Marco Island: Edible delights

Islanders are passionate about growing gardens

Up north, Mid-West and New England gardeners are harvesting the last of summer crops from their home gardens. Down in Southwest Florida, some Marco Island residents are starting vegetable and or herb gardens from seed, while others are planting started plants purchased in local garden centers. In addition, several local children are already digging in the dirt as they participate in a youth gardening program at Mackle Park.

The Garden Club for Kids – A World of Discovery for ages 7 to 11 years is one of several fall youth programs offered by the City of Marco Island Parks and Recreation Department. Garden Club instructor Lola Dial welcomed club members Katie Portu, Grace Roloff and Taylor Weis who attended the first session held Sept. 23, outdoors in the sheltered area adjacent to the shuffleboard courts. The club will continue to meet from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. every Thursday, through Oct. 28, explained Dial.

“We have started roping areas off so the youngsters and adults will know that Garden Club members are establishing a butterfly garden and plant areas on the grounds for visual enjoyment. Today, we’re actually deciding on a herb selections such as basil and mint for the container herb garden on the side of the building facing south,” said Dial, noting that after winter school break she’ll be starting a new five-week youth program class on cooking with herbs.

Gardening by design

Basil and mint plants thrive in many Marco Island gardens but none of these, arguably, can rival the abundance of basil, mint and veggie plants almost leaping out of the individual raised beds located in the side yard of Ed and Karen Booth’s house near Heathwood Drive: There’s okra, Johnny Be Little pumpkins, more than a few varieties each of beans, tomatoes and peppers as well as 15 cantaloupes ready for harvest along with several tropical fruit trees. All that plus much more and most everything grown from seeds then planted in raised beds arranged in geometric precision according to her unique design plan, said Karen.

“I was inspired by a photo of a garden at a Los Angeles house and hired a contractor to build it from my plans in July 2009. I’m from New Jersey and began gardening with a package of radish seed when I was three. They came up, I picked and ate them and was hooked forever. My idea here was to be able to sit and plant, weed and cultivate — to be able to enjoy it without back-breaking work in the future.”

Boston transplants

On street corner a few blocks east of Mackle Park is Ronald and Linda Kelley’s house situated on a 30,000-square-foot lot. The couple moved here four years ago from Boston where they also had a big garden where Ron grew onions, potatoes and winter squash that were stored in the root cellar then used as needed, explained Ron.

“Down here I grow three crops each year. We can harvest, for instance, tomatoes from December to July grown from mostly Italian Roma seedlings I start in the garage. This season I’m trying a new grape tomato cultivar called Pony Express and bush variety salad cucumbers that grow almost a foot long along with sweet peppers — mostly bells — and a few chilies,” he said.

Kelley also has two “day job” businesses: He and Linda gather shells on local beaches and he makes shell critters sold in the Marco Craft and Shell Co. located in Marco Town Center, and the other is called Stained Glass Creations. Ron designs and makes Tiffany-style and contemporary theme lamps, clocks and music boxes, and most recently, he created a series of stained glass Siamese cat award plaques commissioned by For the Love of Cats.

Family of gardeners

A mutual interest in animal science studies at Auburn University resulted in life-long commitment for Ramon and Carrie Portu. Carrie went on to become a veterinarian, and Ron’s science major evolved into computer science with minors in biology and horticulture.

“Now I grow and propagate tropical fruit trees while Carrie concentrates on feeding us,” quipped Ron, hastily explaining that Carrie switched from full-time vet to on-call at local veterinarian practices, opting to be a stay at home mom after the family moved two years ago from Fort Lauderdale to be closer to family on the Island.

“My interest in tropical fruit trees extends back to my parents who came here from Cuba and grew the trees in our back yard in Fort Lauderdale. I’m especially interested in growing rarer varieties like the Miracle mango because it bears fruit in December and January, unlike the Kent, Asian, Indian and Florida varieties I raise that bear summer fruits.”

The Portu’s daughter Katie is a garden club member and third grade student at Tommie Barfield Elementary, while younger sibling Bella shares her sister’s interest in mom’s patio herb garden and the cherry tomatoes that will be growing again in last year’s raised garden bed from the seedlings they planted this season.

“The girls loved bringing their friends here so they could pick and eat cherry tomatoes last year, so we decided to expand to several raised beds and raise a greater variety vegetables this season,” said Carrie.

A Friendly Farmer

Sean O’Donnell raises his vegetable and fruit garden in 20 or more 35 gallon tubs clustered in his back yard off San Marco Road along with several mangos, citrus and avocado trees he raised from seed and grafted on to nematode-resistant rootstock. Recently, O’Donnell also started a business called Friendly Farmer and will be offering a variety of horticulture-centered services geared to the personal preferences of clients who work full-time and would like the idea of a backyard garden, for instance, but don’t have the time to start and maintain one.

The O’Donnell’s garden is a family affair with mom Amy, son Baylor, 6, and daughter Aurora, 3, helping cultivate the butter bean bushes Sean brought from his former North Carolina home in addition to the established jalapeno pepper, Frazier strawberry plants and sweet potatoes ready for harvest.

“I believe in keeping things organic by responsibly collecting oak leaves for mulch and rain water to water as well as importing lady bugs to eat insect pests and cultivating night crawlers to aerate the soil,” added Sean.

For information on Friendly Farmer call 784-7595; call Mackle Park at 642-0575 for The Garden Club for Kids and other programs.

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