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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

Testing the Container Garden Concept

Bernabela, Amalia and several other Immokalee women made it very clear that local farmworker families often struggle to put nutritious food of their preference on the table. They also explained the reasons, including inadequate income and the challenge of gardening in a densely packed trailer community where free-range chickens roam.

Working together to overcome household and community food insecurity challenges, there’s much to sort out. But to get things started, we decided to begin focusing on one shared hope; that gardening in small places is possible.

That said, gardening won’t be the only approach taken to address farmworker food challenges. But it will play a key role and involve many partners, including those living in Immokalee and their friends in neighboring communities.

Gardening to address food security in challenged communities is not an original idea. For much of human history, home gardens have been the norm. People grew their own food. In fact, almost everyone in Immokalee gardened and farmed in their home communities in Haiti, Guatemala and Mexico. But now they put food on American plates while facing uncertainty about their own meals.

In the US, with the advent of the industrial food system that produces larges volumes of relatively cheap food shipped from coast to coast – and in which Immokalee plays a major role - home gardening went through a post-war decline. Who wants to garden if the Jolly Green Giant (and farmworkers) will do it for you? Yet in America’s food deserts, it’s often a challenge to access quality and affordable food. And that’s exactly where community gardening movements have gained the most traction, particularly in urban areas.

Community gardening is part of Cultivate Abundance’s mandate with initial efforts already taking place at the Covenant Presbyterian “Together We Grow” site in Fort Myers as well as preparations for the Misión Peniel garden in Immokalee.

In the meantime, we’re also working with a hypothesis that simple container gardens can affordably improve access to nutrients for food insecure farmworker households in the food deserts of Immokalee. In fact, we’ve moved beyond the hypothesis stage, testing our household container garden concept among a dozen Immokalee and Ft. Myers households.

Our current container garden approach is by no means a new technique. Nor is it rocket science.

Basically, we’re using widely available low-cost or free 3-5-gallon containers and affordable potting mix to grow culturally appropriate nutritional vegetable crop varieties. For the hot, humid summer months (the most challenging time to raise annual vegetables in Southwest Florida), we’re trialing select varieties that grow well in containers, suit a wide range of tastes and hopefully hold up to heat, humidity and pests.

Currently, we’re experimenting with select varieties of cherry tomato, okra, eggplant and various baby leaf vegetables, including purslane as well as heat-tolerant lettuce, mustard and amaranth. Our test gardeners have agreed to look after pre-planted containers for a period of 2-3 months (possibly longer) and keep records on the performance of the crops and techniques, including weights of produce. That should give us a better idea of how productive the crops grown in container gardens might be.

To kick things off, in late April we held a container gardening workshop at Misión Peniel in Immokalee. A crew representing Immokalee households and Ft. Myers volunteers produced several dozen container gardens within a couple of hours. Our assembly line moistened the potting mix and placed the media into containers with pre-drilled drainage holes, incorporating a small handful of slow release fertilizer. After planting each seedling, the gardeners added a layer of mulch along with a small dose of fish emulsion before watering it all in.

Container gardeners were divided out and delivered to the test gardener’s homes; each household equipped with a set of kitchen scales and forms for recording data.

We don’t expect every vegetable variety to meet expectations. While inviting feedback on how to make the container gardens better, we’re encouraged by reports of fresh veggies. And some of the gardeners have developed techniques to control Immokalee’s free-range chickens.

In whatever form or fashion that the container garden approach takes, we will be certain that it’s all done the Immokalee way.

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