Ask 2-year-old Kalina Vidovic where the sea purslane grows in her garden and she'll lead you straight to the vegetable bed near the fire pit. She'll fluff her tutu, daintily settle herself on a log, and proceed to pluck the puffy little leaves and pop them in her mouth.
Kalina spends her days in the garden behind her family's home less than 2 miles from Busch Gardens. Forget roller coasters — this kid is more than happy to trip from one bed to the next, snacking on clover and marble-sized Everglades tomatoes.
She plays with two dogs and the three chickens that keep her family and neighbors supplied with eggs, catching little black grasshoppers (Eastern lubber nymphs — eek!) that she eventually sets free for a swim in the river curling along the yard.
She goes absolutely nuts for the sweet herb stevia.
"Stevia's supposed to get big, but ours never does because Kalina's always in it," says her mom, Tanja Vidovic. "She's crazy for it."
Tanja, a 31-year-old Tampa firefighter, and her husband, Jared, also 31, a nurse at James A. Haley VA Medical Center, are raising their daughter on an urban farm. They've turned their half-acre yard overlooking the Hillsborough River into a perennial pantry with more than 300 varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Tanja figures she's a just year away from growing virtually all of the family's groceries.
"Once all the fruit trees are producing, we can do it," she says. "Now, I'm spending about $100 a week on fruit. A year from now, I figure I'll be spending $15 or $20 a week."
That will go for supplies like vinegar for cleaning. And pasta. Yes, she could make pasta from her artichokes, but that sounds too much like work.
I'm not sure what amazes me most about Tanja and her family, but Kalina's a good start. I've never met an almost-vegan toddler who speaks with both words and sign language and can identify plants I've never heard of. She's a self-confident, adventurous sprite who loves nothing more than something new on her dinner plate.
"I can't give her the same thing twice," Tanja says. "If I do, she'll look at me like, 'What else you got?' "
And then there's Tanja and Jared, who began gardening just three years ago.
That's when they bought the house across the street from Rowlett Park. When they moved in, the only edible was a grapefruit tree. But there was a sunny little hill along the river, and the dirt there was good.
"I thought it would be a shame if I didn't put in a garden," Tanja says.
So she planted the stuff we all do: tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers. But she quickly realized annual veggies are work. You have to start all over again every season.
"I'm lazy," she says.
Tanja started looking for perennial vegetables and those that would reseed on their own. She visited community gardens and attended plant swaps, seeking out older Florida gardeners for information. She collected cuttings, seeds and newly rooted little specimens.
She tapped ECHO, the nonprofit farm based in North Fort Myers that develops "sustainable hunger solutions" for missionaries and others who work with the world's poor. It's a great resource for knowledge, hard-to-find seeds and fruit trees.
Closer to home, she found Each One Teach One: Organics in Lutz, a company dedicated to promoting naturalist lifestyles.
"I just wanted to know where the food I was feeding my family came from," Tanja says. "And I wanted to be self-sustaining."
She walks me through her garden, rattling off familiar plants that I never dreamed were edible and plenty more that are brand-new to me.
The violet flowers of spiderwort, that ubiquitous Florida native, are sweet and juicy, she tells me. I sample the leaves of katuk — Sauropus androgynus — which have a pleasant, nutty flavor and are loaded with protein.
Rather than the cabbage-style annual collards common in our winter veggie beds, Tanja grows perennial tree collards — Brassica oleracea (Acephala). They're an heirloom plant that can grow more than 10 feet tall. She has 350 pineapples grown from tops collected for free from Edible Arrangements; moringa — the nutrient-rich wonder tree native to Africa and parts of Asia; several varieties of perennial pigeon pea; 20 plantain and banana plants; and 50 blueberry bushes.
Is there any plant she won't eat?
"Dollar weed is disgusting," she says.
One of her favorites?
"Sweet potato leaves and tips. When you saute them, they taste like artichoke hearts," she says. "Absolutely delicious."
Tanja says she spends next to nothing on her garden. Mulch is delivered — for free — by a local tree service. Homegrown compost enriches the soil, and rain barrels collect water. Beer and wine bottles donated by friends edge the beds.
"I spend an hour or two a day working out here, picking food and keeping everything in check," she says. "Once everything's producing I expect it will be more like 10 minutes a day.
"The rest of the time, we're playing and enjoying it. … I'm a lazy gardener."
Tanja Vidovic gives what she gets — if you'd like information, cuttings or seeds for your own garden, contact her at [email protected]
Reach Penny Carnathan at [email protected] Find more stories about Florida gardening on her blog, DigginFlaDirt.com, or join the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt. On Twitter, she's @DigginPenny.