A few weeks ago, as I planted cowpeas between the stalks of a maturing stand of Guatemalan corn, I had a flashback. One year ago, on that very spot, a tiny group was taking the first steps of establishing the Misión Peniel garden.
During the hot days of July 2018, Larry, Ruben, Cory and I took up picks and shovels to chip away at a pile of abandoned fill; a hard mix of stone and gravel glued together by clay. This obstacle had to be removed so that we could begin installing a temporary fence to exclude the multitude of feral Immokalee chickens that would obliterate anything we might attempt to plant.
Once the rock pile was gone, we began to address the chicken problem. Misión Peniel had funding for a proper six-foot woven wire fence with gates. However, we were in limbo waiting on the county to issue a fence permit. To keep things moving along, we decided to assemble a temporary four-foot high fence held up with metal posts. To our amazement, the chickens stayed out of the designated garden area.
In August, the next key step was to measure out where plant beds and other garden zones would be located. Along with marking the location of each component, we removed trash and other debris. Using a donated rotor tiller, Larry and I uprooted any resident grass and weeds for removal. With a clean surface, Larry, Angel, Gabe, Kelly, Renee and ECHO interns assembled simple raised beds out of cement blocks.
From a local horticulture supplier, we ordered a dump truck load of “planting soil” for the raised beds and fruit tree berms and another load of mulch intended to smother weeds between the beds and berms. To our disappointment, the soil was comprised of mostly un-composted mulch. Anything that we might plant into such material would suffer from a nitrogen deficiency due to a major carbon:nitrogen imbalance.
And just as bad, the same supplier dumped a load of “mulch” that was full of large, arm- and leg-sized tree limbs; obviously windfall from Hurricane Irma that had pummeled us one year prior. After sorting, there was enough large pieces of wood to fill the bed of Larry’s pickup truck.
By early September, the first crops planted into the garden were pigeon pea, chipilín, chaya and papaya seedlings as well as sweet potato and cowpea. Fruit trees, including mango, sugar apple, starfruit, Barbados cherry, banana, plantain and avocado, were also planted.
By mid-October, progress resumed with assistance from University of Miami students who joined forces with at least a dozen Immokalee neighbors and volunteers from ECHO, Covenant Presbyterian, Hope Seeds and elsewhere. Together, we planted 240 containers of okra, jalapenos, eggplant and leafy vegetables (all propagated in the Misión Peniel garden) that were distributed among 20 neighboring households for evaluation. Over the next two days the UM students and boys from the Immokalee Soccer School and Academy helped us plant the remaining raised beds and cover much of the garden with a layer of cardboard and mulch.
By late November we were pleased to observe local women harvesting the ripening cowpea, okra, eggplant and chipilín leaves. Meanwhile, we continued to propagate and evaluate cool-season crops (i.e., onion, collard and mustard greens, lettuce, cilantro) in both raised beds and containers while trying to mitigate the carbon:nitrogen imbalance with soluble fertilizers. Ultimately, fish emulsion provided the best results. We were also amazed at the productivity of the container gardens made from five-gallon buckets and four-gallon tubs.
By January, we were harvesting pigeon pea and sweet potato as well as consistent amounts of greens, lettuce and eggplant. Between 10 to 20 women – many serving as garden volunteers and advisors – were regularly harvesting vegetables with the surplus being distributed on Fridays to supplement food donated from regional food banks. Nothing from the Misión Peniel garden was wasted.
In early February, after the permit was finally issued, the temporary four-foot fence was replaced by the six-foot fence. To our disappointment, the neighborhood chickens quickly figured out ways to penetrate the barrier by finding low-lying gaps and even flying up to the top of the fence to launch themselves into the garden. The damage and frustration were immense, requiring considerable effort and chicken wire to mitigate the problem.
By April, with continued involvement of neighbors and the Soccer School boys, we switched from cool- to warm-season crops, planting several beds with tropical root crops including cassava and malanga as well as more sweet potato. Cowpea continued to be a fairly low-maintenance and reliable crop. We also planted two experimental rows of Guatemalan corn from seed donated by a Fort Myers family.
During the first half of 2019, the Misión Peniel propagation nursery was producing not only vegetables but also scores of seedlings of two cassava varieties as well as pigeon pea, cassava, chipilín and chayote that were planted in the Misión Peniel and partner gardens in Naples and Ft. Myers.
And now a year after the soil was first tilled, the Misión Peniel Garden, with the help of over 300 volunteer hours, has produced over 600 lbs. of produce, providing more than 3000 servings at a value of $1500.
Over the last year we have learned some important lessons, including:
It’s not necessarily the height of a fence that makes the difference in discouraging chickens
Never accept a load of mulch or soil without first inspecting it
Fish emulsion can certainly help overcome soil fertility challenges
A layer of old carpet under wood mulch discourages the worst of weeds, including nutsedge
Always listen to the input of neighbors regarding community garden crop selection and food preferences
With community gardens, building community is more important than the amount of food that’s produced
Obviously, this small patch of ground has not yet ended nutrient insecurity in the Immokalee food desert any more than the nearby 500-acre commercial tomato farms have. And, even though the alliance of Cultivate Abundance, Misión Peniel and the neighborhood is still new and small, we are part of an expanding community gardening mosaic of support for farmworker households.