Author Archives: mbell

Homegrown Eating Pleasure


Recently my husband and I sat down to a delicious meal of chicken, heirloom eggplant, and potatoes. To say the meal was deeply satisfying would be an understatement. The satisfaction didn’t come from the fact that it filled the belly (which it did) or delighted the taste buds (which it overwhelmingly did). The true satisfaction that I derived from that meal was knowing that outside of a sprinkling of salt purchased at the grocery store, the entire meal right down to the herbs we seasoned it with was cultivated and produced entirely on our little farm. The fulfillment came from knowing exactly how much work, effort, and sacrifice went into providing that simple, delightful, nutritious meal to our plates. The joy came from knowing exactly how it was produced, how it was harvested, and knowing exactly what we were eating. I didn’t have to wonder if my vegetables had been sprayed with pesticides or what kind of life that chicken led before we ate it. I knew because I was part of the entire process. I call that food sovereignty.

There are others out there like me trying to reach this goal on a daily basis, and a select few who have been continuing the tradition all along, but we are a limited bunch. While more and more people like me are desperately trying to reconnect with the food we eat and the true costs associated with that food, we are but a drop in the bucket within the food to mouth disconnect that has invaded our culture. And there is a clear war being waged on both our desire and our ability to reconnect.

Not having this connection to the food we eat has allowed us to turn a blind eye over the last century to the loss of 90% of our food diversity. It has allowed and encouraged us to ignore the mass environmental pollution and destruction created by the way the majority of Americans eat; to ignore incredibly inhumane suffrage of animals; to ignore soil depletion and subsequently a weakening of the mineral content of our food (while the vitamin shelves grow larger to replace that loss); to ignore mass spraying of food crops which practices are linked to a wide array of health ailments; to ignore water quality; to ignore slave labor wages for both immigrants and farmers (because people have become accustomed to cheap, governmentally subsidized food); to ignore mono-cultures and the problems they create; to ignore an indisputable reliance on the grocery store shelves being full; and perhaps worst of all, to buy into the hype that only gmos can feed the world while we here in this country discard nearly half of ours in the trash. Honestly with what the massively scaled, pesticide and herbicide laden, and governmentally subsidized practices dominating this country are producing, that’s exactly where most of that food belongs. We’ve been sold on the fallacy and convenient idea that it is the only way to provide food for ourselves and the only way to eat, and as a result, eating for most in this country has become a mindless, ungrateful practice.

What my partner and I do on an acre of land can easily be produced on your typical urban lot, but the powerful interests that be have decided that lawn and palm trees are the better investment and damn the urban or gated community dweller who believes or attempts to invest otherwise. Their efforts are most likely to be quickly thwarted and in many cases penalized by the guy who took down every potential nesting site in their gated community before branding it with the misnomer “Eagle’s Preserve.”

The cost is the loss of community that comes from having a locally produced food supply. Food literally brings us to the table. And what I would call ‘real’ food, brings us into a genuine dialogue with the people we share it with.

How have we fallen away from each other socially, politically, economically, and so on? We have metaphorically left the table that sustains, enlivens, and connects us all. We now eat at the table of mass media, social media, and cheap, nutrient and spiritually deficient food. How many people do you know who make it through a meal without feeling the need to look at their phones?

(This was written at the request of The Florida Weekly. You can read the article in context here.)

Floridian Gothic

We have a fantastic growing/farming community here in SW Florida. We also have a local paper, The Florida Weekly, that goes out of its way to lift up and support this community of doers. We all need to be growing our own, and encouraging, and sharing with others the skills, knowledge, and resources to do so as well. Thank you Florida Weekly for the honor, and thank you to all of our customers who inspire us to bigger and better things.


You can read the full story here.

A summer reflection


There are advantages and disadvantages to being a farmer/grower in S. Florida. Advantage: we can plant and grow edibles all year long. Disadvantage: we can plant and grow edibles all year long, which include the brutal months of hot and humid weather. If you are an obsessed grower like me, you understand there are only a few things that will keep you from taking advantage of the near 365 days of garden tending available to us. A few for me are thunderstorms, hurricanes, extreme exhaustion, influential friends who make me start my day with mimosas, or as today’s case, a severe body rash following a day of clearing poison ivy to make room for more edibles.

Sometimes, when I’m out there planting, and sweating from head to toe, I envy the northern growers who get to look forward to months of snow, forced months of relaxation by the fire, sipping hot chocolate, flipping through seed catalogs, and dreaming about the first days of spring. They have it so good I think, until I remember the pictures of last year’s blizzards. Why I may get northern climate envy on occasion, I am mostly grateful to live where I do, because if one can get past the sun blazing down, the humidity dripping off the body, and the intense pest and disease pressure that these things bring with them, you will quickly discover there is plenty to enjoy, learn, grow, and harvest this time of year, even if you are mentally counting the days until the cooler weather returns.

Rabbit. It’s what’s for dinner.

P1080885I cried. It’s true. It’s difficult not to when something warm, fuzzy, and cute you have raised and cared for is about to meet its end in order to become dinner for your table. But then the reality sets in of this is the moment you have prepared yourself for, and this is what really happens when you eat meat. Animals die. Most of us never have to deal with or even think about the dirty side of eating flesh. I myself was a vegetarian for 8 years. My selective diet was not based on a bias against eating meat. My meal plans were based more on a desire to not be a part of the mass factory producing (not to mention hormone, antibiotic method) meat system. I do believe there is a massive difference between the way most Americans (and other countries) produce and consume meat and the way in which a small farm or self-sustaining family does. Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are. When we consume meat mindlessly, without thought to the creature to which we are ingesting, it trickles into our very being. We become mindless, tortured beings as those factory farmed typically are. When you have a relationship with the meat you eat, the consumption takes on a very different meaning, and I would argue a reverence. I am raising rabbits for my own meat. They are easy to produce, grow quickly P1080918

IMG_0651 to harvest, and are a delicious, nutritious source of meat. But eating them comes with a price. It means killing and letting go of something I have loved. But loved and cared for them I have, so when I read a declaration like that of Brillat-Savarin, I know that what I eat is love. And by that token, that’s what I am too.

SWFL Summer Gardening – Pigeon Pea

P1100189The spring and summer months are an excellent time to get your pigeon pea crops growing, and if you have not yet tried the benefits of this versatile shrub, I highly recommend you get them incorporated into your food production system as soon as possible. They are a quick growing, large shrub that can reach 4-12’ within 6 months and best of all they have a long flowering and production season typically lasting November – May. Botanically named Cajanus cajan it possesses a variety of common names such as congo pea, gungo pea, and red gram. An ancient plant cultivated since pre-historic times, the pigeon pea has been a staple crop in many regions of the world, but it’s much more than just a food crop.

P1080896Edible: The peas can be eaten fresh or cooked and are exceptionally high in protein, fiber, potassium, magnesium, and iron. My favorite method of preparation is to steam them in their pods with a little salt and enjoy their nutty meatiness pod by pod. You can boil them with a similar result. They also make an excellent dried legume suitable to long term storage which can be used in just about any pea or bean recipe.

Animal Fodder: Both my chickens and rabbits enjoy munching on the pigeon pea cuttings I give them. The rabbits like the greens and my chickens primarily go for the peas.

Medicinal: The best medicinal benefit is from the nutrition it provides when you eat it, but traditional cultures have applied its different parts to treat constipation, oral issues like gingivitis and ulcers, food poisoning, diabetes, inflammation, and low energy.

Functional: Pigeon Peas can be used as a chop and drop mulch and will fix nitrogen to the soil when you prune them (requires an inoculant such as cow-pea Rhizobium). You can intercrop them with smaller varieties to provide shade and nutrients. The wood from them produces good heat suited to cooking fires. They also make quick growing windbreaks and provide light privacy.





Aesthetically pleasing: The shrubs are large and feathery in appearance with showy flowers raning in colors from yellow to red and yellow in color. The bees are huge fans of these flowers.

Growing Information:
While you can plant pigeon peas anytime of the year, in SW Florida the best time to plant them is in the spring to early summer as this will allow them to reach their full height before the days grow shorter and they start to bloom. They are very heat tolerant and perform best in our hot and moist conditions. They are perennial living 3-5 years, but are often grown as an annual crop with best production in the 1st and 2nd years.

Starting plants:
Direct seed or transplant
Planting depth from seed ¾” – 1 ½”.
Germinates in 10-14 days.

Spacing: 5-6’.
Nutrition: These plants are low fertility tolerant as well as drought tolerant once established .

Additional information for the botanical geek in you.
Pigeon Pea is a deep taprooted perennial shrub with trifoliate, alternate leaves which spiral around the stem. The pods are flat and pubescent. The inflorescence occurs in racemes.

Where can I get some of these plants? I have both seeds and transplants available at the Alliance for the Art’s Green Market on Saturday mornings from 9:00a – 1:00p or you can seed order by mail (web shopping coming soon!).

SWFL Summer Gardening – The Luffa Vine

Luffa growing on chain link fence.

Luffa growing on chain link fence.

In our South Florida sun, I am often asked, “what can I grow in the summer?” Well there are many things we can grow and one of my favorites is the versatile Luffa. Botanically known as Luffa aegyptiaca or Luffa cylidrica, Luffa is a member of the Cucurbit family and shares many of the characteristics of that family. It is believed to have originated in India and its common names include: Smooth loofah, sponge gourd, vegetable sponge, chinese okra, wild squash, dishrag gourd among others. Many people who have seen luffa (loofa) sold in stores assume that it is a sea sponge, but in fact it is a vining plant that we can grow in our own yards throughout the summer months.

Edible: The young leaves, shoots, flower buds and flowers can be eaten after being lightly steamed. The seeds can be roasted as a snack, much like pumpkin seeds. The young fruits can be peeled and prepared as you would zucchini.

Medicinal: It traditional medicine it is reported to have been used internally for rheumatism, backache, internal hemorrhage, chest pains and hemorrhoids and externally, for fevers, boils, and shingles. The exfoliating properties of the sponges remove dead skin and improve blood circulation.

eat when fruits are young

eat when fruits are young

Sponge and Seed Harvest

Sponge and Seed Harvest

Fruit in maturing stage

Fruit in maturing stage








Functional: Mature fruits have a fibrous structure making them the luffa sponge: The dried and peeled sponge can be used in a variety of ways which includes dish and vegetable scrubber, exfoliating shower scrubber, crafts (soap making), and filters. To top it all off, you can machine wash them for continued use, though they do lose their abrasiveness over time.

Aesthetically pleasing: Both the leaf and flower are showy and attract bees and other beneficial pollinators to your yard.

showy, bright yellow flowers attract bees which are important for pollinating this plant.

showy, bright yellow flowers attract bees which are important for pollinating this plant.

Growing Information:

The best time to plant them is in the spring to early summer as they require a good amount of water and sunshine.

Start plants by direct seeding or with transplants.
Planting depth from seed ½ – ¾” .
Germinates in 70 – 80 degrees and take 10-21 days.
Spacing Needs 8-12”

Soil and Nutrition – ph needs 6.0 – 6.8. These plants are heavy feeders requiring fertile soil and adequate moisture, especially during fruit development.
Produce best in full sun though plants can be grown in partial shade where vines can reach out and grow toward sunlight. These plants are cold sensitive.

Important: requires a strong trellis. In the landscape you could grow them on a back fence, wall, arbor, and anywhere that they will have adequate trellis support including oak trees (they love my oaks, but harvesting the fruit becomes more difficult). The fruit needs to be able to hang freely as constrictions will cause deformed fruit. The mature fruits can weigh up to 5lbs.

Additional information for the botanical geek in you.
Luffa is a vigorous climbing herb growing 10-30’, with a square stem and tendrils deriving from the axillary buds which aid it in support. The root system is shallow. The leaves are lobed and can have a silvery patches on topsides. The flowers are yellow and the fruits are green and grow long and narrow before maturing. The plant is monoecious, meaning that it bears both male and female flowers. The male flowers generally come first and are borne in clusters as the female flower is a solitary flower appearing with a small ovary which if pollinated adequately will later become the fruit. The flowers are showy and conspicuous about 2-4” across bearing five petals. Each of flowers are only open and receptive to pollination for one day. Flowering and fruit set begin about 6 weeks after seeding, provided proper nutrition and watering requirements are met. Pollination occurs by bees so do all you can to welcome these insects into your yard.

Where can I get some of these plants?
I have both seeds and transplants available at the Alliance for the Art’s Green Market on Saturday mornings from 9:00a – 1:00p or you can seed order by mail.

Let’s Get Growing

What an honor it is to appear on the front page of the Florida Weekly with the Caption: Grow Some Garden Goodness: The time is right to get dirty and grow your own food. Not my words, but definitely my sentiment as well. That’s why I’m looking forward to another round of the upcoming hands on food growing course to help aspiring and advanced gardeners transform our yards and communities into food producing gardens.

This course was originally led by Frank Oakes of Oakes Farm and Food in Thought in Naples who inspired and encouraged a room full of participants to go out and share their knowledge and love of organic gardening with others. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past three years. Let’s get growing!

Participation in this course benefits the Holton Eco-Preserve in Fort Myers, a community service project of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ft. Myers where the classes will be held.

Salad Mallow: A Green For All Seasons

Corchorus olitorius

Some time ago I attended a small farmer’s gathering at a local farm on Pine Island. During the gathering, which included small growers from all over the state, we enjoyed a tour of the farm, exchanged seeds along with a few trade secrets, and enjoyed a potluck style lunch. It was during the lunch that I was introduced to the delectable Salad Mallow (Corchorus olitorius) also known as Egyptian Spinach, Jew’s Mallow, Molokhiya, Jute and a variety of other names depending on the region where it has historically been used.

You might be surprised to know that when it comes to greens, I’m always a bit picky and therefore skeptical as to the palatableness of them, but as I sat there devouring a salad comprised of this plant, I couldn’t help being both astonished and delighted to want more. I was even more surprised when I recognized that it was being grown during our Florida summer months. I started interrogating the farmer who was responsible for the dish. How does it grow? Where do you grow it? What’s it called again? As soon as I returned home, I was online researching the green which would eventually become a full time resident in my garden. The same day I located a seed supplier and ordered my first batch of seeds. My research made it clear, this is one amazing and under used plant in our area.

Corchorus olitorius is a powerhouse of nutrition. Besides containing over 20% green leaf protein, it contains one of the highest levels of potassium in the vegetable world. It also contains significant amounts of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and other essential minerals. It’s packed full of vitamin A and contributes to the daily intake of vitamins B1, B2, B3 & C. Medicinally, this plant has been reported to be prepared as a tea and used as a tonic. Properties and traditional medicine also suggest it to be anti-diarrheal, demulcent, expectorant, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and digestive.  In India and Bangladesh, this plant is grown primarily as an essential fiber product known as Tossa jute. In my own garden, I grow this primarily for salad greens, but it also used in cooked recipes and takes on a mucilaginous quality when prepared this way. Molokhia is a popular Egyptian dish.

Growing 3-4′ tall and bushy if given enough space, this is a perfect plant for both container and traditional gardening. I harvest the leaves much like basil to encourage a continued bushy growth and prevent early flowering, but you can also harvest down to about 6 inches from the ground and wait for the plant to grow back harvesting 2-3 times this way. You can also dry and store the leaves to be rehydrated later or used in teas. This is an annual crop, so if you want a year round supply, you will need to start new plants 2-3 times a year especially in the S. Florida August-September months. The plants benefit from partial afternoon shade in the summertime. This is one of the easiest plants I’ve grown and it is mostly pest and disease resistant though black spot has appeared from time to time. I treat by hand removing the leaves and/or giving a light spray of baking soda and water.

From the high nutrition density, to the ease of growth, to the ability to preserve the leaves for future use, this is a spectacular candidate for your edible garden. If you are serious about producing nutritional food for you and your family then add this one to the list. I have both plants and seeds available for sale if you would like to explore the world of the Corchorus olitorious.

Hot! Hot! Hot!

Hot Peppers are one of my favorite things to have growing in the garden. As edibles go, they are easy to keep happy (even in the summer time), and their assorted colors, shapes, and sizes make them a flexible, showy addition to your edible landscape. Hot peppers also vary widely on the heat scale and can be suited to the least and most fire breathing among us.

With an abundance of cayenne peppers brightening up my garden this summer, I decided I would turn this batch of fiery red fruits into hot sauce. Mmm spicy!!!