Learning Together Part II: Listening to the Evaluators
Earlier in the year we took part in discussions with representatives of Immokalee farmworker households about the challenge of accessing quality food. First, we worked through the root causes of this problem. These causes were: 1) quality food of choice is expensive and/or not available, and 2) it’s not easy in garden in cramped trailer parks.
Then we flipped the issue into a goal - quality food of choice is locally available. And instead of a solution that merely imports free, or low-cost, surplus food for distribution in Immokalee, we agreed to work towards community-sourced nutrition that’s based on crops of local preference.
That would mean more locally grown cassava, malanga or sweet potatoes and perhaps less instant macaroni and cheese. That would result in more fresh kale, collards, amaranth or mustard from Southwest Florida as opposed to accepting canned spinach. We would up our game to provide regular access to bananas, plantains, carambola, papaya, mangoes and avocados that we can grow, harvest or share rather than buying more processed snacks. And instead of being passive recipients, our local partners would directly participate in the production, distribution and consumption of quality food.
Having considered local gardening challenges (e.g., pests, chickens, no land for gardens), we also envisioned how gardening in Immokalee might be possible. We determined that the best approach would be to: 1) find ways to control pests and chickens; 2) explore food production techniques suitable for cramped places; and 3) locate and develop suitable community garden sites.
Focusing on gardening approaches for limited space, our hypothesis was that simple container gardens can affordably improve access to nutrients for those living in the food deserts of Immokalee. To test this theory, we launched an evaluation of simple household container gardening techniques among a dozen Immokalee and Ft. Myers households.
Our concept gardens were 3-5 gallon buckets and tubs with holes drilled at or near the bottom and filled with affordable potting mix along with a dose of slow-release fertilizer.
We also experimented with growing select culturally-appropriate crop varieties that were likely to tolerate summer conditions. These container crops included cherry tomato, okra, eggplant and various baby leaf vegetables, including purslane as well as heat-tolerant lettuce, mustard and amaranth.
After a late-April workshop during which containers were assembled and planted with the select crops, the Immokalee and Fort Myers-based test evaluators took their gardens home and tended them over a period of four hot, steamy months. They were also equipped and coached on how to maintain observations and records regarding the performance of the crops and techniques, including the weight of the produce.
Over those months we received feedback- written, verbal and photos - from most of the gardeners with a final late August listening session at Misión Peniel. A few kept detailed records and the others did the best they could.
This is what we learned:
Simple container gardens comprised of buckets and tubs with adequate drainage holes filled with potting mix are adequate. However, for deep-rooted container crops such as okra, tomato and eggplant,
the bigger the container the better. As the soil in 4-gallon buckets dried out quickly during hot, dry days, almost everyone recommended using 5-gallon buckets instead. (which means more potting mix required). However, the 3-gallon tubs were fine for shallow-rooted leafy vegetable crops such as lettuce and mustard assuming they were watered daily.
Whereas the Immokalee folks weren’t too impressed with the cherry tomatoes, mainly due to summer disease, watering issues and the smallness of the fruit – some of the Ft. Myers test gardeners thought they were okay. When asked whether we should try growing bigger tomatoes in container gardens, the Immokalee ladies responded, “What’s the point? Immokalee is awash in tomatoes during the winter.”
We learned that while many of the southern Mexicans are familiar with eggplant, the northern Guatemalans are not. Despite growing a very hardy container variety of eggplant that produced quite well all summer long, the smallness of the fruit was another issue.
Okra was probably the most successful container plant with endorsements all around.
Baby leaf vegetables grown in 3-gallon tubs were also quite popular. These included a heat-tolerant type of leaf lettuce, mustard greens, vegetable amaranth and a type of Guatemalan kale that we found through a seed company that resembles a variety we observed growing in the garden of a local Guatemalan-American family.
Despite interest in purslane as a container vegetable crop, the variety that we evaluated was not impressive.
A few of the container gardeners experimented with making “garden cages” out of orange construction fencing to keep the pesky chickens out.
Although several plants of chaya and chipilin were shared, we were not ready to begin promoting such perennial vegetables for container production.
With this feedback and experience, we were able to draw several conclusions:
Container gardening of select culturally appropriate crops is feasible and appreciated by Immokalee households. In fact, if one is observant, container gardens can be seen growing here and there in the community. It’s not a new concept.
By choosing the right varieties, container gardening is even possible during the challenging hot, humid summer months.
Container gardening can be kept affordable and simple by using/reusing large nursery pots, plastic buckets and tubs with decent soil and adequate drainage.
A slow-release fertilizer helps to maintain soil fertility over several months but should eventually be supplemented with more slow-release plant food and/or timely doses of liquid fertilizer.
To keep container soils from drying out between deep, daily waterings, larger containers (greater than four gallons) were preferred for larger, deep-rooted crops such as okra, tomato and eggplant.
The soil mix used in the containers can be used over and over for sequential cropping, thereby maximizing the initial investment. However, soil and fertilizer will need to be supplemented over time with excessive roots from the previous crop possibly removed.
One final observation – during the evaluation period, immigration officials (ICE) made the first appearance in Immokalee in memory. For three days, local Latino residents were terrorized and would not leave their homes. We realized that container gardens – which we also call doorstep gardens – can play a key role in maintaining household access to fresh food when it’s not safe to leave the home.
We also discussed the possibility of preparing and distributing tubs of baby leaf vegetables among local elderly residents who have very limited income. This might be a garden version of Meals on Wheels.
At the conclusion of the August workshop we asked if any of the local women would care to serve on a Cultivate Abundance advisory committee to help us plan and promote future container garden efforts as well as to assist with the development of the Misión Peniel Educational Garden. Six of the women volunteered immediately with four more asking to join days later.
With experiences gained, lessons learned and a committee to advise and assist us, we knew that it was time to take the Immokalee gardening project to the next level – inviting more families, including Haitians, to participate in the container garden initiative and help with the establishment and maintenance of the Misión Peniel Educational Garden.