Adrienne Potter Diaz needed to look for a new home several years ago, because her former house had just one-third of an acre in a deed-restricted community that prevented her from growing produce, limiting her to potted trees on her patio. She found the perfect place with one acre in South Fort Myers and bought it. “Unfortunately,” she recollects, “it had a broken yard!”
Most Southwest Floridians would not consider a parcel full of palms dominated by a giant oak broken, but when your dream is the use God’s Little Acre for organic produce, these become issues. “If you move into a home with a broken window, you fix it,” reasons Adrienne. “When you buy a house with a broken yard, you repair it.”
That meant grading the front to remove standing water, and replacing the palms and oak and overgrown bushes with banana, papaya, and guava trees along with a butterfly garden. Her backyard is a nature wonderland, full of uniquely edible trees often found nowhere else in the region. Sherbet berry, mulberries, grapes, blueberries, lemon balm, three different avocados, olives, coffee, ginger, cinnamon, tropical basil, pepper corn, macadamia nuts, cumquat, Barbados cherries, elderberries, pomegranate, Puerto Rican and Cuban oregano, wax jambu, peaches, plums, lime, pink lemons, star fruit, and figs are everywhere.
“I have over 75 edibles on my one acre,” relates Adrienne proudly. “This shows how much you can grow. It may look like I have everything slammed together, but if you know what you are doing, the varieties complement rather than compete with each other.”
Adrienne points out particulars and peculiarities. “One Barbados cherry contains more Vitamin C than 4 oranges. Figs grow scraggly because of the humidity, but my chickens love them; they treat figs like piñatas, busting them open to eat them! My favorite are avocados – I grow three different ones to enjoy them year-round. Jamaican cherries taste like cotton candy; the neighbor kids always stop over and ask, ‘Ms. Adrienne, can we snack off the cotton candy tree?’ The ice cream bean appears to be a large normal bean, but it is full of white fluffy stuff that tastes exactly like the frozen treat. Macadamia nuts are so delicious I have to fight off the squirrels and their ‘these are mine’ attitude to get them! And this year I will have a million-zillion star fruits.”
Perhaps the most interesting are the luffas, the popular bath sponge that resembles a zucchini. “One seed can produce up to 150 luffas,” exclaims Adrienne. “They are delicious in a salad, but retailers prefer to dry them out, dye them white, and sell them for shower purposes.”
Whistle While You Work
Adrienne lets out a hearty whistle and suddenly from the back of the property scurry 14 chickens used to lay eggs; each with its own name and a love for their owner to rival any dog. “Combined they lay about 8 eggs a day, including a few who do green or blue ones,” she says while cuddling one close in her arms. “However, I want a normal-looking suburban yard and not a farm motif, so the coop is around back and out of sight from the pool and patio, and a ‘living fence’ conceals my vegetable garden. I want a yard like a farm without seeing a farm.”
She cautions that “you cannot not grow healthy produce without healthy soil, so I make my own, and it is so simple. Lay down six inches of mulch, then let it decompose; you do not even need to rototill.” She kicks her heel into the ground, exposing dark rich soil several inches deep.
Adrienne began growing her own produce because she has five kids and wanted to feed them healthy while lowering her grocery bill. “My children eat clean and healthy because there are approximately 32 chemical residues in a typical strawberry. I started so simple – all I wanted 8 years ago was to grow a lemon and a few vegetables. I soon learned that ‘The Dirty Dozen’ – the most popular foods in the United States – like peaches, potatoes, and apples use tens of fertilizers to bring them to your plate. It turns out we can grow them all organically and naturally here. I do not use sprays, fertilizers, or chemicals, meaning I grow more organic than organic farmers, who use small amounts. I have all kinds of critters that live here, yet hardly any bugs.”
It mystifies her why people choose to consume chemicals or additives. “This is like people who take medications rather than eating healthy and organic,” she reasons. “Often they are afraid to step out of their comfort zone, or justify it by saying Florida is too hot and too wet for too long to grow enough but that is not true. If you want summer produce, how does beans, spinach, seminal pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and fruits and greens sound? Because of the differences in climate, a 3-month growing season up north only takes 6 weeks here.”
Yes You Can
Adrienne is a graduate of the Lee County Master Gardener Program, but is mostly self-taught. She offers classes, almost all free of charge, so others can follow her lead. “The first question usually is ‘what part of my lawn do I need to rip up?’” She emphasizes a paradigm shift in thinking, to “what part of your yard can we make ‘good’ to compliment your landscaping?”
Another frequent concern is “’I do not have enough space,’ but I am the Queen of Finding Space! Even if your limit is a small yard or a patio, people can grow 3 or 4 varieties of their own food to save money and feel better.” Adrienne showcases this by her pool, with potted planters of banana, lime, lemon, fig, and cumquats. She recently worked with a school to create a community garden, but they did not have room, so they built raised beds on its parking lot.
Others complain it is too much hard work, but Adrienne counters that “I am also the Queen of Lazy Gardening! I do not even remember my children’s names, so if this were too technical I would not do it, but I have had only two growing casualties in the past three years.”
Her most popular monthly class is Backyard Veggie Growing 101 for Beginners. “I never have less than 12 to 15 people in each. I do not even advertise it anymore, as word-of-mouth is good enough. It took me three years of trial-&-error to learn to grow a tomato in Southwest Florida so I am happy to share practical tips. Most classes are free because my philosophy is to pay it forward, plus I have so much fun I want to share it with others.”
While Adrienne does not grow enough to sell, she has a mini-nursery from which you can purchase edible trees, regulated through the Florida Department of Agriculture under “Miss Potter’s Place” – her maiden name. “I began to ask myself a few years ago why everyone did not have a wax jambu tree, as that is my favorite, leading me to found the nursery.”
Her neighbors cover the spectrum of reaction. “Some think it is awesome while others do not understand. Our neighborhood has an Agriculture zoning so others can do this, but no one else to date uses it to their advantage, even to grow traditional Florida products like oranges or mangos. They spend hundreds for lawn service but if they channeled those funds into produce, they could buy 6 trees each month, eat healthy, and substantially lower their grocery bills.”
Vision & Mission
Adrienne’s ultimate vision is that every school will have a garden because it is educational and nutritious, as well as easy with realistic expectations and the correct crops. Every religious institution should have a community garden because most have huge, mostly vacant property tracts, and “a community garden is a public service, to feed the sick, elderly, and underprivileged, and isn’t that the mission of every church?”
As for Adrienne, the best part of her mission is “I get to play in my backyard every day. I turned my passion into my business, feed my family healthy, and teach others how to do this. The only downside is weeding during the incredible summer heat, but for the vast majority of the year, all I have is fun, and most gardeners are fun people!”
To speak to Adrienne, register for classes, or arrange for a school or home garden consultation, contact her at 239-464-5754, see her Facebook and webpage at MissPottersPlace.com, or email her at [email protected]. Miss Potter’s Place: edible gardening, seeds, soil, plants, & more!
Gary Mooney is a retired local government administrator and a contributing writer for SWFL Sustainability. He has a passion for covering health and sustainability and is a local expert on Zika Virus. You can learn more about Gary online at www.garymooney.net & www.zikavirus.guru and reach Gary at [email protected].