Two Guys And A Farm

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.

That effort, Tree Amigos Growers, located at Natural Chai Farms, recently celebrated its second anniversary. In addition to getting seedlings ready for transplanting and sale, the duo is also:

  • 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.

Cranberry Hibiscus — grown for its tart cranberry-like flavor.

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.

Wander around the farm and you’ll spot the bright red berries of wild coffee.

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.

Sunflowers are a future harvest for a friend’s wedding.

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.

Lulo, also known as Naranjilla, is a Latin American native that produces a citrus-like fruit that has a rhubarb/lime taste.

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:



  • 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.

Roselle, a West African native hibiscus, is grown for its edible calyces.


  1. Locate an area with a heavy weed seed bank to be planted within 2-4 weeks.
  2. Confirm that radicle (first root) and first leaves (cotyledons) have emerged.
  3. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Repeat every 7 to 10 days for 3 to 4 weeks.
  2. 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.

Tree Amigos Growers have big plans for this area of the farm, including a farmer’s market and educational gardening workshops.

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.

A Farm Grows In Fort Lauderdale

Flagler Village Farm

In the previous post, I mentioned that summer in South Florida was like living in a green desert: day after day of heat made hotter by oppressive humidity and afternoon downpours. It’s for these reasons that many gardeners retreat indoors, contenting themselves to look at their green world from behind glass.

Imagine my surprise — and delight — when I came across an oasis in the heart of Fort Lauderdale, a green space that was not only green but was still producing even in the blistering summer heat.

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Yes, Ponce de Leon, There Is A Spring

A whole new lizard made an appearance.  This one looks like a dinosaur from an old sci-fi film.

A whole new lizard made an appearance. This one looks like a dinosaur from an old sci-fi film.

A few posts ago, I found myself in a bit of a spring funk. On the one hand, I was excited about spring’s arrival — after all, little darling, in the words of Lennon, Harrison, and McCartney, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.

When spring arrived, I was in south Florida — where it’s not so much here comes the sun but rather there is always sun. No one but me seemed to notice that the earth was standing a bit more upright as the northern hemisphere tilted toward the sun. In fact, one deejay wondered aloud on air, “Does South Florida even have a spring?”

Of course, South Florida has a spring. I’m just not sure when it actually happened. I think it was that morning when it was about 70 degrees for a few hours.

Many of you suggested I talk to some locals in order to get a better understanding of spring in these parts. And that’s exactly what I did. Feeling a bit like Ponce de Leon in his search for the Fountain of Youth in Florida, I became an explorer in search of my own newly sprung spring.

Since I don’t have a garden here, I turned to the gardens of my neighbors for some springtime inspiration. On one side, my neighbor has a wildly overgrown bed — for lack of a better word — of banana trees. They’re a bit weed-like — and I’m itching to get in there to clean out the dead leaves and stalks — if only to reach up and grab what is just out of reach from my side of the fence.

This is fresh produce.

This is fresh produce.

The neighbor on the other side has a very lush, attractive landscape — including this hidden heliconia.

Hello Heliconia.

Hello heliconia.

Hanging over our shared fence are the branches and blooms of brugmansia, more commonly known as angel’s trumpets. It’s one thing to stand on my side of the fence and take in all of the pendulous blooms . . .

The bells of Brugmansia.

The bells of brugmansia.

. . . and quite another to lay down in its shade and look upward.



Looking upward into Brugmansia.

Looking upward into brugmansia.

But bananas and brugmansia hardly a spring make. What about bulbs and songbirds, bed cleaning and nurseries stocking up? In fact, nurseries here always seem to be full of potted products — and so the seasons seem to flow seamlessly, perhaps even unnoticeably.

I went in search of experts — and I didn’t have to go far. Charles Livio is the horticulturist for Oakland Park, FL. (Yes, the city has its own horticulturist!) In the summer of 1972, Charles and his family left the New York metropolitan area and arrived in South Florida.

“Yes, our spring is radically different here in our sub-tropical climate,” said Charles via email. “First, let’s throw out that children’s calendar rhyme from up north, ‘April showers bring May flowers.’ First of all, we have flowers blooming all year long, and second, April is not a rainy month here. Our rainy season is normally from late May through early October.”

Echoing this same idea is a regular reader/commenter of this blog, Mary Collins, who is the senior horticulturist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens in Coral Gables, FL. Like Charles, Mary is a South Florida transplant, having arrived in 1973.

True colors: Heliconia close-up.

True colors: Heliconia close-up.

“I describe the seasons in South Florida like this,” Mary wrote in a recent email. “Winter: December, January, February is cool and usually dry. Spring: March, April, mid-May is warmer, dry and windy.   Summer: late-May, June, July, August, September, mid-October is hot, humid, very rainy, stormy, with June and October often being our rainiest months. Fall: late-October, November is a bit cooler and less humid.”

Now that I have a better understanding of the seasons, I wonder if I’m still missing something. Up north, spring meant excitement. It meant life. It meant green.

But in a land that is perpetually green, where this year’s spring temperatures feel more like a New York summer, where is the excitement?   I mean, there are always shoppers in the nurseries but not in the numbers as up north — and much of that might have to do with the limited time gardeners have in colder climates.

Do South Florida gardeners take seasons for granted?  Why get excited about any season if the changes are barely perceptible? The answer to my question could not have been more obvious. When searching for garden excitement, talk to a gardener.

At the mention of spring, both Charles and Mary responded with the feeling that I feared was lost — and their excitement for spring is infectious.

“Springtime in South Florida is much more subtle than up north, but there are things to look forward to,” wrote Charles. “In late winter/early spring, the purple trumpet trees are in bloom, followed by the pink trumpets, and then the yellow trumpet trees are masses of gold by April.”

There's nothing subtle about the color of this Trumpet Tree.

There’s nothing subtle about the color of this trumpet tree.

Similarly, Mary picked up the call of the trees. “There are several beautiful trees which bloom during the spring, including the shaving brush tree (Pseudobombax ellipticum) with pink or white blooms and our native lignum vitae (Guaiacum sanctum) with beautiful violet blue flowers.”

Several trees experience both fall and spring at this time of year. According to Mary,

“This is the time of year when our live oaks (Quercus virginiana) and mahogany (Swietenia mahogany) trees drop their leaves. The oaks produce small, inconspicuous flowers and new leaves shortly after their last year’s flowers have dropped.  Mahogany trees also produce new leaves shortly after their old leaves have dropped. Both the oaks and the mahogany are described as being ‘briefly deciduous.’”

Briefly deciduous. Now that’s a term that can get me revved up about spring, that makes me want to go outside and get dirty, to try my hand at some seed sowing in this climate. If I were in New York, I would have already started seeds in advance or patiently waited for the soil to warm up to direct sow. The soil in Florida is already nice and warm, so . . .

Charles offers a word of caution to slow down. “If you were to plant your garden down here the same time in the spring you planted it up north, you would be missing 2/3 of our vegetable growing season. Cool weather crops have already been harvested, and the warm weather crops are being picked. Our very warm and humid summers are not conducive to growing most vegetables. If the insects don’t get you crops, the diseases will. However, there are some tropical crops that will produce during our summers, such as cassava [yuca], pigeon peas, malanga [a root vegetable] and chayote [it’s easier to provide a link for this edible tropical plant]. We may not grow apple, pear, and cherry trees down here, but we have mangoes, avocados, and papayas!”

Mary added: “Spring in this area means orchid shows and spring plant sales. This is an excellent time to purchase plants for your own garden. Don’t forget to plant some of our South Florida native species for our native birds and butterflies! It’s a wonderful time to go for a hike in the Everglades! The water levels are at their lowest; the wildlife is found near the remaining water holes, and the ‘Glades prairies are filled with wildflowers.”

So to answer that South Florida deejay who openly questioned if South Florida even had a spring, the answer is, “Yes, Ponce de Leon, there is a spring.” You just have to know where to look and what to look for.  According to both horticulturists, there is one plant in particular that can lead the way.  Bougainvillea is at its brightest and boldest at this time of year.



And that’s cause for excitement no matter where spring is springing along.


Gnome Sweet Gnome: A Talk With Dr. Twigs Way


When I received Gnomes as a gift in 1976, it ignited my imagination.  I not only loved the total appearance and creativity of the work, but Wil Huygen’s words and Rien Poortvliet’s illustrations reached out from the pages and carried me into a secret, fantastical world.

Nearly 40 years later, the book has that same hold on me — and more.  I revisited the book while cleaning out a bookshelf.  Just flipping through the pages brought me back to the wonder I felt as a 13-year-old boy.

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Q & A: Down And Dirty With Dante

Dante 1With a name like Dante the Comic, it’s pretty obvious that he’s a funny guy.  The name, though, barely scratches the surface of all that he does on screen, behind the scenes, and in his yard.

Dante first came to national attention on season five of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” where he received each audience favorite award and a standing ovation in the semi-finals.  Ever since, awards and honors have continued to roll in, including the grand prize on ABC’s “America’s Funniest People,” the most comedy awards ever presented by BET, and performing for more US troops than anyone since Bob Hope.  And if this isn’t enough, he also writes for E Network’s “Fashion Police,” with Joan Rivers, and hosts a podcast, “Stimulus Package,” which is available through iTunes.

Dante’s newest project is co-starring in the film The InAPPropriate Comedy, slated for a March 22 nationwide release.  Directed by Vince Offer, the Sham Wow guy, this sketch-comedy movie follows the mayhem of a tablet computer fully loaded with offensively funny apps.  Taking part in the irreverent and raunchy humor is Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody, Lindsay Lohan, Michelle Rodriguez, Rob Schneider, and Dante’s girlfriend, Rebekah Kochan, an actress/comedian with her own loyal following.

For gardeners, though, the most impressive piece of Dante’s resume is the work he does in his yard. Dante the Comic, you see, is also Dante the Gardener.

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Margaret & Me & A Cup Of Tea

Margaret Roach Garden

Margaret Roach.  For years it was just a name, one that I had seen in the masthead or the editorial pages of Martha Stewart Living.  Occasionally, it appeared at the bottom of the television as I watched Martha’s show, an identifier of the woman sitting next to the host.

Yes, Margaret Roach was just a name.

When I started this blog, I also learned of the top gardening blog in America, A Way to Garden — and once again, I was staring at that same name: Margaret Roach.  Maybe, I thought, there was a reason her name kept entering my world — and maybe, it was time to discover if there was more to Margaret than a name.

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