The Biscayne Times

May 26th
How Does Your Garden Grow? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Karen-Janine Cohen   
April 2010

Why, with marigolds and kale, and not in a row

In a quiet Biscayne Park yard, a pigeon pea plant is keeping unusual company. Right out in the open. The leafy shrub cozies close to a fragrant Valencia orange tree, a tangelo tree, and a pretty pomelo grapefruit tree -- all planted in a raised circle. Below, pineapples ring the quartet.

While lovely, looks don’t explain the grouping. It’s a chemical thing.

The pigeon pea pulls nitrogen from the air, while its companions must seek that essential element in soil. But the pea is willing to share, especially when supercharged with a bacteria that boosts its abilities, says Marcus Thomson, co-composer of this botanical symphony.

“When you cut back the pigeon pea, its root system degrades and the nitrogen nodule is available for these other guys,” says Thomson, who with the home’s owner, David Tunnell, designed and planted the riot of fruits, vegetables, and flowers that is overtaking the front yard.

And it’s no coincidence that Tunnell is part owner of Metro Organic Bistro on Biscayne Boulevard at 70th Street. While Tunnell aims first to provide for his own family, anything extra will supplement the organic foods already offered at Metro.

“It was always my intention to grow food to support the restaurant,” says Tunnell, best known as the founder of Dogma Grill. After selling his interest in the hip hotdog joint in 2005, Tunnell opened Karma Car Wash & Café right next door to Dogma. Later he traveled, searching for a healthy environment where he and his wife could raise their young son. They returned to Miami after considering Peru, Brazil, and California. In early 2009, Karma Café was reborn as Metro.

“There are places with cleaner air, land, and water, but we missed community,” Tunnell says. He bought a home in Biscayne Park late last year.

“This is an idea I’ve had for many years,” he says of his garden, “but I wanted more than containers -- I wanted a food forest.”

He’s halfway there.

Over the past two months, Tunnell and Thomson, who met through the restaurant, stripped away the front lawn, that iconic grassy bastion of Americana, and replaced it with the pea plants, guava, citrus, four kinds of banana trees, raspberry bushes, blackberry bushes, passion fruit, and Muscatine grapes -- all planted in whorls, or curves, which allows for more plants in a small area than traditional rows.

“We’re all about abundance,” Thomson explains. “You can live right off your front yard.”

And that’s just the beginning. On raised berms composed of layered seaweed, manure, and mulch, grow kale, collards, lettuce, and sweet potatoes. You can dance around the mulberry bush and serenade the parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Delightful marigolds are everywhere.

“Marigolds are the flowers of organic gardening,” notes Thomson. “The vibrancy of the colors confuses the pests, while the chemicals in the root system deters them as well.”

The yard has attracted plenty of attention -- and some complaints -- from neighbors who don’t know what to make of a garden that stands out like a peacock among starlings. One nearby resident who didn’t want to be named says she doesn’t think it looks at all normal.

Biscayne Park code enforcement Ofcr. Sira Ramos says several callers have asked if it’s legal to turn a front lawn into produce paradise. It is. “I think it’s going to be really fun to watch,” says Ramos.

And this is not your garden-variety organic garden. The plants are grouped to create a flowering, fruiting, leafy web, designed to mimic what mother nature does so casually, linking plants, insects, and animals in a constantly renewing cycle. It’s called permaculture, and is gaining popularity all over the country, if not all over the world. Indeed, aid groups expect to teach it in Haiti as part of earthquake reconstruction efforts.

The discipline combines lessons gleaned from ecology, organic gardening, landscape design, and sustainability. Over time, plant groups become almost independent, requiring far fewer resources and effort than do traditional gardens.

For example, Tunnell’s layered berms will decompose into a rich soil base. The pea plants and others that pull in nitrogen replace commercial fertilizer. Some plants will attract bees and other pollinators. A nearby rock garden beckons small lizards, whose insect diets will keep bugs in check. Leftovers from Metro Organic Bistro go to the worm-filled compost bin.

Tunnell and Thomson both came to permaculture from an interest in health -- and a curiosity about how food grows.

Thomson, who practices organic gardening and permaculture techniques at Little Haiti’s Earth-N-Us Farm (see the BT’s “Inner-City Shangri-la,” April 2009), moved from an interest in fitness to teaching health and wellness. He became a vegetarian, then a vegan. “I got more and more connected to what I was consuming, then more and more connected to what I was growing,” he says.

Tunnell took a similar path: “If you’re eating raw produce and it doesn’t feel alive, you find yourself asking, ‘What’s wrong here?’” He hopes his garden will demonstrate that people can master methods to grow foods that are healthy for people and the planet while controlling one bit of an increasingly centralized food-supply chain. “Our society and the powers-that-be want to own everything down to the seed,” Tunnell complains. “But you need not have a seismic shift in consciousness. It’s as easy as popping a seed into the ground and giving it water.”

He’s spent about $10,000 creating the garden -- far less than many Floridians lavish on landscaping. His costs would have been even lower had he not opted to buy more mature trees.

Even in South Florida, where “permaculture” conjures up B-list celebrities and professional athletes misbehaving on South Beach, the practice is gaining adherents. In January, Cory Brennan, a Los Angeles-based permaculture expert, taught a class at Earth-N-Us, where participants received permaculture design certificates. It included a handful of Florida International University environmental studies students who earned college credit.

Thomson plans another class this fall. Meanwhile FIU environmental studies graduate program director Krishnaswamy Jayachandran, who sponsored the first class for the university students, says FIU may participate in the next Earth-N-Us offering while preparing a campus course.

Permaculture is getting a boost as people increasingly look for ways to take more control of their food, says Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture and a biologist who teaches at Portland State University. Hemenway adds that concerns about food-borne bacterial outbreaks, factory farming horrors, the obesity epidemic, and global warming have all contributed to the attention. “People have been thinking for years: How do we mainstream this,” he says. “Now the mainstream is coming to us.”

Hemenway’s advice is to start at home: “The place where my actions can have the most effect is my own yard.”

Could South Florida soon be a major permaculture center? A stretch, perhaps, but Tunnell and Thomson have planted the seed. “It’s basically about creating this utopia we want to run away and find,” Tunnell says. “But running away to the mountains is not necessarily what the world needs right now.”


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