Katia is a friend, a farm volunteer, a CSA member and most recently an avid backyard gardener. Last year she purchased her first home with her husband Michael and they set out to give the yard a makeover before anything else. Katia had been volunteering at our farm often and always asked questions to educate herself about growing food plants in our South Florida climate. Her new home came with a beautiful garden full of butterfly plants, natives and orchids, but Katia and Michael didn't hesitate to make some sacrifices in order to make room for a large vegetable garden. I've been amazed to watch the transformation and the success they had, it's a truly inspiring story. Now that she has finished her first growing season and is transitioning the garden into summer mode, I wanted to interview Katia about her experience growing food at home. I was curious about her process and motivation. All of these photos are from an instagram account Katia created to document her garden, check out @gardenerkatia for many more beautiful pics.
Q: You recently transformed your lush tropical backyard into a vegetable garden. What motivated you to take out large trees and plants to make room for veggie crops?
A: Many things motivated me to transform my garden into an edible garden: 1. The flavor and nutrition is fresher than store bought produce and cooking becomes more simple and enjoyable. 2. I do not waste food because I plant and harvest as I need and the scraps for compost go back to regenerate the soil 3. Home grown food makes wonderful gifts to friends, co-workers, clients and family. It also inspires others to grow their own food. 4. Connecting with nature is therapeutic mentally and physically. 5. It’s great for the environment and it attracts beautiful wildlife to my backyard.
Q: I understand you manage your garden using organic guidelines. What does that mean exactly and why is important for you?
A: I practice organic farming because it conditions the soil to help build strong and productive plants that are less prone to pests and diseases. The way I keep the soil strong and healthy is by feeding it compost. I also add a little chicken manure, kelp meal and crab meal as needed. I also plant organic seedlings and seeds for my USDA Hardiness zone so that they will thrive and won't need a lot of extra care. I also follow the seasons and plant accordingly. I plant a diversity of crops which helps deter pests and attracts beneficial bugs like bees and ladybugs. I also weed by hand. However, most of the weeds are controlled because I mulch and add hay on the top of the soil which helps control weed growth while keeping moisture in the soil. I also use a rain water collection system which collects mineral rich rainwater I use to water my plants. Organic farming is very important to me because its a very simple way to interact with nature while nature feeds you and others.
Q: After a full growing season, are you satisfied with what your garden has produced? Can you give some examples of the crops you grew and which ones produced best for you?
A: The garden production exceeded my expectations. Strawberries were one of those crops that I planted in October and are still producing in May. Sweet potatoes grew bigger and more flavorful than expected. The edamame tasted like pistachios and the tomato plants produced plentiful and healthy tomatoes. Other crops that did very well were: Suyo long cucumbers, Ashley cucumber, mouse melons, collard greens, New Zealand spinach, red rain mustards, mizuna, arugula, rainbow kale, dinosaur kale, all spice, fennel, lemongrass, pineapple, nasturtiums, Seminole pumpkin, calamondin, winged beans, lima beans, carrots, radishes, boniato, napa cabbage, rapini, cayenne pepper, habanero peppers, biscayne peppers, spring onions and many culinary herbs.
Q: What was the most difficult part of managing your garden during your first growing season? Plant selection? Weather? Soil management? Pests? Keeping up with the harvest?
A: The most difficult part was crop rotation and keeping up with a planting schedule. Growing food to feed your family requires forward thinking; nature plays a big part in crop selection and some crops might are fickle harvest to harvest so expectation and production change with each year and season. I feel like I planted too much kale and New Zealand spinach but some of it is being preserved in the freezer to use for later. Being creative is really helpful when it comes to keeping up with the harvest.
Q: Is there an on-line source you use for reference when you have a gardening question? If not, where do you go for information and help?
A: Yes and no. I use Google when looking for gardening inspiration ideas and more in-depth information regarding crops and pest control. However, it’s hard to find information regarding South Florida’s diverse growing seasons online since it differs greatly from other parts of the United States. Local resources that are available in South Florida are my best asset. For example, I love the book: “Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida” by Ginny Stibolt and Melissa Contreras. There is a lot of information in the book in regards to South Florida. Edible South Florida and The Tropical Garden by Fairchild Tropical Garden are two of my favorite local magazines on gardening. Additionally, talking to farmers at the farmers market, visiting and volunteering at farms are great benefits for local gardeners.
Q: What are some of the things you learned from the experience of growing your own food at home?
A: I learned that great soil is needed in order to grow flavorful and healthy food. I learned how to tell when the crops are hungry and how feeding the soil is important. This task has turned into a hobby.
Q: Now that summer is coming you are planting a few summer friendly edibles as well as cover crops? Why are you incorporating cover crops and which ones? Which summer edibles did you choose to grow and why?
A: I am using buckwheat and Tennessee peanuts as cover crops this Summer to replenish the soil. Buckwheat acts as a weed suppressor, it loosens the topsoil and it produces beautiful white flowers that pollinators and beneficial insects love. Tennessee Peanuts provide nitrogen to the soil and you can also eat them. For Summer crops I am planting Cuban oregano, eggplant, roselle, papaya, everglades cherry tomatoes, bananas, peppers, arugula, ground cherries, passion fruit, mint, rosemary, sunflowers, collard greens, curly kale, okra, vanilla bean orchid, aloe vera, sweet potatoes, lima beans, pineapple and boniato. These are all South Florida summer loving crops.