All In: Sustainable Gardening (and Living) at Babcock Ranch
Sustainability is a way of life at Babcock Ranch and it’s planted firmly in the garden.
By: Jamie Penn
It’s not at all surprising that residents of America’s first solar-powered town care where their food comes from, or that they want to be a part of the process. The only surprising thing about living in the garden at Babcock Ranch (about an hour from Naples), says community garden consultant, Whitney Tucker, is that residents can make things grow this time of year.
“It’s not easy, but it can be done,” said Tucker. Southwest Florida is known to get a little too steamy early to mid-summer for most varieties of vegetables. But, cherry tomatoes, like the sweet and savory yellow “Everglade,” many types of peppers, and most herbs can hang with the Florida heat. While summer isn’t the optimal time to grow along the Gulf-side of the panhandle, every other time of the year is, says Tucker. And, an eight-month optimal growing season is pretty darn good. Year-round harvesting includes tomatoes, bell peppers, yellow squash, zucchini, microgreens, and herbs.
Running the Show
There is one varietal harvested on Babcock Ranch land, however, that is more plentiful during summer months (as well as every other month) than in any other planned community in the country. 440 acres of land at Babcock Ranch is covered in 343,000 glistening blue, sun-loving solar panels that serve to produce 74.5 megawatts of power, enough solar energy to power the entire town. And, those numbers will soon double on land adjacent to current solar fields.
While this staple crop requires very little water, the farmland that provides produce for two restaurants and a general store does. Because Babcock Ranch is a 100% sustainably-developed community, Tucker said zero percent of well-generated freshwater is used to irrigate crops. All irrigation is sourced from wastewater and reused water located on the Ranch.
Sustainable is as Sustainable Does
Sustainable development is all about minimizing your impact and footprint on the natural environment. Whitney Tucker and her previous employers at Herban Gardens (Kitson family-owned) have been all about sustainable development since the inception of Herban Gardens. Tucker, age 26, worked for the Kitson family for over 10 years, starting her learning of “everything she knows” about growing microgreens and sustainable and organic gardening in general. She’s now a full-time employee at Slaters Restaurant and works as a community gardens consultant for the Babcock Ranch H.O.A. Herban Gardens continues to farm a large plot of land on Babcock Ranch, accounting for produce provisions for both restaurants.
“It’s pretty perfect, because I’m always on call, but I never feel like I am,” Tucker said. Community gardeners often come in to dine so that they can get a few garden tips. “I love being a part of their enthusiasm,” she said.
It’s residents like the Graham family, Tucker says, that remind her how important this process is. The Grahams visited Tucker recently at Slaters just so their four-year-old daughter could tell her that she got to eat the very first cherry tomato that she helped to grow.
The Grahams are one of 16-20 families growing and harvesting in Babcock Ranch Community Gardens. Twelve 4 ft. x 5 ft. metal containers and eight 4.5 ft. x 16 ft. are available to all residents on a first-come-first-serve basis. Thyme trails over metal and rosemary, and tomato plants still hold strong in raised garden plots in the heat of the summer sun next to acres and acres of solar panels. And, a teaching garden, planted and tended by Tucker, is available for all to watch and learn.
“It’s important to residents that they know where their food comes from when they sit down to eat at Slaters or pick up a few things from the General Store,” Tucker said. But, it’s another thing altogether, she said, when they get to learn how it all works as a family, and to reap the benefits of their labor.
“It feeds them in a different way,” Tucker said. “And, they constantly express how grateful they are to have access to it.”
Along with Herban Gardens’ farm plot, there are several tenant farmer plots, as well. A bee farm and a large-scale tomato and watermelon farm are among them. The honey from the bee farm provides honey for the general store and replaces sugar in all recipes used at both Babcock Ranch Restaurants.
In a sustainable environment, renewal and repurposing are consistent. And, at Babcock Ranch, it’s in everything residents do. It’s at the base of every program that’s created and in the blueprint of every house built.
Tucker says there’s no better way to experience sustainability’s progressive cycle than to hover around the table at a monthly S.L.E.T. (Slaters Babcock Ranch Eat and Talk) meeting.
Residents buzz about new sustainable solutions on the horizon and what they can do better and more consciously as a community. They ask questions – i.e., how and where to recycle X.Y.Z., or when and where to find organic and sustainably-produced products. And, Tucker is always there to mediate.
“It’s a pretty inspiring thing to watch,” she said.