Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday August 20th 2014

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How Does Your Garden Grow

by Jessica Forbes

For aspiring gardeners, the ever-expanding backyard set up of Tom Garner and Renee Perry is an emulation-worthy example of what a local kitchen garden can be.

A combination of square beds full of veggies, compost stations, a sprouting zone, homemade sprinkler systems, a portable chicken coop, and fruit tree dotted perimeter fill the standard-sized East Hill backyard.

Having purchased their home a little over two years ago, Garner and Perry developed their garden gradually based on a combination of experience, research, and inspiration from a number of permaculture methods.

Garner says even before he and Perry began repairing the interior of the home, a short sale in need of some TLC, they began by prepping the backyard for food production. “The first thing we did when we bought the house—when we closed, within the next couple of days—we started putting the garden in. It’s pretty important to us.”

Garner has gardened for 14 years, Perry off and on for 25 years—but consistently since the late 1990s—growing food at their past rental houses before finding their current home.  “We bought this house specifically because it was perfectly situated for the garden that we wanted,” recalled Perry, siting the quarter acre lot with trees on the north side as one of the major selling points.

The couple estimates that currently about 50 percent of their food comes from the garden in which dozens of species grow.  “I haven’t counted in a while,” said Perry, who in the small yard of a garage apartment was able to grow 69 species, much to her land lord’s surprise.

While the couple grows traditional crops such as tomatoes, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, corn, and okra, discovering species from similar climate zones from around the world is an interest of Garner’s, as well as Perry, who frequently sprouts roots from Asian produce she finds in Asian markets (ginger root, turmeric, and water chestnuts among the first she tried), and tries out those and various African crops in their garden.

“This garden is for growing food, but it’s also for experimenting,” said Garner. “I know that there’s a bunch of stuff that’s being grown in South America, Africa, Asia that we don’t know about yet that will do well here.”

This is the third summer the couple have had the garden, to which they’ve added beds each season. Earlier this year they planted fruit trees around the perimeter of the garden comprising 12 eight by eight foot stations. To help fertilize the soil and also provide additional food, the couple constructed a portable chicken coop—Garner was active in lobbying the city last year for an updated chicken ordinance—which moves from station to station, an inspiration taken from permaculture practices.

Garner and Perry recommend herbs as a good crop to try for beginners, and say basil, rosemary, sage, thyme, and oregano will all do well in this climate. They also suggest keeping those crops near the house, to encourage their use and to make watering easier.

The couple is also proponents of planting in the existing soil and don’t believe raised beds are necessary unless soil is too wet, saying soil here is naturally sandy, and will pull water from raised bed anyway. They do recommend adding compost and other organic matter into the soil in all cases. “If you don’t mulch, the soil just dries out and it’s tough to keep things going,” said Garner.

“We mulch heavily. No bare soil,” said Perry, who names mushroom compost as one of the best soil amenders she’s found. “When you add organic matter you are increasing soil life; the soil holds water better.”  If you’re container gardening, they recommend using straight mushroom compost from a local nursery as potting soil, as it is full of nutrients.

While accomplished growers themselves, Garner and Perry are clear they continue to learn, utilizing the internet and inter library loan to gather information. Eventually, they would like to compile their and other local gardeners’ knowledge to develop educational programming.  “Gardening is not necessarily easy—it’s like driving a car,” Garner explained, “It’s not easy, but you can learn how to do it, particularly if you have someone that shows you how to do it.”