NEW PORT RICHEY — Every day, Jim Kovaleski walks outdoors and fills his colander with fruits, vegetables and edible flowers from the biggest salad bar in town. • His yard. • His whole yard. • Front, back and side are replete with linear and curving rows of silver blue broccoli, ruby red beets, frilly mustard greens and some 20 varieties of lettuce. • Hardy, low-maintenance pink Cracker roses provide a border background and shelter for the birds. • Sugar snap peas ascend trellises in the winter after grapevines have lost their leaves. • Fruit trees explode with kumquats and lemons. • Carrots, radishes, onions and garlic add lacy texture. • It's an incredible, edible yard and one that Kovaleski, 47, has reason to be proud of. • "It's form following function, and that creates beauty," he says. • He developed his artistic bent maintaining grounds for commercial properties and estates, where he applied large amounts of pesticides and fertilizer to keep grass and hedges neat, perfect and green. • His doctor speculated that's what may have triggered his diabetes.
"Here I was doing this for aesthetic reasons and it might have affected my health," he says.
Kovaleski began studying organic gardening techniques such as composting to develop nutrient-rich soil, mulching to preserve water and managing pests naturally.
He leads a life according to the principles of "permaculture," a term coined in 1978 with the goal of developing stable, harmonious communities among humans, animals, vegetation, soil and water.
These days Kovaleski doesn't have grass, a mower or a can of bug spray.
No need, he says.
He thinks his colorful, artistic landscapes are more beautiful than lawns. And realizing not everyone has the time for sprawling gardens, he suggests people avoid St. Augustine or other high-maintenance yards and just "mow what grows."
He begins with great soil, choking out existing grass and weeds with layers of newspaper covered with composting material. Utilizing New Port Richey's free recycled mulch program, he has filled his entire yard — once a giant sand box — with 8 inches of black humus soil.
Pesky weeds don't like good soil, he says.
At this time of year, he harvests the leaves of lettuce, spinach, kale and mustard greens. A week later, the plants will boast new leaves.
To avoid a barren look once the crops are spent, he germinates seeds in tiny blocks of compost for next season's produce.
In March, winter's broccoli, radishes, onions and leafy vegetables will be replaced with beans, cucumbers, yellow squash, tomatoes and pigeon peas.
Summer is a good time for black-eyed peas, okra, Okinawa spinach and sweet potatoes.
Kovaleski likes to think of insects as partners rather than adversaries.
He would never kill wasps as they, along with birds, are nature's form of pest control, he says.
And he doesn't sweat the small stuff, like a few insects that might nibble on leaves from time to time.
"You have to have some bugs or you won't have the birds. Leave it to nature; she knows what she's doing," he says.
He takes issue with some of his garden's inhabitants, however.
Right now he is experimenting to see if seaweed, bicycled over from a nearby beach, will stave off roly-polys (pillbugs) feasting on his vegetable seedlings.
But if an armadillo or rabbit decides to have lunch in his yard?
"Share. Accept them as part of the ecosystem," he says. "We all have to eat."
Kovaleski makes his living selling his excess produce at the Sweetwater Organic Community Farm in Tampa's Town 'N Country neighborhood and Longleaf's farmers market.
"I'm providing produce for 30 or 40 people," he says.
He also plants and maintains additional edible landscapes in the yard of Iris Buffington, his next door neighbor and former mother-in-law. His mother, Pat Kovaleski, lives down the street, and he is starting a late winter garden for her.
Kovaleski lives a frugal lifestyle in his 700-square-foot bungalow, built, he thinks, in the 1930s or 1940s. With one bedroom, one bath and a loft for guests, Kovaleski says it's all he needs.
A ventless gas heater keeps him warm in the winter, and he dries his laundry outdoors.
Last month his electric bill was an enviable $29.
"We have to return to a human scale," he says. "Our goal has to be to learn to live on less, not more. We can all live happier."
He advises people who want edible landscapes to start small, watch, observe and learn from their mistakes. If something doesn't work in one location, try another.
"Patience is the gardener's best friend," he says.
Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.