Jai McFall, peeking out from under the brim of her trademark straw hat, enjoys showing off her gardens. The lush shrubs and plants stretch across the front of her small home and occupy most of the back yard as well.
The garden is not only beautiful to the eye but delicious to taste, too.
McFall's Dunedin home also is the site of her business, Organic Living for All, a flourishing enterprise that oversees the planting and growing of edible landscapes at homes and businesses. Her front gardens are filled with healthy-looking edibles with shiny leaves, intermingled with colorful bee and butterfly plants for pollination.
One recent morning, McFall pointed to an Okinawan spinach plant with bright leaves that were green on one side and purple on the other.
"It loves the heat and the cold, so you can eat spinach all year round raw or cooked," she said, popping a leaf into her mouth with a smile. "This is delicious."
Other types of spinach also grow freely in the front garden, including a vine that crawls up a wire cylinder.
"This one never makes it into a salad," she said. "I always eat it out in the yard."
McFall's goal is to help local residents transform at least part of their sandy, nutrient-weak yards into healthy beds for growing vegetables and herbs.
In her garden, with the exception of the butterfly plants, every vine, leaf and berry can be eaten on site. In the mix are kale, spinach, celery, onions, crook-neck squash, Brussels sprouts and sweet Brazilian cherries.
"I change the plants season by season," she said. "This place will look different at different times of the year."
McFall, 60, moved to Clearwater in 2005, working out of her home there, and re-opened the business at its present site last April. But McFall was no stranger to organic gardening even in her youth. The master gardener grew up on an organic farm in rural Michigan where her parents taught her self-sufficiency. The family grew fruits, vegetables, berries and nuts; canned and froze their produce; made pickles, and baked their own breads and cakes.
Not all family members were as healthy as her parents, McFall said, and some of the others provided her an incentive to take organic gardening seriously.
"I watched a lot of my family members die because of poor food choices," she said. "Some were obese, some had diabetes and one was on dialysis."
In 1986, McFall purchased the family farm from her parents and continued to grow organic crops. She has been involved in organic gardening ever since.
In her back yard she grows herbs, including six types of mint, and a hybrid citrus tree from which hang six types of fruit. She also is growing young moringa trees, fast-growing trees native to Africa and Asia that are almost entirely edible — leaves, bark and seeds filled with vitamins and minerals.
Her clients' choices in gardens run the gamut, she said. Some want to start herb gardens and many choose to raise their vegetables and herbs in raised beds — boxy wooden containers about waist high.
"We do whatever a person wants," McFall said. "We supply healthy plants, good soil and organic plant food products."
McFall singled out soil as a major problem for many Florida gardeners. "We don't have soil here," she said. "We live on sand."
The sandy dirt does not have sufficient nutrients for healthy plant growth, she said, so gardeners need to use a good, rich soil and add mineral supplements to produce healthy plants.
Part of her job, she said, is educating gardeners, or aspiring ones, about the type of soil and supplements they need to use. She offers workshops throughout the year, including a three-hour workshop several times a year that focuses on soil preparation. McFall also provides consultations for those interested in creating an edible landscape.
"I will go to people's houses, ask what they want and look over their yard," she said. "Then I come up with a design for them."
It isn't just homeowners planting gardens they can eat. She recently oversaw the planting of an edible garden in a small plot of land outside the offices of USA Specialty Marketing in Clearwater. The company owner, Kaye Champagne, was interested in organic gardening and thought it would be fun to grow edibles. Susan Hughes, a company vice president, worked with McFall.
Elephant garlic, green onions, leeks, several types of kale, celery, beets, carrots and a variety of herbs now grow rapidly in the warm sun.
"We're having fun watching it grow," said Hughes of the garden, "but the plants are just now getting ready for harvesting."
McFall said that edible landscape enthusiasts sometimes run into conflicts with their homeowners associations. Many associations don't want residents growing food in their yards, even if the colorful plants look like regular, non-edible foliage. She suggests people check with their associations before putting in an edible landscape.
"I think the associations want conformity throughout their communities," she said, "and they think those growing food will somehow stand apart."
Some attribute the origins of the movement toward edible landscapes to a book published in 1982, The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, written by a pioneer in the field, Rosalind Creasy. Today that trend is nationwide and Pinellas County residents are no exception.
In Palm Harbor, the Rev. Tim Nehls, a retired Lutheran pastor, has filled his front yard with eco-friendly, drought-resistant plants and his back yard with edibles. A nutritious moringa tree is back there, as is a year-round vegetable garden with rotating veggies. Cabbage, onions, potatoes, broccoli, beans and radishes all come into the mix at different times of the year.
For compost, Nehls uses kitchen leftovers, including banana peels, egg shells and coffee grinds.
"I just dig a hole and throw the stuff right in," he said. "I plant right on top of it."
McFall is glad to be part of the trend toward edible, attractive landscaping.
"I've always wanted to help people do better in their lives," she said, "and this is one way I can do it."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]