It’s a hot October morning in Immokalee and dozens of volunteers are gathered on a concrete slab behind the Misión Peniel building. Lively music from the local radio station, Radio Conciencia, fills the air. The mood is festive.
Among those gathered are students from the University of Miami, local housewives and a few children. Throw in some volunteers from Ft. Myers, representatives of the Immokalee Soccer School and Academy and two visitors from Hope Seeds, an international seed provider. These are exactly the folks we need to get an assembly line of container gardens up and going.
Based on previous discussions with Immokalee farmworker wives about ways to improve access to fresh food according to community preferences, household container gardening was determined to be one of the key strategies to explore. And over a period of four months, several of these households evaluated their own container gardens that were made up of various types of vegetables grown in buckets and tubs.
By the fourth month, not everyone was successful in their container gardening attempt. Not every variety of vegetable was appreciated. And not every type of container was deemed effective. However, group feedback pointed us not only to the sort of vegetables that we should be growing, at least for the early cool season, but also the best types of containers in which to produce these crops.
The next step was to help raise local awareness about container gardening; not that growing things in containers is a new concept. Driving around Immokalee’s farmworker neighborhoods, pots and tubs of veggies and flowers are seen here and there. But to take the promotion of container gardening to the next level, we decided to concentrate our efforts towards expanding participation from a handful of households to at least two or three dozen.
As our garden advisory group is made up of 10 local women, in late August we suggested that each member invite two or more households to participate in a planned container gardening event at Misión Peniel scheduled for October 19. The 20 or so new gardeners could either pay a minimum fee of $10 for a set of six containers or compensate for the cost by volunteering in the Misión Peniel garden for a couple of hours.
Meanwhile, we got busy with seeding up flats of lettuce, mustard, cilantro, amaranth, Guatemalan kale, eggplant, jalapeño and okra, protecting the emerging seedlings under makeshift, but effective, “greenhouses” made of discarded glass shower doors and concrete blocks.
Prior to our container garden event we had lined up assistance from University of Miami students coming to volunteer in Immokalee over their fall break. By October 19, a list of 30 garden adopters had been finalized. We also had a home garden concept for them to evaluate.
Specifically, each participating household would receive two five-gallon containers (with drainage holes in the bottom) filled with potting mix and planted with one seedling of either jalapeño, okra or eggplant. They would also receive four four-gallon tubs (with drainage holes drilled slightly up the sides) filled with potting soil. Each tub would be planted with six seedlings of either lettuce, mustard, amaranth, Guatemalan kale or cilantro.
For the container garden assembly line, we had prepared several work stations. The first group would shovel potting mix into a wheel barrow to be taken to the second station where the mix was moistened. Three- year old Cary Flanagan, under the supervision of her parents Robin and Brian, was our youngest volunteer. She quickly mastered the art of mixing water into the soil.
After the soil was adequately moistened, it was placed into containers and given a dose of slow-release fertilizer. Soil-filled containers were then handed over to a team of local Mexican and Guatemalan ladies who would expertly transplant seedlings into each bucket or tub. Labels identifying each crop were stuck into the planted containers.
Next, the seedlings were watered and a mulch layer of peanut hay was applied to the soil surface. The final step was an application of fish emulsion fertilizer before the containers were placed in an area for pick up.
All in all, 240 containers were planted. These included 60 buckets, each holding a jalapeño, okra or eggplant seedling as well as 120 tubs containing six seedlings of leafy vegetables. A total of 780 seedlings were planted
that day with not many to spare.
By late afternoon, 20 sets of gardens (two buckets and four tubs per family) had been picked up and/or delivered. We had hoped that all 30 sets would have been claimed but the leftovers were chalked up to miscommunication and transportation issues.
Nothing went to waste though. Some of the 20 participating gardeners were glad to take on an extra pot or two. And with the assistance of the University of Miami students and boys from the Immokalee Soccer School and Academy, by the end of the next day, the rest of the veggies had been planted in the 12-bed Misión Peniel Education Garden.
The result? Thanks to the effort of dozens of volunteers and local gardeners, between October 19 and 20, 21 gardens were established in Immokalee. Whereas 20 of the gardens are under the care of Immokalee’s container gardening pioneers, the 21st garden - made up of raised beds, perennial vegetables and fruit trees - is being tended jointly by friends and neighbors of Misión Peniel.