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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

What One Year of Home Gardening Can Produce

In terms of food production, I’m not quite sure what to call myself.

I suppose I’m a home gardener. My residential plot is approximately 1/3rd of an acre, occupied mostly by our home and vegetation; some of it native.

Most of the native vegetation is comprised of four slash pines and five laurel oaks. And there are some weeds.

But there are also at least 40 edible annual and perennial species of plants. Most are tropical and subtropical crops like mango, banana and avocado. We also grow regular veggies found in southern gardens, including lettuce, okra, cowpeas, mustard greens and collards as well as Asian greens such as bok choi and Chinese kale.

I’m intrigued by the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service’s definition of a farm. They state that a farm is any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year.

Since planting that first fruit tree - a coconut - on our North Ft. Myers, Florida property in 2013, I often wondered what our production potential might one day be. As we gradually added more fruit trees and installed vegetable plots, along with container gardens, our sense was that the overall yield might surprise us.

Being busy with so many of life’s demands (i.e., work, family, community), it wasn’t until we established Cultivate Abundance that we organized a means of recording and monitoring our own home garden production.

For two years, our startup nonprofit has sought produce from local gardens, including churches, institutions and homeowners, as well as small farms for the benefit of Immokalee’s farmworkers. But from the get-go, we’ve had to rely on our own garden to build momentum; at least until we could reach a critical mass of donations from other partner gardens.

Frankly, it was our own garden surplus that nudged us towards founding Cultivate Abundance. Previously, while attempting to share our extra produce, our white friends and neighbors would only accept so much. But our Latino and Caribbean friends expressed considerable interest in our tropical produce. That led us to consider others who might be more inclined toward – and in need of – carambola, cassava and other locally-grown, tropical fruit and vegetables.

Finally equipped with an adequate record keeping system, in 2019 we measured the yield of 17 crops in our garden. These were:

  • ambarella

  • avocado

  • banana

  • calamondin lime

  • carambola

  • chili peppers

  • coconut

  • collard

  • eggplant

  • lettuce

  • lime

  • mustard

  • okra

  • papaya

  • plantain

  • rose apple

  • sweet potato

The total 2019 yield from these 17 crops amounted to 1,061 lbs. with a calculated value of $2,780. We estimate that roughly 3,000 servings were derived from the total 2019 harvest.

This portion from our garden was included in the grand total of 6,207 lbs. of produce grown, collected and shared by Cultivate Abundance in 2019. This combined yield – originating from over a dozen Southwest Florida church, institutional and home gardens - amounted to approximately 18,474 servings with an estimated value of $12,149. All produce was shared through our Immokalee partner, Misión Peniel, which has a food pantry that serves over 450 farmworker clients per week.

Considering the inputs

During the dry months, the perennials in our six-year old garden were watered once or twice a week (daily for the vegetable plots), using roughly $40 worth of county water per month. We are not hooked up to a public utility sewer system, otherwise, our water bill would have been double. So, irrigation cost us around $480 each year.

Our simple irrigation system of timers, polytube and sprinklers that deliver water to the trees and vegetables was installed between 2014 and 2016 for less than $1,000. I’ll spread that cost over six years, which divides into $166 for 2019. Also, we invested an additional $75 into the system in 2019 for maintenance.

No chemical pesticides were applied and the only fertilizer for the perennials was an annual application of Lee County compost. It takes about three cubic yards of compost per year to sustain the entire garden, amounting to roughly $30.00. There’s also a weekly dose of fish emulsion and/or other organic soluble fertilizers worth no more than $60 for the year.

I would estimate that five bales of peanut hay were applied to the vegetable plots over the year, amounting to approximately $80 worth of fancy garden mulch. And perhaps 5 bales of pine straw were used to mulch some of the fruit trees – another $25. We also use lots of our own oak leaves and homegrown pine straw to mulch the perennials, all of which is free.

Five of the producing fruit trees were purchased between three to six years ago, amounting to an investment of no more than $120. Spread over six years, that’s another $20. However, I save money by propagating banana, plantain and papaya seedlings.

I doubt if purchased vegetable seeds and seedlings for the vegetables amounted to more than $50 in 2019. I did buy several bags of a special potting mix for propagating our own vegetable seedlings. That would be around $35 total. There were also a couple of 64-quart bags of potting soil for the container gardens, which would total $25.

Labor was not calculated as no one was hired, and I consider our home garden to be a work of love. However, I estimate that to maintain the garden so that it continues to be both productive and acceptable to our neighbors, eight hours per week is required.

So, I estimate that approximately $1,046 was expended from our household budget to develop and maintain our family garden over 2019. Again, the value of the produce grown, harvested and shared via Cultivate Abundance over that same period was $2,780.

How do the Burnettes benefit?

This yield for 2019 doesn’t include the produce that we consumed, especially the carambola, mangoes, avocadoes and vegetables. In fact, I didn’t bother to weigh and record the portion that we ate. But I’m guessing that we consumed what would be worth several hundred dollars from our 1/3rd acre.

And to be perfectly honest, that 1,061 lbs. of produce that we grew went a long way towards the results upon which Cultivate Abundance reports, thereby augmenting our nonprofit’s image and reputation. A productive home garden also lends credibility to our efforts.

Additionally, the time and toil in the garden brought physical and spiritual benefits. The garden activity helps to keep us fit while the fresh food enhances our health, not to mention opportunities for deep reflection while tending the plots. On top of that, the garden’s aesthetic qualities are good for the soul.

So, what’s the point?

Based on the USDA/ERS definition, technically I’m a farmer, assuming I could have sold the produce. But I’m satisfied with the status of gardener.

The point of this blog is to stress that many in Southwest Florida with a patio, yard or garden can engage as a Cultivate Partner gardener. It’s not necessary to have 1/3rd acre lot and over 40 species of plants that you’ve never heard of.

Depending on the types of crops being grown, it’s not necessary to apply water all year long. Pesticides and expensive fertilizers are probably not needed. Instead, maintaining healthy soil around each plant with compost and mulch – while minding the seasonal water needs - will go a long way towards crop health and productivity.

There’s also no need to plant an entire orchard. One well-tended, mature carambola tree can provide over 200 pounds of fruit per year; plenty for your table and enough to share with neighbors and Immokalee’s farmworkers.

Home gardens should mainly benefit the owners; nutritionally, physically and even spiritually. But the resulting abundance and surplus can certainly spread nutritional benefits beyond our homes and neighborhoods and enable each grower to be part of a larger system of generosity and blessing.

Are there risks? Certainly. Plants die. And the weather can be unpredictable. Hurricane Irma wasn’t kind to our garden. But we recovered.

So, if you expect any garden surplus in 2020, give Cultivate Abundance a call. We know where it will be needed and appreciated.

And if you have questions about starting your own Abundance Garden, then let us know. We’ll be happy to offer a word of advice and encouragement.

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