Wednesday, December 2, 2009

An island within an island

Island Botanicals, located near Bokeelia in Pine Island, truly is an island of sustainability, sound agricultural practices and smart, diversified production. Owner Mike Wallace was inspecting some onion starts he was about to put in the ground today as I arrived, and was glad to give me a tour of his 4+ acres, where he grows a dizzingly diverse variety of crops, ornamentals, exotics and natives, fruits and herbs. If you're interested in seeing some pictures of his place, you can find them here.
We actually started inside, as he was cooking some bacon for his dogs - yeah, that's some pampered dogs he has there! I checked out his Pine Island digs while he finished cooking, a typical house on pillars in the island style, beautifully blending with the vegetation all around it, and decorated with much taste inside, in an Oriental style, with many objects brought from Mike and his wife's travels around the world.
As Mike guided me around his property in his usual laid back style, we picked a healthier breakfast for ourselves, a couple of ripe bananas from one of his trees. We discussed the fact that commercially grown bananas are very prone to getting contaminated with pesticides, because of the porous nature of their skins. And what a shame it is that more bananas are not grown in SWFL instead of being imported. Put two green guys together, a rant is sure to follow!
Food production is the main focus of the place, from basic staples -sweet potatoes, beans, tomatoes, peppers, onions- to tropical fruit -mangoes, bananas, papayas, starfruit-, greens -lettuces, bok choi, mustards, chard, arugula and many others-, and herbs -basils, cilantro, kafer lime, used for the fragrant leaves and not for the fruit.
There's also room for ornamentals -palms, bromeliads, orchids- and one of a kind specimens: Madagascar chestnut, Ling Ling, which is the national tree of Thailand, very fragrant, smells a bit like a gardenia, also called golden shower tree for the cascading yellow flowers it produces, different kinds of ginger, passion fruit, bamboos... most of it keeping with the Oriental theme, as you can see!
There's several Moringa trees spread around the property. This is a "miracle" tree that could solve the problem of hunger, especially in Africa. According to, the leaves of the Moringa tree contain 7 times the vitamin C of oranges, 4 times the calcium of milk, 3 times the potassium of bananas, 2 times the protein of yogurt... you get the picture. Mike says they are very easy to grow, literally just put a branch in the ground, and it will start a new tree. He showed me a tree on a corner of his property that he tried to eliminate on several occassions, and it kept coming back. The nuts of the Moringa are also edible, and it has many medicinal properties as well as the nutritional value, according to ancient Vedic and African lore. If you look at the map of world malnutrition, it coincides almost exactly with the tropical range where this incredible tree can be grown. So I think this is one of the examples of areas where our humble local farmers can be on the cutting edge of contributing to the solution of massive problems, Mike experimenting with Moringa trees is one case, just like Ken Ryan of Herban Gardens in N. Ft. Myers trying to grow Jatropha for biodiesel with the help of Roy Beckford of IFAS Extension is another.
As for techniques for growing the more traditional herbs and veggies Michael brings to the Green Market at the Alliance for the Arts every Saturday, he employs organic and pesticide free methods, including crop rotation, fallowing, planting in many small plots where pests can be isolated and controlled without spreading to other areas, Diatomaceous earth — also known as DE, TSS, diatomite, diahydro, kieselguhr— a naturally occurring, soft, chalk-like sedimentary rock that is easily crumbled into a fine white to off-white powder (according to Wiki) for slug control, composting, manures and even hair from local salons as fertilizer, really a wide variety of sustainable methods for growing healthy, delicious food locally.
Island Botanicals is also one of the few local growers that consistently delivers during the summer months, making it a valuable assett for keeping residents supplied with locally grown produce year-round.
Plans for the future include intensifying the production of sprouts with a partner, and introducing escargot (edible) snails to an area of the property.
I have to apologize if I'm missing something here, as Mike's beautiful dog Ramsay took advantage of a moment of distraction while I was checking out the cashew tree and tried to eat my notes (and my clipboard) for lunch! See, the "my dog ate my homework" excuse is true after all, in some cases!
We're very proud to have Island Botanicals at the Green Market, Mike always brings interesting stuff and is very knowledgeable, customers love him, he's a one-of-a-kind fellow, and I was very impressed at his wonderful groves, grounds and gardens.
After visiting him, I still had time to stop at Andy's Island Seafood for a locally caught lunch, and at Billy Sol's place to check out his experiments in vermiculture (worm produced fertilizer), edible flowers, and the production of Neem. But those stories will have to wait, as they both warrant blog posts and photo galleries of their own.

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