Eco-Stories: Stephanie Gibson – Permaculture in St. Pete, FL

Eco-Stories: Stephanie Gibson – Permaculture in St. Pete, FL

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. See the full interview below.

Stephanie Gibson is a busy project manager and dedicated triathlete who lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband Bill. After she and Bill bought a house together in August 2018, they realized their new home needed a big makeover. The dead lawn in the front and back had to go. Looking for inspiration they asked “How can we radically transform this space?” -  100’s of YouTube videos and research hours later they’ve planted over 60 fruiting trees/shrubs, built 5 raised beds, adopted 3 chickens, and poured in a lot of love, their home has become St. Pete’s Micro Farm.

This interview was recorded on March 9, 2020



Fiona Martin (FM): Welcome Stephanie. Today we have SG with us for The Eco-Interviews. How are you doing?

Stephanie Gibson (SG): I'm doing well. How are you, Fiona?

FM: I'm doing great. So, Stephanie is a busy project manager and a dedicated triathlete who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida with her husband Bill. After she and Bill bought a house together in August 2018, they realized their new home needed a big makeover. The dead lawn in the front and back had to go. Looking for inspiration, they asked, "How can we radically transform this space?" Hundreds of YouTube videos and research hours later, they've planted over 60 fruiting trees and shrubs, built five raised beds, adopted three chickens and poured in a lot of love. Their home has become St. Pete's Micro Farm. So I'm super excited to speak to you because I want to hear more about you and I also want to hear about how you got into this transformation, buying a home and then starting St. Pete's Micro Farm.

SG: Yeah. So I had never actually done any kind of gardening before. I had my little herb garden in our little apartment, and after we bought the house, a couple weeks later we volunteered at a community farm. At the time it was called the St. Pete Eco-Village. Now it's called the 15 Street Farm. And we spent the day, we were planning some cover crops, and we got talking to the two gentleman who had started the farm and sat down, had some fresh papaya, and were just hanging out talking after we had volunteered all morning and Bill Bolideau was one of the gentleman, and he recommended I read Gaia's Garden. And it's a book about permaculture for someone just living on a regular city lot like us. I was fascinated by the book and I was just like, "Oh yeah. All of these systems can work together." And we had this house that just had dead grass and there previously had been a tree in the front yard and the tree was gone, and so we literally had a blank slate to work with.

And so I devoured that book and we started digging into some YouTube videos, and I got really interested in a lot of the ones about the food forests and I'm just, "Oh my gosh. We live in Florida. We can grow all of this cool stuff." And so just digging in, and we just started planting things and we went to... Gosh. There's a couple local nurseries that we really like and got some natives and then we were always asking, "Oh what kind of edible things do you have?" And then we ended up meeting a neighbor down the street who completely transformed her yard, and she's got flowers and vegetables and fruiting trees all over her yard, and she just gifted us with a bunch of cuttings. And we've just kind of gone bonkers since then and just planted our entire front yard and our entire backyard. I guess technically started by mulching the whole thing, which was a lot of work. Thankfully the city of St. Pete offers free mulch delivery... Well, sorry. The mulch is free and you pay for delivery. And so we got 30 cubic yards of mulch delivered, which is like an entire driveway full. And I think we did that twice and covered the entire front and back yards. And that's how we got started.

FM: That's amazing. I was going to ask you about how you got started, because if you do start with the blank slate, sometimes the soil is immature and you just can't dig and plant in it, so obviously you had to build up the soil using mulch. Is that was the idea behind it? Yeah?

SG: Yup. And one of the tips in Gaia's Garden was the lasagna method and put down cardboard and then put down your mulch and then put down more cardboard. And we somewhat put the cardboard. We actually did better on the cardboard in the backyard. We did some alley catting and there's often free stuff, including free boxes, and so when we acquired enough boxes we did the entire backyard. But the front yard we really just started with plain mulch, maybe a couple brown paper bags, and then we also just started throwing our food scraps. I had never composted before in my life, and I always go places now and I'm like, "Ugh." I go visit my parents and we're chopping strawberries and I'm like, "I will take those strawberry tops home with me and put them in my compost bin." So we really had to work hard on building the soil. We live in Florida. It's sand. And it's a work in progress. We're constantly working on building the soil, and mulch is where we started.

FM: Nice. So that might lead us into a little bit of talking about what permaculture is, because the soil is a huge part of it, but it's much more than that. So can you explain a little bit about these natural systems and permaculture as opposed to... Let's do a definition of what we might think of normal landscaping to be, and that would be very prim and proper and we bring in inputs from outside. We bring in potting soil and then we bring in fertilizer, and then we water it and we plant the plants because they're pretty, and that sort of stuff. And permaculture is a very different take on this. So can you explain what you see permaculture is and how you use that at St. Pete's Micro Farm?

SG: Yeah. I actually really liked your definition of what traditional landscaping is, because it pains me now to drive around my neighborhood. I remember shortly after we started converting our lawn, I saw someone sitting in their yard on a lawn chair watering their yard, and I was just like, "That's just so unfulfilling." So, what we've done is we've completely... As permaculture principle, there are systems that work together. You work with the soil that you have. You build up the soil. Feed the soil and it will feed you. Yes, we've gotten into a lot of fruiting trees, and we try to... We have fruiting trees to feed us and feed the birds. We have flowers for the pollinators and for the bees and for the butterflies. And it all works together. We're not bringing in a lot of exotics. We're definitely not bringing in invasives. We're trying to put the right plant in the right spot so that it all works together.

I think one of the things that got me really bought in was, in some of these videos they're like, "Oh it's hardly any work." I'm like, "What? How can you have this amazing beautiful yard with these trees and flowers and all these incredible plants and it's not a lot of work?" And I think that's the beauty of it all. It all works together. You've got your nitrogen fixers building that soil, and you've got your fruits and vegetable trees that, once their fertilized, they're going to feed you. And so it's all systems that work together. Eventually we'll have rainwater catchment systems, and if you've got low spots in your yard you plant plants that like water. If you've got high spots that stay dry, you plant your drought tolerant plants. So it's thinking about the space that you're in and using it wisely and being planful about it. And that's some really cool stuff you can do.

FM: Yeah, I love the, "It's not a lot of work." I've heard it called lazy gardening. I used to joke, someone asked me, "Do you know what permaculture is?" And I said, "Yeah that's our front bed because we haven't weeded it in like four years." We just gave up that. It was so much work. And it is exciting. Permaculture, regenerative agriculture, is using those natural systems, so instead of using all that energy raking the leaves that the fruit trees are dropping, the leaves naturally drop and then they decompose and they're feeding the soil. And it's so funny that as humans, or at least in Western Civilization, we've gone so far away from those natural systems that are in place to help and feed us. So that's super exciting. Did you have any... Well you have a neighbor down the street who's doing the same. Did you have any neighbors give you any side eye or pushback?

SG: Luckily, no. That neighbor that gave us some gifts, she had actually gave us a little warning. She has gotten cited several times from the city, and we've been really lucky so far to not have had any problems because you drive down our street and our house definitely sticks out. You've got green lawn, green lawn, fruit trees and craziness going on, and then green lawn, green lawn. And so we're trying really hard to make it beautiful, because I know it can get a little wild and crazy. And so we are aware that we live in a space where we could get cited. But it's beautiful, and we've actually had folks in the neighborhood drive by and people we've never met pull in and say, "What is that?" Because we have a bunch papaya trees growing in, and the papaya on the front yard, they're literally bigger than my head. And people come by and they think they're coconuts because they're really that big. And we had somebody else come by and say, "What is your secret? What are you doing? I've got a papaya tree and it's this big."

So we've definitely started making a name for ourselves, but I think in our little vicinity it seems like the neighbors have been really supportive and are more curious right now. And so I hope one day that we'll be able to share the bounty that we have. I did actually... We've got some Papaya's along the alleyway in the backyard, and one of the neighbors on the other side, she actually came by and asked if she could have one of the green ones to make some hot pepper sauce. And I said, "Absolutely. Here's five." And so it's been really cool to have this abundance that you can share. And it's like, "I grew this." There's something also really satisfying about saying, "I grew this." With help from Mother Nature.

FM: Yeah. It's funny, going through the, not disciplines, but parts of permaculture, regenerative design, it was mentioned, first of all who's using your garden. It's not just me and my husband, it's also my dogs, it's the birds, it's the squirrels, it's rabbits, it's all these things that we need to think of. But then it also said, "Who's next to you and who might have a problem with your garden? What fruit tree can you plant on their side of the yard that they like?" And I'm like, "Oh, okay. Interesting."

SG: Yeah. Absolutely true. Yeah the neighbor right behind us... Sorry, next to. Behind me right now. I think he was a little skeptical at first, and I'm trying to give the olive branch. I've offered tomatoes or some fruit. He still hasn't quite said, "Oh that's fabulous," but I'm still working on him.

FM: There you go. I think fresh fruit from the yard next door is an amazing gift. So brag on your bounty. I follow you on Facebook. Obviously we know each other. I am extremely jealous of the Florida growing season because you have tomatoes in winter and I'm sitting here like, "Oh my God we still have stuff in the tent." Maybe in two months we'll have something. So tell us about everything that you grow.

SG: Yeah. So when I first moved to Florida I actually had to flip my thinking about what is in season. What is season? I was part of a CSA. I moved from DC. I was part of a CSA, and I got here in the winter time and it was spring and I was like, "All right I'm going to join a CSA." It was May, and all the CSA's were done. The season was over. And so that was a shift I had to make, and now as I've started growing annual vegetables, I've got... Let's see. The bed right here has dill, and so I've got some herbs. I've got dill, thyme, sage, I'm still working on being successful on my basil. It's just not been so happy with me.

FM: We're good at basil. So we get some.

SG: Okay. Oregano, rosemary. Those are the herbs. Oh and I've got some cilantro and parsley in that as well. As you mentioned, my tomatoes. I started the seeds in July of last year, and I started six. And three of them were one variety, two were another variety and the third one was Everglades tomato. Everglades tomato, you can tell by the name, does well in Florida. It's got Everglades in the name. And the Everglades tomato has completely overtaken the entire bed. There's volunteers everywhere. I fill up a bowl everyday of just these itty bitty, they call them currant tomatoes because they're so tiny. So I've got those going right now. I'm looking out my window in the dark. We have a ton of papayas. I think we have at least 20 papaya trees, and most of them are fruiting, and the problem with papayas is they take a really long time to ripen. And so I've been impatiently waiting for these green ones to ripen. But you can eat them green as a vegetable.

We've got... What else is fruiting? I've got my avocados growing really well. It's not fruiting yet, it's still young, we bought it at a yard sale for $2 and it was probably a foot tall, and now it is over six feet tall and that was probably about a year ago.

FM: Amazing.

SG: Another tree that grows really well here is moringa. So you know that fancy schmancy expensive powder? At that 15th Street Farm, we were gifted two sticks about two feet long. Stuck them in the ground and I've got two trees in the backyard that are twenty feet tall. I mean there's just so much you can grow here. I'm working on the perennial vegetables, because that's another permaculture thing. It's not just your annual raised beds that you're turning over all the time. They're a lot of work. The perennial vegetables and the perennial fruits are really, I think, one of the key components of a food forest or a permaculture designed garden. And so we've got Okinawa spinach, we have longevity spinach, we've got katuk. All of those are really powerhouse greens that you can saute or just eat raw. They're quite delicious. Our Mulberry trees are starting to go pretty crazy. They're not quite ripened yet, but they just have buds everywhere. I'm looking forward to our purple passion fruit. We've got a lot of the beautiful flowers, but none of them have been pollinated quite yet.

Strawberries. I'm getting strawberries right now which is pretty exciting. But my summers are quiet. So summers, in my raised beds, I can do okra and black eyed peas. Thankfully all of the other perennial greens, I think a lot of them are Asian greens. I think katuk might even be from, I want to say Thailand. I'm not quite sure. But they thrive in the heat, and so that's the other thing is finding what works well in Florida and in our climate. It very rarely freezes here, so I don't have that to be concerned with, but I've got hurricanes, I've got wind. I've got different challenges. So yeah, I've got a lot going on. The list goes on. Oh, bananas. I'm fingers crossed that one of them is starting to get a flower on it. I'm hoping that when I come back from training camp this coming weekend it'll actually be fully out and I'll be like, "Yes. We've got a banana rack."

FM: Amazing. I'm so jealous. Maybe in the summer when we've got stuff and yours is lying low we can compete. Yes. It's amazing. We don't have bananas. We have an avocado tree but we can't seem to get it to fruit. We're right on the edge, we're kind of pushing it trying to have an avocado tree, but we'll see how it goes.

SG: What zone are you guys in?

FM: 8A.

SG: 8A. Okay. I think I'm 10A.

FM: I only know that because I asked my husband today, so don't take it like I know exactly what I'm talking about. My husband has been the farmer, gardener for the past five years. He's not a very good teacher, so I've been taking this regenerative gardening course and just learning about it.

SG: That is so cool.

FM: Yeah. This is silly but one of the big things that my teacher goes on about, you were talking about nitrogen, have you started peeing in the yard yet?

SG: Maybe. One of the neighbors, she's got three kids and I remember we were over there walking around her yard, because she's got a beautiful yard. She's got chickens and ducks and just amazing, and one of her kids... Or she was telling us that as a family they used to collect their urine, and one of the girls was like, "Mom when are we going to do that again?"

FM: Yes.

SG: So she's teaching them young, and I was like, "Yes. Go mom."

FM: I know, it's nitrogen, so people who don't know what we're talking about and think we're absolute freaks. It's nitrogen. I mean people pay for ammonia fertilizer, which is basically what we're peeing out every single day. It would be very strange for my husband to pee on our fruit trees in our front yard. I mean our front yard is very exposed. But I'm still, as of this week, "Do you think we can have a bucket in the house? Do you think we can have a bucket? Can we do it? Or can I train the dogs to aim that way?" They're old. They're just going to pee in the same spots. But that's part of permaculture or regenerative agriculture is all these natural systems that we just consider as human waste, whether it's our food, whether it's our urine or our feces. I'm not using that. But that takes us to compost, one of my favorite subjects ever. Talk to me about your compost and how that works in your yard.

SG: Yes. So we started by having one of those barrels that you buy at the store. I think we had been gifted it. We filled that thing up so fast, and I was just like, "We need a bigger space to do this." And so we just started... Not just, but after that we transitioned to throwing all of our food scraps and mulch and leaves and whatever we found into one of the raised beds. And so that was our compost pile. And, I didn't cover it, I just kind of let it do it's thing. I'm a very lazy composter. I don't have the three bins. I don't turn. I just kind of let it do it's thing, and when I need soil, I kind of go to the one bed that's still kind of our working compost bin and dig down real deep and I'm like, "There's my gold." So we use one of the raised beds. We do a lot of compost in place.

If I've got... I'd say one of the other good things for bananas is bananas, so I throw the banana peels. I throw my coffee grinds. I throw everything in... We have a banana ring out front and then we have another one in the back, and so I throw a lot of it in the banana ring, or anything else that is a heavy feeder, just throw all the food scraps right there. Sometimes cover it up with some mulch, let the bugs do their thing, and a lot of the times it's really not that bad. I don't think I've had an issue with the smell of compost, ever. The worst smell we have is, going back to the pee and poop thing, we use natural cat litter, and so we've started putting that out in the yard in certain places to fertilize around some of the plants. So that is the only thing that is giving off a little bit of a stink. Oh, and we have a friend that gives us rabbit poop. Rabbit poop is another great fertilizer. I've seen a definite difference in the beds that we used rabbit poop in versus the ones we didn't.

FM: Oh nice.

SG: Oh, and then chicken poop. Duh.

FM: I was going to say. That was the next question was talk to us about how the chickens work into this system, because man I'm getting 16 chickens and they're going and doing their thing, so I need to know what they're going to do.

SG: Yeah. So one of the really things, so we only have three girls, and all of the raised beds that Bill and I built are eight by four. So I think a standard size comes as an eight foot, and then just one cut. Just so happens that we found a coop plus tractor on Craig's List that was eight feet by four feet. I think it's a prefab one, probably from Tractor Supply, and it's probably got two feet tall run of chicken wire all around it, and then on the one half there's a little coop that fits three hens. They say you can fit six in there, I don't know that I trust it. But that's the coop where they go in and I think it's intended to be a run that you can just move around. Well, we stick it on top of one of the raised beds and let them work there for a while, and then right now all the other ones are in use.

So probably after the tomatoes are done running their course, we'll move them to that bed. And the one that they just came off of is great for whatever I'm going to plant next. They've done their job there. We let them free range most of the time. This winter we actually kept them inside a little bit more, because I had seen some hawks flying around and one of the neighbors who has chickens, she said she lost one of her girls. And so I kept them inside for the winter, but I let them out all day today. They're just so much happier. And so they're fertilizing everything. I truly think that one of the reasons that the avocado has just taken off is that the girls really like to dig and poop right under there. And so they're fertilizing it and making it grow beautifully. So, they're just doing their thing. They are a little bit annoying because on the last break that I got broccoli, and I don't have yet a barrier, so they just jump up and they've totally destroyed the broccoli leaves. I'm in the process of building an anti-chicken raised bed something. But I'm like, "You know what? They're happy, they're out, they're getting good greens. I'm okay." They're great. I'm excited that you're getting chickens.

FM: I am too. Nature's little helpers, and that's something my husband had mentioned, that we'll have to figure something to wall off our active beds. I don't think we can put the chickens on top of them just because we have too many. But that's another good point. You'd mentioned once the tomatoes are done, I imagine you practice a no-till style of gardening, which is, for people who aren't into permaculture or regenerative ag, is mind blowing. When you're done, you don't pull everything out and then turn up the soil. So what do you do? Like, I did a little chop and drop yesterday. It was so fulfilling where you just take... We had dead Mexican petunias, they're just big, dry stocks, and my teacher said, "The energy is up here and it needs to be on the ground, so you just chop them and leave them there." So talk about when your tomatoes are done, exactly what you're going to do.

SG: Well I haven't quite thought that far ahead, but exactly like you said, just knock them down. Probably cover it over with some mulch and then put the girls back on top of it.

FM: And done. Let them do their thing.

SG: Yeah. One of the other permaculture principles or buzzwords maybe is the chop and drop. So we have Mexican sunflowers. Are you familiar with that?

FM: No.

SG: So, I saw a video by Pete Kanaris GreenDreams. He's one of the YouTubers I follow all the time, and I've learned a lot from him. But I believe in the video he calls it nature's fertilizer. Pound for pound, it is equivalent to chicken manure, and it grows like a weed. It's another one where you take a cutting, stick it in the ground, and we've got ten-foot tall green, leafy plants and they have these beautiful sunflowers that the bees love. And so you could just chop, drop, putting nitrogen back into the soil, and it looks like, "Oh those plants look sad," for like a day. And then they grow back and I think every two months, maybe, we do a good round of chop and drop to keep them lower and bushier and fertilize the ground.

FM: It's so cool. Have you gotten into... One of the things we realized when we get the chickens, and even just now because we have really been... Well now there's two people working in the garden. Me and my husband, and so we're really going through the compost that we created and my husband is worried if we get chickens we're going to need even more, and so in my coworking space I've started a composting bucket there. We're going to have to start divvying up. The fresh scraps are going to the chickens up and then this is going into the compost pile. Have you struggled at all with getting your compost together? Are you taking from other places?

SG: I haven't. I really want to. There's a number of breweries in St. Pete and I have heard from, like I follow a couple other permaculture folks that are local on Instagram, and I've seen them, they say, "Yes I scored the mash from the brewery," or, "Oh, this local coffee shop gave me all of their grounds." I'm part of a CSA here, and he had build his soil, he had a partnership with one of the local companies and I've seen him just haul in loads of coffee grinds, and there's a whole bunch of composting programs in St. Pete, and I have friends who, their house is a drop off site. And so I've considered doing that as well. I think the only donation or help... I remember talking to our neighbors next door one time and said, "Yeah if you've got any extra food scraps," and they gave us these tupperwares of things from their barbecue that was like chicken. There was some stuff that was usable and other stuff I was like, "It's the thought that counts." But I'm going to start teaching you what we can compost and what we can't.

That's really where I think... There's so much anyone can do. It's so easy. You do not need to throw out the butt of your lettuce, or the stem of your broccoli. Compost that. Put it back into the ground.

FM: Yeah. I just wrote a sign, because at my coworking space someone had brought a bucket in for composting, maybe a year, year and a half ago, and they've kind of been in charge of it and people had gotten into a habit. But it's kind of been left alone and not taken care of. But I made a sign. So remember when I first started, composting was kind of intimidating. I didn't really know what went in it, but once you get in the habit. So I made a little sign that says what can go in the compost. Coffee filter plus coffee grounds. Immediately in an office, that goes in the compost bin. Food scraps. Banana peels, orange peels, and then I'm like, "No meat." We don't have that type of compost. I hear that as long as your compost pile is 140 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 48 hours it kills any sort of bugs, but we're like you we're lazy composters. We just do pile composting, so we have not taken the temperature and we're not doing all that.

SG: Yeah me neither.

FM: No meats. We're not doing that. You can put egg shells in it. We do that. Paper towels. Cardboard minus the tape. And we're also going to be saving cardboard to do lasagna mulching, just like you mentioned. So cardboard down over grass or whatever or the immature soil. So you were talking about soil, you got to build it up. Most of our soil has been completely depleted of anything because we've been growing grass on it or there's been water runoff or just hasn't been taken care of, so you have to build it up. So you do your cardboard, and then manure, and then whatever else. It's kind of brown, green, brown, green. I feel like we should do a whole compost interview to be honest with you because I love it. But the exciting thing are these systems that, it doesn't need to go to the landfill. In fact, that stuff that goes to the landfill doesn't even break down the way it should.

So when I was a kid and we would eat fruit, my dad would tell us to throw the fruit out the window of the car. But he was like, "That's the only thing. The animals will get it. It will break down." But I think people think the same holds true if you stick it in the bins and I've had people say to me, "Oh I get diapers that can be composted," and I say, "Well do you compost them?" And they say, "No." And I'm like, "Okay well what happens when it goes to the landfill, the landfill is full of plastic, it's full of chemicals, it's not the natural decomposing process that we have in a compost pile." So, I mean, it's just amazing to take our waste and then turn it into fuel for our food and it's an extremely fulfilling cycle to be part of, for sure.

SG: Have you seen, it was an Anthony Bourdain documentary. I want to say it was called Wasted. And it's all about how wasteful we are and it takes, what is it? 20 years for a head of lettuce to decompose in the landfill. Something absolutely ridiculous. And you're like, "It's just this little thing. And if you had just stuck it in the ground, you'd be building your soil." It's so simple. So, I love composting and it's definitely changed the way I think about my food waste. I mean we eat mostly vegetarian here and so I always have parts of the fruit or vegetables that are not something I want to eat, so I'll either give them to the chickens, which is another great thing, or I'll just go throw them in the yard. And I can feel good about that, but it's not in a landfill and if more people would do this, we'd be in such a better place. It pains me to be somewhere where I'm like "I have to throw my banana peel out. I'm just going to take it with me and go dig a hole and throw it in the ground."

FM: Well it has to mentioned for people that don't know me and Stephanie, we both are on the same triathlon team and we've both been to triathlon camps together and one of our favorites by Trimarni is her Greenville camp because it's held at the Swamp Rabbit Inn properties, which is a working mini farm, and me and Stephanie were stopping our fellow campers from throwing stuff in the bin and running it out and giving it to chickens and throwing it in the compost. I'm like, "Don't." I'm like. "Give me. Give me." I don't want anything more to go in the bin than absolutely necessary. So let's talk a little bit about, because it's rolling in naturally, how those regenerative gardening and permaculture help our environmental situation. I think we've talked about it a bit.

SG: Yeah. I mean one of the things, the stuff's not going in the landfill. Isn't there a statistic like if every person in the world planted a tree, we could reverse the effects of climate change? So I'm like, "Let me plant as many as I can." So I mean, it's being mindful of your environment, your surroundings. There's so much we think we need, but we really don't. And so I think this has really taught me to get back to our roots. We all worked in the dirt. I've just been providing food for myself. I don't have to go to the store. I don't have to use the plastic bag. I don't to use gas to get to the store. I don't have to get the truck that transported it from ten states away. It's from right here.

And we're not using a ridiculous amount of water. I think that's another permaculture thing is you're using the resources, you're trying to maximize what your current environment is. So I'm not running my sprinklers all the time to water my green grass, and that has chemicals that run off into the street, which then run off into the bay. We water when we need to. Yes, the raised beds do take a little bit more water, but rainy season is coming and my fruit trees will be quite happy without me doing anything extra. And we have well water, which has been great. We're going to build the rain catchment system. We've got to install some gutters first, but we've got a rain barrel. That's going to be one of the things on our to-do list. So yeah, there's just all these little things that you can do. In your day-to-day you don't think about, "How does this tomato get to me in this Publix grocery store right now?" It costs a lot of energy to get to you, and so the fact that I can just walk ten steps and go get one, I feel like I'm doing my little part to help climate change.

FM: For sure. I agree. It's very fulfilling... Just as you mentioned, the energy that it takes to produce the fruit that's just outside your door is so much less than having something shipped across the world. And then, that's how I started, with my husband growing this stuff, it excited me to be able to cook out of the yard. And then it became the composting. Now I see, it's all little circles. It's starting very small, whatever that is for you. It could be totes instead of using plastic bags or whatever and then once you're comfortable with that it builds out and it builds out, and so now I'm getting excited about, like I said, my coworking space, bringing in the compost. And then I want to get in touch with someone at the city about what they do with their wood chips.

There are municipalities that are chopping trees all the time and they just take the wood chips to the dump and the wood chips can be used. It is actually amazing how much stuff that we get rid of that is so incredibly useful. Yet we pay for chemical fertilizers. And like I said, we have all the chemicals we need coming through our body and out of the sky and up from the ground. And spending lots of money on getting someone to chop down an ugly tree in your very big backyard, and if it just falls and lies there. It is a different mind shift because it is different from those manicured landscapes lawn things, but at the same time there's something very beautiful. And it's exciting as well. I imagine you get wildlife coming into your yard. What sort of wildlife do you guys get there?

SG: I was so excited today, because I saw my first hummingbird in the yard.

FM: Oh yes.

SG: It was all really quick and I don't think they come around Florida really often. I think it might be a little too hot, but we've got a honeysuckle in the backyard and I just happened to look out, and I was like, "Oh my gosh." So, I've gotten a ton of birds. So woodpeckers, blue jays, crows, hawks, there is a bald eagle that kind of has been hanging out in this neighborhood. Again, makes me a little nervous about the chickens. But lots of birds. I saw a possum walking across the yard the other day. We get bats at night. Tons of squirrels. They're a little bit of a pain sometimes, but again when you've got enough, it's been kind of fun to watch the tomatoes. I see the mockingbirds. They go in and I see them grab a little bitty tomato and fly away and I'm like, "That's really cool." If I had one plant with five little tomatoes I'd be like, "Oh my poor tomatoes." But there's plenty to share. And so that's one of the things I'm also looking forward to. As we continue to grow. We watched the move The Biggest Little Farm.

FM: I haven't seen it yet. I want to see it.

SG: Oh my gosh. You have to see it. You have to see it because one of the things they were talking about in there is it takes, I can't remember if it was five or seven years, for the ecosystem to come to a place of equilibrium. And so there are going to be times early on where all the fruit gets eaten, or there's an infestation of pests of some sort. So you find... One thing that was really cool in their farm, there were slugs that were attacking one of the fruit trees, and they brought in their ducks to eat the slugs. And so this is how nature works. It's supposed to be like this. So figuring how you can do that in your own little space and then seeing what happens. So, wildlife has been mostly birds, but I'm sure there's much more interesting things to come.

FM: Certainly. Yeah we had the same thing. So we're probably five seasons into planting, and about the third year we had an infestation of hornworms that just decimated the kale, and hornworms are nasty. I just wanted to pick them off, but my husband's like, "They'll bite you. Don't do that." They are horrible. It just had to have that year. It was a combination of, well they were around and then I wasn't picking the kale enough, because there's also when you're starting to get into the ecological movement, this idea that humans are destructive to everything around them. So I certainly came in that way where it was a hands-off. You want to leave things alone.

But something I've learned through actual practice and then also through my course is that our plants, especially the ones that we eat, we have domesticated them along with us, and they actually thrive with us interacting with them. So as I pick the kale off, it does better because that is exactly what it was bred to do. So me leaving the kale for as long as I did like, "Oh I don't want to use it," was just ripe for a bug infestation to just absolutely decimate it. And now everyday I'm out there getting the kale. For some reason my dog likes kale, so I have to get her out of the flower bed. I don't know what she's doing eating kale, but she's very into that. And it just does better. And yeah we had one year where we just had a ton of problems, and we still never sprayed any sort of chemicals. And it's hopefully worked itself out. I never I want to jinx it. I don't want this year to be another... But it's good.

SG: That's a good reminder because I often will let things, I'm like, "Look it's growing." I'm just so proud that I am actually able to grow, because this really is my first season growing anything in a raised bed, and so that's a really good reminder that I need to harvest. Like tonight for dinner I went out and I picked one of the greens and we had dumpster dove for some other things earlier this week, and so I used that plus the greens from the garden and made us some dinner. And so that's a really good reminder. I have to go out and pick stuff. It'll be okay.

FM: Yes. Do it. And it took me learning the hard way to understand that. This year I've really been like, "Oh wow." And then also in my course talking about how you have to prune your fruit trees. I'm all about just letting them be. We've had some camellias that are looking pretty rough, and then I went out for my first chop and drop yesterday and then I looked at those camellias and I was like, "Well you haven't been doing well because I haven't taken care of you. You should've been pruned properly." And I'm just sitting here like, "Oh don't touch it." But they're domesticated plants. They need a little bit of help. So you got to get in there. Have you read Braiding Sweetgrass, by any chance? That book?

SG: No not yet. It's on my list. You shared it the other day and someone else who I know also was like, "This is a really great book. You need to read it." So it's on my list.

FM: Yeah. Fantastic. And I don't think it's a spoiler, but at the end it comes around, because it's not a linear story it's very much a wandering combination of indigenous knowledge with scientific botany. So it's just super amazing. But it opens with the sweetgrass and it closes with the sweetgrass, showing that sweetgrass that's left alone does much worse than the sweetgrass that was tended by people. And it's just showing over and over again that these are plants that are supposed to be brought up with humans. I think that's a really encouraging story to have in our systems right now as we battle the climate crisis. It's just very easy to be like, climate change is human exacerbated. There is a certain element that's okay, but we're basically going to the extreme. But that can make us want to withdraw and say that we're a cancer on the planet and we shouldn't be here. And that's not the truth either. We shouldn't be overly zealous and exploitative of stuff, but we also shouldn't retract so much that we don't exist. We are a part of it.

SG: Yeah. That's beautiful.

FM: What are your plans for St. Pete's Micro Farm?

SG: It's so hard, because I want to fast-forward five years from now and see all the glorious tree. I'm like, "No the process is important too, and the learning and watching things grow." I don't have any kids, but I sometimes feel like my little seedlings are my kids. I love watching them grow, and so I think in five years, definitely want to have the rain barrels up. We want to have an Airbnb. Really want to be able to show people, "Look what you can do in your yard." We live on a modest lot. We're not right downtown. We're on the south side of town. But it's so easy. Just get in there and start. And so the Airbnb that's on the docket. I think I really want to be able to share with people. Like exactly what you were saying, you started a compost thing at your coworking space. And actually I was at the office last week and as I was throwing out my banana peel I was like, "Oh I really wish this building had a compost." And so I think I would like to have a community compost drop off for something like that.

I really just want to share how awesome this is. It is so cool that you can grow a mango, grow a fig. These things that you find at the grocery store, you have the ability to grow in your own backyard, which is super cool. So yeah, more sharing of the knowledge. That's really what I would like to do.

FM: Well awesome. I'm glad to be able to provide a platform for you to share it all. And how can people follow St. Pete's Micro Farm so that you can share even more. Yeah.

SG: So we are on Instagram and Facebook. I think our Instagram is just @stpetemicrofarm. Let me see if there are any underscores in there. Yeah, nope. No underscore just @stpetemicrofarm on Instagram. And then we're also on Facebook. I think Facebook has the period for Saint so it makes it tricky about St. Petersburg. Yeah you can find us there. Follow along, I was just out in the yard earlier today doing some Instagram stories. I just love sharing pictures of how beautiful the space is and what's growing in our backyard.

FM: Yeah one of the fun things I found about growing is actually seeing what the vegetables look like when they grow as opposed to how you buy them in the grocery store. Right? Like what a stock of Brussels sprouts look like, because we buy them already chopped, right? Or like a zucchini has this massive big zucchini flower. And all of that sort of stuff. And that was something that I just wasn't aware of because we buy our stuff from the supermarket.

SG: And the broccoli. I'm so excited because I was gifted some broccoli baby seedlings, and so they finally started to have the crown, but there's all these leaves. And you never see any of those leaves when you get it at the grocery store. So absolutely. I totally hear you there. And carrots. Carrots have all this cool bushy stuff that you can also eat.

FM: Yeah. I love carrot greens and carrot tops. And you see as well how broccoli and Brussels sports are related because they look actually exactly the same except that you get the little nodules for the Brussels sprouts. We tried to grow broccoli and have not been successful so far. It took eight months to get one crown. Maybe we'll try again. We did that one wrong. But it's fun. It's the experimentation, right? You just don't know. And you don't know what's going to do well in your soil, and as we build the soil that's going to change depending on the seasons. And I think it makes you a lot more grateful for how things happen because you put the work in.

SG: Yeah, it's all trial and error. I mean one of the things about permaculture is the design element and I'm a planner, a project manager. And so I wanted to plan how, here's where everything is going to go, and Bill is much less of a planner than I am. He plans some things, but a lot of it has been in his head and he thinks things are going to go and I just trust. And yes we've moved things, trial and error. But for the most part things have just been thriving. You see what parts of the yard get the most sun, and you see what parts are the shadiest, and so we have had to move some things that we thought, based on what we read, that it was shade tolerant. Nope. It needs more sun and so we need to move it. Or vice versa. And so there's all kinds of cool things that you can do and it's been lots of fun.

FM: Have you tried any Hügelkultur yet? Or have you read about that?

SG: Yes I've read about it, ish. And I say ish because when we moved in, we were told that in the very front of the yard there had been a pine tree, and we've seen pictures. And the pine tree was ginormous. And so they chopped it down and buried it, and there's this mound and that's where the roots are. And so, sure, we're not putting lots of pieces of wood on top because I think that's really what the Hügelkultur is, but it was kind of already in place. The foundation was already started. And so that's actually where our banana patch is, even though it is a little higher and bananas do like to get to be wet and so it would make a little more sense to do it lower, they've been thriving right where we put them. So I say it's all because of the pine tree that used to be there.

FM: Nice. Yeah. So Hügelkultur, I mean we're doing it ish as well, and it's because I know someone who's into permaculture and she just kept saying, "You could do Hügelkultur." And basically, for people who don't know what this is and I'm sure not very many people do, and I might be getting this wrong, but the base of it is any sort of decomposing or rotting wood and then you build up compost or soil on top and then you plant on it. And so my husband's not real excited about the ideas of mounds, so our Hügelkultur ish was digging a hole. And we have plenty of decomposing wood on our property because we have old trees and some of them are falling. We put that down and then we put leaves and then we put compost and then we put... This is something I wanted to ask you about. We were advised to put in Sea-90, which is basically a bunch of sea salt, because we don't have the minerals in our soil. It's been washed out. And so by putting sea salt back in the idea is that our minerals in our soil has been washed out to the ocean and we're not naturally getting them back. And so you put the sea salt in, which would have the minerals. Or seaweed. We don't have any source for seaweed so we use sea salt.

And then we put more soil and I put potatoes in there, and we've topped it with straw. And supposedly you just let them be. And so we'll see how our kind of Hügelkultur goes. But you're next to the ocean, so maybe you don't need to do the sort of sea mineral stuff.

SG: Yeah I've heard people do that. I haven't, but I do know people, or I've seen people locally, who go to the beach and pick up seaweed and put it in their garden to get those minerals. We're in an interesting place in Florida. So we're in Pinellas County, which is a little peninsula, and we are actually a couple blocks... We are very are south on the peninsula. A couple blocks to our east is Tampa Bay. A couple blocks... Well, probably about a mile south, is the rest of the bay that goes into the Gulf. And so in the other direction east of us is the Gulf. So we are surrounded, and that creates its own unique little microculture here in our little couple block radius that is even different than downtown St. Pete. We sprouted a coconut. A couple blocks over I was out for a run and I was like, "Hey here's some coconuts let me take them back with me." And we stuck a couple in the ground and one of them sprouted. Which was crazy. I've never seen that before. Things you don't expect. And we were told by Bill, the guy that we met at the farm where we volunteered, they had tried at that farm, which is a couple miles north of here, and a little bit inland. They tried to grow coconuts there and it wouldn't happen.

So just where we are, we've got the right combination of salt air and salt in the ground and the humidity and the temperature, that we can grow coconuts.

FM: That's awesome.

SG: So, I may try some salt, but I don't think we really need it.

FM: No, I think if it's blowing in you're probably getting it in the air anyway. That's cool. It's interesting to learn more about micro climates or those things. I really want to go to the... There's actually the Catawba tribe that weren't technically moved off their land. They always had a spot, and of course it has been shrunk, but they're only an hour away from me and I really want to go up there and see what they have in terms of what they would plant.

SG: That'd be so cool.

FM: Yeah to find out what's very local here.

SG: Yeah, I think we have a Catawba grape. I'm assuming it was named after that tribe. I don't know how well it's going to do here, but we'll see. They say muscadine grapes do better, but...

FM: Muscadine is very popular here. My father in law grew muscadine very easily.

SG: Cool.

FM: Well what sort of advice would you give to someone who's just waking up to the climate crisis?

SG: There's a quote that I often say. "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years go. The second best time is now." So I really think planting a tree, if you've got plant for it, plant a tree. Preferably one that provides fruit or shade or it's native to where you live. I live in Florida so shade trees are great. So that's what I would say. Plant a tree. Or even do something. Compost that banana peel.

FM: Yeah, if we could do a composting revolution I'd be totally down with that.

SG: You and me with some t-shirts and some signs.

FM: I mean it's interesting though. My brother and his wife live in Switzerland in a condo, and so when they're taking their trash out, they have their normal walled off trash like we would, and then behind that is a compost pile. So I'm like, "Oh do you compost?" And he's like, "I put it in there I don't know who turns it but that's what they do."

SG: That's so cool.

FM: It's just very natural, and I don't see why we can't do something similar here. And compost doesn't stink. I know you said yours doesn't. It doesn't smell. We don't have a smell problem. It doesn't smell.

SG: Not hard. It's super easy. Anyone can do it.

FM: For real. Well Steph, I've had such a good time talking to you.

SG: So good to see you.

FM: Yeah and I'm looking forward to continuing to follow St. Pete's Micro Farm on Facebook. I'm going to get on Instagram, I haven't followed on Instagram yet so I need to get on there and do that. And maybe we can check back in. When's a big fruiting season for you? If summer is not it, then when do you guys get a lot of stuff?

SG: Gosh. I'm a planner, big nerd. I create an Excel spreadsheet with a list of all of the fruits that we have and then the months across the top and have when things are going to fruit. So I'd have to check back in. Our stuff is still pretty young, but I think... I mean, right now our peaches got some blooms on it. Our mangoes got some blooms on it. I don't know. Fall maybe? Yeah. And I can look back on my spreadsheet and give a better time too.

FM: Oh my goodness. Spreadsheet. You are a planner. You're a project manager. And I feel like I am, but I don't have that. I'm just like, "Let them be and they'll come when they come." We'll see. Well thank you Steph, I really appreciate you being on here with us and we'll certainly be following you and everything that's happening in your yard.

SG: Sounds great. Thanks Fiona.

FM: All right. Thank you.