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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

Gardening Lessons and So Much More Learned in 2020

The beginning of the year is probably the busiest time for nonprofits as we crunch numbers from the previous year, analyze the data and share the results.

For example, in 2020, we grew, collected, and shared 27,842 lbs. (almost 14 tons) of local, nutrient-dense produce amounting to 74,033 food servings that were shared among 300-500 clients served each week at Misión Peniel in Immokalee.

Besides updating our organizational metrics, we have also been reflecting on the practical lessons learned over the previous 12 months of growing, harvesting, collecting, and sharing food. Many of these insights are based on food production trial and error and perhaps of interest to gardeners and other small-scale food producers in Southwest Florida.

A few other 2020 lessons pertain to health and organizational matters.

So here are some of our lessons learned over the past year:

Garden crop production

  • Cassava, a tropical root crop, planted directly in the field as horizontal stem cuttings – as is often done in other parts of the world - performed poorly compared to 14-inch cuttings vertically stuck (or inserted in a somewhat slanted position) in gallon pots for rooting about two months prior to transplanting.

  • Sweet potato cuttings (allowed to root for at least a few days in buckets of water) performed much better when transplanted in February and harvested in the early summer compared to sweet potatoes planted in the summer. Our sense is that hotter summers are increasingly detrimental to sweet potato production in Southwest Florida.

  • Papaya trees must be staked. The combination of local sandy soil and winds (especially during tropical storms) leaves top-heavy, fruit-laden trees vulnerable to toppling.

  • Everyone knows that proper water management is crucial for growing crops, although some types of plants are more forgiving than others regarding drier or wetter conditions. However, two situations in which “just right” is especially important are for: 1) producing pre-transplant vegetable seedlings; and 2) growing container plantings of Solanaceae, a.k.a. nightshade, crops such as eggplant, pepper and tomato. Overwatering is not only wasteful but often leads to less vigorous, less productive plants, particularly for these two categories. With fluctuating seasonal weather conditions, it is important to monitor and tailor the timing of watering (e.g., frequency, duration) to mitigate moisture extremes and variations.

  • One of our best purchases was an EZ-Flo Fertilizer Injector that siphons liquid fertilizer (e.g., fish emulsion) into a water hose setup. This hand watering/fertilizing setup allows for convenient micro-dose applications of nutrients for our Misión Peniel garden crops.

  • We determined that it is possible and advantageous for our small team to strategically manage multiple crop production sites to boost overall production. We focused most of our efforts and resources (i.e., labor, water) on the main Misión Peniel garden in Immokalee where excellent “bang for the buck” leafy greens and other crops with rapidly developing fruit or pods (e.g., tomato, eggplant, okra) could be regularly tended and harvested at least weekly. Additionally, a small cold storage facility located at Misión Peniel also helps to keep the produce fresh. More remote production sites were planted in low-maintenance root crops such as cassava, malanga, sweet potato and taro with plant beds mulched heavily to discourage weeds. Also helping to smother out weeds, field peas were grown in these remote locations. However, mature pods should be harvested at least every week or two. With a water source and an automatic timer to allow for irrigation as needed, the remote sites were typically tended once every two to three weeks with mature root crops harvested as time permitted. Wherever fruit crops were grown, weekly harvests were needed on a seasonal basis, although papaya, banana and starfruit are generally harvested across seasons.

  • The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic reminded us that agricultural supply chains are easily disrupted. This fact reinforced the need for donation gardens, especially for food pantries, as regional food banks were stretched due to high demand from a spike in food insecurity. We also discovered that seeds would be in high demand due to panic gardening and DIY interest (which isn’t all bad). Unfortunately, at times it was difficult, if not impossible, to order certain types of essential seed for our crop production efforts. This served as a wake-up call for us to maintain and improve our seed saving efforts so that many types of seed are always accessible.

Our growing understanding of food as medicine

  • With over three years of collaborating with Immokalee residents concerning garden crop choices, we increasingly understand that the local Haitian, Guatemalan and Mexican cultures view food not only from a nutritional or pleasurable point of view but also in terms of health. We often encounter residents who seek and grow traditional garden crops such as mint, aloe, moringa, Haitian basket vine, and even okra to mitigate ailments (e.g., hypertension, digestive issues) or to serve as tonics. However, many of the residents are also open to new crops such as longevity spinach and chaya that supplement meals and offer possible benefits such as controlling high blood sugar and hypertension. While exploring how our neighbors view food as medicine, Cultivate Abundance also seeks scientific validation.

Generosity during uncertain times

  • We entered the pandemic with concerns about the health and economy of those we serve in the farmworker community as well as those who support us with donations of food and financial support, as well as our volunteer hours. With the necessity of social distancing, many of our previous volunteers were unable to engage. However, we were blessed by other volunteers who were willing and able to mask up and lend a hand. Additionally, rather than donations of fruit and vegetations declining, the volume that we were able to grow, collect and share in 2020 quadrupled over the year before. Not only that, financial-giving kept pace despite economic uncertainties.

Plunging into 2021 we are already encountering additional lessons. For starters we are determined to learn from our previous mistakes. And we’ll keep you posted on how the rest turns out.

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