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February 13th, 2012

Reflections on a Garden Tour

by Alex Norelli—

Organic Gardening test gardener & fellow OG blogger Andres Mejides shows me his south Florida organic oasis.

When I first stepped foot on the property I noticed the calmness of the air. The wind sweeping across the Redlands that day was diverted above the tops of the trees and on the ground there were warm shadowy pools of placid air. Andres had told me there were five acres of property, but from the density of foliage along the driveway it could have been the edge of the jungle for all I knew. He started off by showing me a specimen of the Chanel No. 5 tree, with its long wild star-bursting petals, where the perfume gets its scent.

alex-Chanel-No5-flower

Chanel No. 5 flower

Andres then took me through the groves, and showed me some one-year old mamey, about the size of golf balls—still a year off from hearty ripeness. When they’re full-grown they look like hefty sweet-potatoes and taste somewhere between pumpkin and papaya.

He then began telling me about the soil in general, and I asked him if the ground here was the same as much of south Florida, an inch of topsoil on a hundred feet of limestone coral, where trees are planted in pitchfork-dug limestone pits. He said it was but that in the last ten years he’s practiced no-input farming, i.e. he hasn’t added compost in that time. He told me too that conventional farmers in the Redlands have to add iron to the soil. “But do you know why they call it the Redlands?” He asked me. “Its because of the iron!” However, because of conventional farming practices, the microorganisms that make the iron usable by plants are no longer there.

Continuing the tour Andres showed me a trove of tropical trees, everything from lychee, longan, white sapote, black sapote, the monolithic and studded jackfruit, mangos, avocados, and plenty of starfruit…including one nearly 75 years old with a vaulting canopy brimming with fruit.

Beneath the arching canopy you couldn’t tell 30 mile an hour gusts were swirling overhead.

Beneath the arching canopy you couldn’t tell 30 mile an hour gusts were swirling overhead.

I told him I’d never seen a starfruit so lush with fruit…but then he told the variety is not that tasty, but it came with the property and he keeps it for the beauty of the tree. It was the appreciation of plants not merely for their production that made this place endearing on so many levels. It was a farm that doubled as a museum, a museum that double as a farm.

Interspersed between the groves were a few raised beds where Andres grew everything from carrots, ginger, turmeric and herbs. Along the way he’d pull a leaf from this and that, crush it in his fingers and tell me to smell it. The most memorable was Jamaican mint, which had a scent more rich and aromatic than any I’d ever smelled. There was also a burgundy leafed hibiscus that had leaves you could eat for a jolt of tasty vitamin C. I can’t remember the names of them all, but I do remember seeing a hearty perennial Rosemary, a bush taller than I was. He said he uses the stems as skewers for shish kebabs so the flavor leaches from the stems and into the meat. It sounded delicious and he gave me a few to take home and try.

Rows of carrots and herbs, and in the upper right corner, a pile of downed tree limbs acting as snake habitat.

Rows of carrots and herbs, and in the upper right corner, a pile of downed tree limbs acting as snake habitat.

A little bit further on he showed me a large jackfruit. I’ve never tasted one of these ginormous hedgehog looking fruit, but I hear they taste like Juicy Fruit gum. He said they can grow to 80lbs., which was about as hard for me to imagine as a white whale.

Andres giving perspective to the jackfruit.

Andres giving perspective to the jackfruit.

Along the way I noticed there were no shortage of orb-weaving spider webs. I walked into a few myself, however instead of my usual feeling of disgust I knew they were a part of a larger plan. Who knows how many pests they sunder, pests that a conventional farmer would “need” to kill using pesticides. Andres told me, that like mantises they eat beneficials and pests alike: “It isn’t up to us to decide for them. They have their own prerogatives, I just edge them into cooperation.”

Well, on his farm these spiders were obviously getting their fill and doing a job, because the farm was jumping with them. I noticed too that there were piles of rotten wood that looked purposefully place along the edges of the property and in the orchards beneath trees.

“Snake habitat,” Andres told me, “We have plenty of coral snakes around here.”

This to me seemed against common sense—why would you encourage the presence of a snake to which the last anti-venom stopped being produced in 2010?

“They’re very hot” Andres told me, giggling a bit at the double-entendre “That’s snake handler’s-talk for ‘venomous’. Really though, they’re the most charming creatures.” And I knew he was serious because I too had heard that of all the poisonous snakes coral snakes were the least confrontational. “They eat rats and snails,” Andres told me, both which harbor some nasty parasites, not to mention feed on greens.

Something about this plant seemed to symbolize Andres’ farm…a central idea with many crisp and insightful tangents branching off, with spaces given for things to happen, allowing plants and organisms to fulfill themselves within his grand scheme.

Something about this plant seemed to symbolize Andres’ farm…a central idea with many crisp and insightful tangents branching off, with spaces given for things to happen, allowing plants and organisms to fulfill themselves within his grand scheme.

Winding up the tour he showed me various fish bowls filled with a trifecta of lotus, fish, and algae. Bringing in many forms of life into a farm make it more than just a farm, I thought. This was not a farm in the strictest sense, nor was it just a garden. It was a unique place where production and peace harmonized in the sun-dappled shadows of the trees. And thanks to Andres, and this stunning example, I will have to re-dream what my ideal farm/garden will be.

You can check out Andres’ Year-Round Almanac for growing in Florida here, on the OG website.


ARtist, poet, Gardener www.AlexNorelliARt.com

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