Anna Maria Island is a popular family-friendly beach destination right now in Southwest Florida. On Anna Maria's Pine Avenue, some local residents are connecting agriculture and community with the addition of Edible Community Gardens.
Leaders at the Pine Avenue Merchants Association heard about edible landscaping efforts popping up around the country and wanted to try something similar on Pine Avenue, said landscape designer Michael Miller.
Pine Avenue is a perfect place to try edible gardens, as the street is billed as "The Greenest Little Main Street in America" because of environmentally-focused efforts and its increasing popularity as a shopping and food destination - including a custom-order donut shop, a taco place with vegan options, unique stores like the Flip Flop and Candy Shop, a beach area, the Anna Maria Pier and plenty more.
Miller, along with Pine Avenue Restoration developers Ed Chiles and Michael Coleman, collaborated with the North Ft. Myers-based farm Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) to identify organic vegetables that could thrive in Florida's heat. Coleman is the Pine Avenue Restoration project manager, and Chiles is owner of The Beach House, Sandbar and Mar Vista restaurants in or near Anna Maria.
In May, eight raised beds were planted on Pine Avenue that include Okinawa spinach, edible hibiscus, katuk, moringa, Malabar spinach, roselle, Chinese spinach, and Seminole pumpkin. Although you may not have heard of some of these plants before (I sure hadn't), Miller said they're among the most nutritious offerings around. For example, moringa has more iron than spinach, more protein than eggs, and more potassium than bananas, according to the website that profiles the garden efforts. On that same website, it explains how to use the vegetables, often detailing their use in salads or smoothies.
Each boxed garden is sponsored by a business on Pine Avenue, and each box has a scannable QR code and an information card. The QR code directs users to the project website.
One goal is for the businesses sponsoring the gardens to incorporate the veggies into their recipes. A second goal is for local residents to use the items from the gardens for their own food creations. "People are still timid about it because the vegetables are not as well known," said Miller. However, with more publicity, he hopes that will change. "People can taste them while they're standing there," he said.
The folks behind the garden efforts are looking to improve and expand. For example, the Seminole pumpkins did not harvest to their full potential, so a beehive at an "undisclosed location" is now close by to the garden to help with pollination, said Miller.
The day I spoke with Miller on the phone, I caught him as he was visiting ECHO once again to buy more veggies for five new boxed gardens to be located on or near Pine Avenue. If you're not familiar with ECHO, there's another great story there. ECHO helps development workers and organizations learn how to improve food production for farmers and gardeners around the globe. ECHO offers regular tours, and I hope to catch one soon.
The website for the Pine Avenue garden project includes instructions for residents on how to create a similar garden of their own.
The gardens have attracted some local press coverage and visitors. Merchants frequently field questions from visitors about the gardens. A group of nine Taiwanese exchange students at the University of South Florida got a tour of the gardens back in August and plan to return for another garden visit in November, said Miller.