When Santiago Arroyo (left) met Jason Long (right), it was the start of a bountiful friendship. When the two men worked side-by-side in a Florida-farmer apprenticeship program, they not only cultivated a friendship but they shared a common vision of how farming could change the way people live, eat, and think about food.
In 2012, Santiago and Jason, along with several other farming apprentices, helped Nicolas Chalifour build up Treehugger Organic Farms, in Davie, FL. In 2016, that business was sold, and they brought their skills to Sun Fresh Farm and Ranch, also in Davie, where their vision for their own organic nursery came together.
- prepping fields for future crops, including one area on the site of the land’s former pig pen for a friend’s cut flower business and another where Santiago and Jason are growing sunflowers and zinnias for another friend’s wedding;
- beginning a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project along with their friend Ricky Lopez, of Garden of Abundance;
- designing small farms and gardens for homeowners and local restaurants, like Chef Niven, whose Blue Horizons Farm and Rancho Patel produces fresh ingredients for his Ghee restaurant in Miami;
- introducing clients to exotic culinary and medicinal herbs, many of them from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa; and
- making long-range plans to broaden the use of the land. The property already has several out buildings and patios sheltered under an expansive tree canopy — a prime location for CSA celebrations, gardening educational workshops, a farmer’s market, and farm-to-table events.
NGDM: Why is it so important for you to not only encourage homeowners how to garden, but to also help other local farms become more established?
Santiago: It is extremely important for us, on a personal level, to encourage homeowners to garden. When Treehuggers was sold we understood that land security was a big illusion unless you own land. Agricultural land in Broward [County] is not common so we knew homeowners had to take it upon themselves to be food secure. We began growing plants and encouraging everyone who came to Tree Amigos to make their gardens bigger and bigger. We make ourselves available to our customers, answering every question and knocking down every hurdle that prevented them from growing food. An 8×4 garden bed can grow enough food to supplement a family, so it doesn’t take acres to make a difference. Fleet farming is a concept that is fascinating to us, as well. Imagine all those backyards full of crops instead of lawns. This would be a different world.
We make ourselves available to other farms and growers, as well, especially newer farmers who might be looking for reassurance or someone to talk to who has been through a few seasons. There are a bunch of earth-based projects in the works. Produce and Pantry, Aloha Redland, and Mother Earth Miami are just 3 of the most exciting ones I know of. Keep an eye out for these folks and support locally grown food and plants!! There are exciting growing opportunities in South Florida, also — like the permaculture design certification course at Amerikua Permaculture.
NGDM: South Florida gardening seems to be its own kind of beast. What makes gardening here unique when compared to, say, Zone 6?
Santiago: Three words: humidity, heat, and day length. Not to mention:
- Bacterial and fungal diseases? Check
- Loss of nutrients due to heavy rain? Check
- Erosion? Check
- Warm weather for pests to reproduce: Check
Controlling rain and heat is not easy, so we take advantage of our dry winter season. If you ask anyone in zone 6 to grow crops from December to April they will think you are crazy. Most growers in the colder zones are utilizing long days (days greater than 12 hours) to grow their crops. Our main growing season is mostly less than 12 hours. This affects crop growth regarding the time from seed to harvest, crop sizing, and flowering stages. One main example to point out is bulbing onions. Typically grown during long day lengths, we must select short day length onion varieties in order to get them to actually bulb. If not, you will never get an onion bulb like you find in the store.
NGDM: At the moment, Florida growers are getting ready to prep their soil for winter crops, while northern growers are getting ready for a fall harvest. What should southern gardeners be doing to prep for the upcoming growing season? What should northern gardeners be doing to prepare their soil for a winter’s nap?
Santiago: South Florida gardeners should be:
- 2 weeks away from turning in their cover crops;
- Raising beds;
- Starting seedlings;
- Checking their irrigation;
- Revisiting their integrated pest management plans;
- Revisiting their fertilization plans;
- Finished with their crop planning; and
- Mulching paths.
Jason: Northern gardeners would be getting ready for their final harvests. Some gardens will be put to rest, growing grain crops to protect the soil throughout the winter. Some will be getting ready to extend their season by adding “remay cloth,” also known as frost blankets, to cover their crops and prevent cold damage. The more extreme gardeners will be starting their seeds for winter growing under protection. These growers often use hot houses to increase the heat and prevent frosts inside the growing space.
NGDM: What are your top three essential tools for the home grower?
Santiago: That’s an easy one:
- Stirrup Hoe — to easily knock down young weeds.
- Digging Fork — to remove areas of grass, large weeds, and decompact the soil.
- Good pruning shears or a sharp knife — because you always need to harvest and plants need haircuts, too.
NGDM: When I was reading up on your farm, I noticed the phrase “weed flush” and the importance of doing that 3 to 4 weeks before planting. Can you give me a quick how-to and why it’s a critical step in garden prep?
Santiago: Of course! We create “working procedures” (SOP) for our own organization and clients, from backyards to small farms. We call them working procedures because we are always improving them. This assists growers of all [levels] to create an easy-to-follow system that improves gardening success. Here is an actual working procedure that we give to volunteers, team members, and clients:
STALE SEED BED (Weed Flush)
- Reducing weed seed bank (dormant seeds in the soil waiting to germinate) by allowing these weed seeds to germinate and then destroying them.
- Preventing weeds at the beginning of the season reduces weed management while crops are maturing.
- Late emerging weeds can still be a potential problem. This is the reason it is recommended to repeat 2-4 times.
- After a couple of seasons of accurate timing and management the weed seed bank in the soil will no longer be a concern and this process can be skipped unless poor management allows for weed seeds to spread.
- Watch out for weeds going to seed surrounding your garden as they have a high potential to land in the garden, thus increasing your weed seed bank.
- Locate an area with a heavy weed seed bank to be planted within 2-4 weeks.
- Confirm that radicle (first root) and first leaves (cotyledons) have emerged.
- Choose a proper tool to use for your stale seed bed/weed flush:
- A digging fork may be best for first clearing overgrown areas by hand.
- A stirrup hoe can be used to cover a large area quickly after main cultivation/ clearing.
- Cultivate the field
- Use your selected tools to remove weeds in the area.
- Make sure the field is mostly dry for proper weed desiccation.
- See different Weeding documents for how-to procedures.
- Two to three weed flushes before planting the fields at the beginning of the season will greatly reduce weed pressure throughout the growing season.
- After the first main clearing, practice shallow cultivation to prevent bringing seeds that are buried deep close to the surface.
- Repeat every 7 to 10 days for 3 to 4 weeks.
- Final cultivation is two to three days before planting. This allows time for weeds to desiccate before irrigating and prevents weed emergence close to planting date.
NGDM: What was one of your earliest or fondest gardening memories?
Santiago: This world of gardening/farming is relatively new to me. I started 7 years ago, so my memories are all still very vivid. My fondest one is doing my first farmer’s market where we were selling holy basil, cranberry hibiscus, sweet potato leaves, Seminole pumpkin, and a bunch of other unusual things. We went back to the farm at the end of the day with $70 and I was thinking to myself, “Yes! We just sold $70 worth of crops no one has ever heard of.” (Laughing) I felt that was a triumph for sure.
Jason: My oldest memory is wandering my grandparents’ garden in Massachusetts as a young toddler and eating tomatoes like they were apples. Around the age of 10, I realized that I could play with dirt, water, bugs, and feed my neighbors daily if I was a farmer. That was the moment I chose to be a farmer, as I knew I could take care of families and would never truly need to grow up.
With their passion and knowledge, it’s no wonder Santiago and Jason are approachable through various social media platforms. In addition to their website (where you can also find information about becoming a part of their CSA), you can find Tree Amigos Growers on Facebook, Instagram, and Yelp.