Standing in the afternoon light under a wide-brimmed straw hat, his hands overflowing with fragrant, fresh-picked sage, Ian Wolinsky is not your garden-variety revolutionary.
But he has a simple, down-to-earth idea to help improve our somber, sedentary, monotonous, quarantined existence in radical ways: Build a small backyard garden, plant a seed, create new life, then eat it..
There is something optimistic about a garden, says Wolinsky, of Sunrise.
“It gives you hope,” he says. “It gives you an understanding that life does re-create itself. Even in these times, as we’re all wondering, wondering what’s next. I say, plant a seed. What’s next is, you’re gonna get your own food.”
With food security a concern and more people with time on their hands, interest in home gardening is booming. Seeds are jumping off shelves nationwide and Wolinsky’s phone is abuzz with consultation requests from the master gardener, who has been teaching and building community gardens in South Florida for more than a decade.
Wolinsky estimates that a simple 4-by-8-foot vegetable garden will produce $3,000 worth of food per year.
One key to getting started on a garden is understanding that you can get started now, even in South Florida’s spring heat, raising vegetables you’ll be able to eat within weeks and, better yet, preparing the garden for a fall bounty.
Wolinsky’s organic farm sits next to the home he shares with wife Sharon on a half-acre lot at the end of an unremarkable cul de sac, bordered by a wall that filters sound from busy Flamingo Road.
He grows everything from corn, lettuce, carrots and tomatoes to a variety of herbs and peppers, including a chocolate-colored habanero. Much of the harvest ends up with neighbors and, until the coronavirus, in the hands of visitors to his weekend “garden experiences.”
Before South Florida schools were closed, he also was tending to crops and students at more than 175 gardens in schools across Broward County. He seems to miss that the most.
“The sight of a kid watching you plant a seed, wondering and patiently waiting for it to germinate, and when it pops up — it’s like the happiest day ever. Happiness, just from planting a seed,” he says. “Kids get it more than we do as adults.”
A trained chef with a background that includes restaurants and real estate, Wolinsky started gardening at his grandfather’s knee on a farm on eastern Long Island, N.Y.
He went back to those roots after thyroid cancer left him homebound in Washington, D.C., with little else to do but work in his garden. That experience taught him that he could create joy even in the bleakest times.
“When you get your hands dirty, in the soil, the soil actually gives back to you, more than you understand,” he says. “When you go to the bed and you pull up those baby carrots, it’s like a hallelujah. It’s better than a church sermon, and I don’t care what religion you are. It’s life.”
Wolinsky is preaching to the choir, Lerner says.
“Digging in the soil — I always use my hands — you’re powerfully reconnecting
with, honestly, where we come from,” she says. “I like the soil on my hands. I want to be connected with the organisms in the soil. I am of the soil. We’re one. It’s a very zen thing.”
You want to create a garden and start raising your own food this weekend? Here are some tips and perspectives on how to do it.
Where to begin
South Florida is in Hardiness Zone 11 and at the end of its gardening season. Wolinsky says novice gardeners should be planning “the garden of the future,” by assessing where sunlight falls on their property, what the water source will be, how much space to devote and what the budget is.
“Get the beds ready so that when August and September come, you’re in the best position to start growing [and] you can have your first harvest by October-November,” he says.
That harvest can include tomatoes, corn, eggplant, zucchini, squash, a variety of lettuce and many other vegetables, he says.
But can I grow now?
Happily, you can prepare now for a fall harvest by planting edible cover crops that thrive in the South Florida heat and can be harvested in the next 30 to 40 days. In Wolinsky’s garden, they include callaloo (a leafy green indigenous to the Caribbean), malabar spinach (a perennial native to Southeast Asia) and katuk (a green high in protein).
“You’ve got to think outside the box, folks. These are not foods that are in the mainstream of the American diet,” Wolinsky says. “But if you took katuk, it’s delicious. Sauté it with a little ginger, a little garlic. Or put it in a blender and make a smoothie.”
Best of all, he says, the decay of these plants will give your beds a boost of nitrogen for tomato vines to come.
"Grow , Cook and Eat Your Own Organic Food"
The medium is the message
The success of a garden is “all about nurturing the soil,” Wolinsky says. He prefers to call his soil “medium,” lest you think it’s just dirt. His organic matter has been in creation for seven years, with constant feeding that has made it rich in macrobiotic nutrients.
Lerner prefers to buy her soil at smaller gardening centers such as Bushel Stop, which sometimes has a vegetable mix available. If she were to go to a big-box store, she’d buy material to make her own, starting with a generic soil that is the most free of other ingredients.
“I do everything by ‘feel.’ I’ll mix in some sand, so the water penetrates through.
A growing interest in gardening across the country means that seeds are hard to find.
“The seed companies are being overwhelmed because they’re not used to the volume [of requests] they’re getting,” Wolinsky says. “I was on the phone yesterday with the seed company that I represent, in California, and they are at the limit’s end with some of the seed varieties.”
Black thumb syndrome
“Every time I go to an HOA meeting, I hear, ‘I have a black thumb. I kill everything I plant,’” Wolinsky says.
He will help set you up. A basic assessment from Wolinsky on the best way to proceed on your property costs $50. ( Outside Broward Prices vary) For $500 he will build and install a complete garden — a 4-by-8-foot bed, filled with soil and plants. If you want him to come out to maintain the garden, monthly visits cost $75.
“Most of the time kids are involved. The parents want me to come out and teach the kids,” he says.
Ian Wolinsky: For more tips on how to create a successful garden and information on Ian Wolinsky: For more tips on how to create a successful garden and information on Wolinksky and his services, call 786-587-0665