TAMPA — Plenty of kids are taught not to eat anything they happen to find growing in the yard. But at the Vidovic home, you can throw that rule out with the egg shells, coffee grounds and other organics headed for the compost pile. • This yard, situated on the banks of the Hillsborough River, is a half-acre of edible vegetation. About 300 varieties of plants and trees have taken root here, including blueberries, raspberries, grapes, asparagus and artichokes. Most have exotic names like Peruvian apple cactus, shampoo ginger, spiderwort and rattlesnake grass. • Rattlesnake grass? • Andy Wingate, 23, a visitor from Lakeland, takes a nibble of the native white tubers that resemble the rattles of the poisonous snake. • "Tastes like a radish only without the heat," he declares.
Wingate is one of several people who have come for a tour — and a taste — of the yard.
Tanja Vidovic advertises the free tours on Craigslist and on her Facebook group, Tampa Gardening Swap, which promotes organic gardening for those who live in her official hardiness zone, 9b.
Barefoot, with clippers in hand, Tanja meanders through the mostly shaded garden, snipping off cuttings and doling out samples.
"Who wants some papaya seeds?" she asks. "They're great as a pepper replacement. If you grow papaya in the shade, the fruit will have a bland, armpit taste. If you grow them in a sunnier location, the fruit will be sweeter."
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The urban gardener and her husband, Jared, both 31, bought their Tampa home in 2010. They were tired of high food bills, especially when it came to the cost of organic produce.
"Our goal when we bought this place was to be able to grow about 80 percent of what we ate right here," she says.
She's a firefighter-paramedic. He's a nurse. Together they've seen plenty of heart attacks and strokes. They are both vegetarians and are raising their daughter, Kalina, 2, on a plant-based diet that includes cheese and eggs.
Tanja tells her visitors that too much animal protein in the diet can lead to cancer. Scoff if you will, but she has science on her side. In 2009, the Archives of Internal Medicine published a Harvard Medical School report on the dietary habits of nearly half a million people ages 50 to 71 over 10 years. Their conclusion: Reducing red meat consumption would have reduced cancer deaths by 11 percent for men and 16 percent for women. Other studies have found that processed meats are particularly problematic.
Middle-of-the-roaders counsel moderation — say, a 4-ounce steak once a week rather than a steady diet of platter-sized sirloins. But increasingly, health experts suggest that even devoted meat lovers increase their ratio of vegetarian days to enjoy optimum health, particularly cardiovascular health.
Tanja Vidovic is so passionate about plant-based diets, she is working on a proposal for the city of Tampa, where food forests, public orchards and school community gardens would grow throughout the city.
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Jeanette Henderson, 55, has come for advice and samples. The Valrico woman says she's a "crazy Facebook stalker of Tanja."
"I'm such a fan," she says. "I eat too much meat, but I want to see 65 and 70, so I'm planning on switching to a plant-based diet. So she's been helping me and giving me tips online."
Tanja is now raving about aloe — and not only as a healing agent.
"The clear gel is great in smoothies," she says.
And then, "I have some loofah seedlings here if anyone wants to grow their own sponges."
Some look puzzled.
"Don't loofahs come from the ocean?" asks one woman.
Tanja encourages visitors to sample everything.
"Try the stevia; it's an herbal sweetener," she says. "I don't have much left. My daughter has eaten most of it."
She passes out some starts of false roselle, otherwise known as cranberry hibiscus. It's a colorful plant with red leaves that are pleasantly tart — great for salads and stir fry.
All hibiscus petals are edible, she says. So are clover leaves. Both are common in Florida yards — though many are exposed to pesticides banned from the Vidovic yard.
The couple began their organic quest with typical annuals: squash, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, carrots.
But they soon grew tired of the needy, high-maintenance annuals that required constant care and robbed the soil of nutrients.
Now Tanja has taken a liking to perennials — trees and other vegetation that is planted once but produces yields year after year.
"Perennials give back. They have a lifetime investment in where they live," she says. "And there is such a huge variety. Most people eat only about 2 percent of the edible plants out there."
So she tends the perennials; her husband grows those needy annuals.
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In this yard, nothing goes to waste. Each of the beds is edged with fallen logs, rocks or upside-down recycled wine bottles they've collected from neighborhood bars.
They unearthed an old clothesline while digging in the yard one day. Now it's back in use again, saving them money on their electric bill.
They sometimes harvest treasures off the side of the road, too. If they spot bags of raked leaves, they'll pick them up for their "lasagna" mixture, a form of layered organic compost.
The base is made with newspapers that will help choke out weeds. Layers of yard and kitchen waste go on top and cook down to form a rich, nutrient-dense soil.
Organic fertilizers they use include Epsom salts, black strap molasses, fish emulsion, worms and worm castings. Tanja likes the fact she can give Kalina molasses to dispense on the plants, letting her safely participate in the gardening process.
By creating a chemical-free yard with a wide variety of plants, the Vidovics, and others like them, are also helping pollinators like bees and butterflies make a comeback to urban environments.
Their jungle-like urban paradise includes a three-story tree house that wraps around a huge oak tree. A zip line runs from the tree down to the riverbanks.
They have a pair of backyard chickens, production reds, which supply them with eggs.
"The best way to get the neighbors to like the chickens is to share the eggs," Tanja said.
And the sharing doesn't stop there.
"I allow my neighbors to come in and get whatever they want from the garden. The biggest complaint I get is that they don't know what anything is."