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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

Wanted: Positive Deviants (Part 3) – Maria

My friend, Brad, is almost as nosy as I am as we’re both always on the prowl for interesting gardens. And though we wholeheartedly endorse gardening in pretty much any form, we’re particularly enthusiastic about those eclectic, diverse home gardens often planted by migrants.

Here in the tropical fringe of Southwest Florida, gardeners from Central America and the Caribbean, and even tropical Asia, find our climate somewhat like that of their homelands. Despite the occasional winter frost and rare freeze, most warm-climate crops thrive here, particularly if the challenges of our sandy soil (e.g., negligible organic matter, poor moisture retention) are considered.

Living on the margins of mainstream culture, successful migrant gardeners generally follow their own rules for growing preferred crops. Often without gardening experts to turn to for advice, they learn by trial and error. They also tend to operate under the radar. It’s not because they’re doing anything unlawful. Instead, they modestly assume that most others aren’t that interested in what they do.

Now back to Brad. A couple of years ago he walked into my office to tell me about an amazing garden that he had seen growing behind a hedge next to a fast food place not too far from his house.

As Brad and wife, Trish, had lived in Honduras for several years, he recognized that this garden was Central American by design. He said that practically every inch around the gardener’s home was planted in a diversity of crops. We agreed that we should investigate. But soon afterward, he and Trish moved to Atlanta where they continue to spy out migrant gardens in DeKalb County. Unfortunately, I would have to figure out how to investigate this garden without their help.

One day while on business in that part of town I parked at the fast food restaurant. From a safe distance, I could see the garden that Brad had described. He had not exaggerated either. In technical terms, you wouldn’t be able to sling a cat without hitting an interesting, edible plant. There were also a couple of women harvesting and washing handfuls of leafy vegetables. Starting to feel a bit like a creeper, I took my leave. However, I was determined to make a proper introduction someday.

It wasn’t too long before I was back in the neighborhood. Walking by the house, I saw a man, about my age, sitting outside repairing a lamp. Summoning up my courage, I walked up to the gentleman and extended greetings. Within 25 seconds I had depleted all my Spanish and he seemed to run out of English as well. But as I liked him, and he seemed to be fine with me, I let him know that I’d be back for another visit.

Scheming up the best way to connect with my new gardening heroes, I turned to a colleague, Cecilia, who was born in Ecuador. After bribing her with a meal at a cheap taco place across the street from the gardeners, we headed over to our destination and knocked on the door. When the lady of the house answered, Cecilia confidently made introductions in Spanish. At last. I could now begin to learn from the masters.

To our surprise, the lady cut Cecilia off, stating that she didn’t understand Spanish that well. Then she disappeared. What? My dreams of further gardening enlightenment were about to be dashed and Cecilia would hate me forever.

A moment later, the lady reappeared with a younger woman. In English much better than my Hillbilly-ese, Irma (the daughter) explained that her family was from the uplands of Guatemala. Mayan Acateco by heritage, her mom (Maria), isn’t comfortable in Spanish. They had moved to the US in the 1980s and eventually bought this house where Maria began planting the food crops of their heritage, figuring out how to make them grow in the sands of Southwest Florida.

After sharing a chilled beverage made from sweet corn, Maria and Irma showed us around their home garden. The property was so packed with crop diversity that we couldn’t take it all in. One key plant was chipilin (Crotalaria longirostrata) a Central American perennial vegetable that I had heard of but never seen. Underneath an overstory of small jacote trees (Spondias purpurea), we saw leaf amaranth, chile peppers and a type of mustard green growing in abundance.

There was also a crop of barley growing beneath the trees. Irma and Maria later explained that the grain, grown in the uplands of Guatemala, is puffed or popped for a snack as well as made into a beverage.

I noticed that the soil around their home had been improved with heavy applications of compost. Asked where they obtained their supply, they replied that it was bought from my preferred source, Lee County Solid Waste.

Naturally, the main purpose of the family’s home garden is to supply greens, herbs and other types of food for their table. And with extra to spare, Maria also sells veggies within the neighborhood.

At a later visit, I discovered that the family had

purchased an empty lot next to their home. This property had essentially been fallowed underneath a stand of Australian pines (Casuarina equisetifolia). Even though the trees had been recently removed, their biomass had accumulated over the years, resulting in surprisingly dark, rich soil. Still, Maria continues to add her beloved compost.

During this year’s rainy season, the lot had been transformed into a field of heirloom maize, black beans and amaranth; essentially an Acateco “three sisters” cropping concept.

Maria has been extremely generous with her information and plant material, sharing with us seeds of barley, maize and chipilin. They also recently hosted a visit from 40 attendees of the 2018 ECHO International Agriculture Conference, patiently answering our questions. Everyone thought Maria was a rock star.

In previous blogs, I have asserted the importance of positive deviants related to my vocation of promoting home gardening and sustainable agriculture. We appreciate them as they genuinely demonstrate what’s possible under challenging circumstances.

Maria is one of those folks. Despite bad soil and limited space, she has an exceptionally unique and productive garden that’s relevant to the work of Cultivate Abundance. And even though she’s barely aware of it, Maria is already having an impact on us and our work.

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