’s best to consider a frame that’s easy to maintain and keeps plants within reach. 

“I like boxes that are 8 feet by 4 feet,” says Joe Pacini, owner of Dali Lawna, Inc., an eco-friendly landscape and organic food provider (dalilawna.com). He also utilizes cedar planks and suggests making garden boxes 12 to 14 inches deep so that the roots of each plant have enough room to grow deep and strong. When assembling your garden box, Pacini recommends using wood screws instead of nails to avoid rust and to lengthen the lifespan of the box. 

“You’re going to want to put a brace on each corner of the raised bed to keep it contained,” he says. “Without braces, the box could split completely open because of the eventual pressure of all the fluffy, organic soil.”

While assembly may be a challenge, keeping everything organic is potentially the goal. 

“Organic primarily means using growing methods that don’t include chemical-based pesticides or fertilizers; it’s essential to steer clear of those [if you’re going organic],” says Chris Castro, founder of the local nonprofit IDEAS for Us (ideasforus.org). Organic also means exclusively buying seeds that are non-GMO (genetically modified organisms). 

Castro, Melendy and Pacini all suggest nutrient-rich Monterey Mushroom organic compost to condition your garden soil, which can be found at the Monterey Mushrooms facility in Zellwood, northwest of Apopka. Pacini advises mixing the compost with rock dust, which is easy to find online (rockdustlocal.com); it helps to “thicken” the soil and provides mineral fertilization.

Castro also recommends using organic, bio-based plants to keep pests out of your garden. “Sunflowers and dandelions do a good job, as do different flowering plants that bring beneficial pollinators to the garden,” he says. “It’s important to add those to your plot.”

Once your seeds or plants are in the ground, consider water management. Melendy suggests a timed drip-irrigation system. It provides water directly to the roots in a slow, precise, consistent manner—a necessity under Florida’s intense summer sun. A pressurized water source, such as a soaker hose, can also do the trick and can be found at your local home improvement store. 

The summer months are an ideal time to start planting a raised garden bed. Vegetable plants to consider for fall harvest include squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, lettuce, kale, spinach and herbs.

“Fall is the fun time,” says Melendy. “The best stretch of growing here is fall to winter to spring. It’s a big, consecutive season that starts in late September and lasts through the beginning of May.”

The ultimate reward is eating fresh, organic produce grown in your own backyard. Says Pacini: “Eating from my own garden feels right and good.”

Join the Fleet 

Put your backyard to good use and take part in the local Fleet Farming initiative started by Chris Castro of IDEAS, John Rife of East End Market, and other local environmental leaders. Here, Castro describes the concept:
Q. What is fleet farming?
A. Fleet farming is a pedal-powered urban food initiative happening in Audubon Park and Winter Park. When we look at overall global climate change, 33 percent of it can be attributed to the food system, from growing to packaging to distributing, to the grocery store and getting it. So we’re trying to find a local answer to urban food production.
Q. What exactly do you mean by “pedal-powered?”
A. Pedal-powered means that it’s completely zero emissions and carbon neutral. Our volunteers are “farmers” on a “fleet” of bicycles.
Q. So how does fleet farming work?
A. We approach homeowners to donate a portion of their lawn to growing food. This has a few benefits: It minimizes the use of fertilizer for your lawn; it saves on water use to maintain your grass because now that you have a plot, there’s less lawn; and every home that donates yard space joins our CSA (community supported agriculture) model. It’s essentially subscribing to locally grown produce every harvest. Produce grown in each individual home is gathered and distributed first among the vendors and then the homeowners. 
Q. What if I’m not a gardener?
A. We incorporate a community ride called “The Swarm,” and every week we go to the plots and maintain them. So you, as the homeowner, don’t have to worry about re-composting or weeding or harvesting—that’s what the fleet farmers are for. 
Sign up to be a volunteer farmer, home garden, or vendor at fleetfarming.com


Categories: Gardening