Permaculture in the ’Burg

How one couple turned their backyard into an urban farm.

click to enlarge TWO PEAS IN A POD: Nathan and Tina Levy run online produce market. - Arielle Stevenson
Arielle Stevenson
TWO PEAS IN A POD: Nathan and Tina Levy run online produce market.

There are no cows nearby, no dirt roads leading up; the house is a typical ranch-style home on a little less than an acre. This isn’t farm country — it’s a neighborhood in St. Petersburg. Here, Nathan and Tina Levy run an online commercial market, host workshops on permaculture, and grow a sizable amount of delicious produce right in their backyard.

That backyard opens up to a vast array of raised beds filled with lush green plants. Avocado trees rise 10 feet tall, papaya trees hang heavy with fruit.

Nathan Levy is a tall sun-cured older man, teaching a small group the basics of permaculture. Right now, they are learning how to make dirt.

“You need something green, something brown, and some manure,” Levy says. “Basically you need nitrogen, carbon, and organisms.”

Making soil is better than buying soil, Levy explains. Purchased soil can be sterilized, devoid of any pathogens, including the good ones.

“With good soil, you’ll get a great vine and leaves but no sweet potato,” Levy says. “You can eat those leaves. People don’t realize there are greens that grow in Florida in the summertime.”

The greens that grow in Florida’s heat and sandy soil may not be like the romaine lettuce you are used to.

“Some are more medicinal,” Levy says with a smile, hinting that their taste requires some adjustment. “But at least you know where it comes from.”

He pulls leaves off Moringa seedlings and offers them to a little boy whose family is learning about permaculture today.

“People ask when is the best time to plant a tree,” he says. “I say, today.”

Moringa is a draught-resistant and easy-to-grow tree that doubles as an edible protein source.

“This is a complete protein soybean,” he says. The little boy tries the leaf and nods in approval.

“I only do raised beds,” he says. He constructs them out of old shipping pallets. “I don’t buy anything.”

Pallet beds are easiest built two-long, three-long, and four-long, says Levy. What results are raised garden beds “deep enough to grow carrots and beets.”

Onto the worms. He has several kinds of worms in plastic tubs and inside platforms.

“Anyone scared of roaches, don’t look for three minutes,” Levy says, smiling. As he lifts the covering off the worm beds, dozens of roaches of varying sizes and colors scatter. A large lizard stands on the edge, snatching up a thick albino roach into his mouth while the others try to escape.

“This is an entire community of bugs,” Levy says. On one side a pile of old eggshells and debris is a feast for all matter of life inside. What comes out the other end is some of the richest soil around. Thin red worms squirm through deep brown and black dirt.

Levy sits everyone down in the shade and hands out water.

“So what are everyone’s plans? Where are you going to grow?”

As an apartment-dweller, permaculture seems daunting.

Levy suggests a vertical pallet box planter.

“Plants don’t care,” Levy says. “Just give them moisture, nutrients and some light. They are very amicable and will grow where you put them.”

The key to permaculture, says Levy, is diversifying the plants being grown.

“With monoculture, one pest gets in and you lose everything,” he explains.

But most importantly, Levy believes in permaculture’s ability to give people freshly grown produce.

“You’ll always have something to eat,” he says. “There are nutrients in the food you grow yourself that other plants won’t have.”

It’s the end of the summer crops. Levy can tell because his bok choy seedlings are coming up.

“When those fall plants start coming up, you know there will be no more summer crops,” he says. Right now, his primary goal is to finish building additional beds out of pallets and get ready for the fall crops.

Nathan and Tina started their online produce market a little over two years ago. The online market connects people in the community to urban farmers looking to sell their produce and goods.

“Not all the farms are big. Most are much smaller than ours,” Tina says. “One of our growers is a St. Petersburg Times editor who raises pigs, chickens and grows vegetables.”

Growers list what produce, dairy or meat they have on the website. Customers can choose their products à la carte after a $50 annual membership fee. There is no minimum order, and you don’t have to order every week. Their market requires all growers to sell products made without synthetic fertilizers. Orders are delivered to a nine-mile radius around their home or picked up at different drop-off locations.

“We have 15-18 growers, but not all are active in every season,” Tina says.

A few months ago, Creative Loafing wrote about St. Petersburg’s 10,000 Good Greens initiative. The project started as a urban farm at the Faith House in St. Petersburg, where seedlings for mustard and collard greens were grown and distributed to the community. Now, Faith House’s urban farm is one of Tina and Nathan’s growers.

They’ve been married for 15 years, and met while working on a project at their church. Tina needed Nathan to build a boat for the project; he built a massive and intricate wooden ship model out of found materials. The boat now leans against the garage. Nathan had worked in and around produce and farming for many years, and started a small garden in the backyard. Tina started bringing extra produce to her yoga class, giving it away to friends.

“We never got into this to make money,” Tina says. “We just realized that most people who grow for themselves always grow too much.”

Before they knew it, they had purchased the website domain from a national organization that promotes locally grown foods. StPete.LocallyGrown.Net was theirs, and the business was off and running.

“I’m the marketing director,” Tina says.

“And deliveryman,” Nathan chimes in.

Tina calls herself the “lettuce queen” and goes into the kitchen to prove the quality of their fresh greens, grown only steps away.

“Our lettuce is the best,” she says. “It will last longer than anything you can buy at the store.”

Store-bought lettuce mixes, she explains, take so long to reach their destination that they go bad quickly and have lost a good bit of nutrients.

“Plants are losing nutrients as soon as they are picked,” Nathan says. “We pick most of our produce the morning we deliver it.”

She mixes some sweet potato greens, cranberry hibiscus, lime basil, and other greens picked from their gardens. The tastes are different than the regular spring mix fare, but delicious and fresh.

“We’ve never been healthier,” Tina says. “We really want others to become self-sustaining, especially with the rising costs of food.”

They credit a lot of their shift toward permaculture to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. The story chronicles Kingsolver and her family’s decision to eat only food they grew themselves or buy food grown in their neighborhood.

“The stuff they sell at the grocery stories is terrible,” Nathan says. “I said to myself, I’ve gotta grow some vegetables.”

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