Jai McFall of Organic Living, right, explains the different seeding plants she offers to customer Delalle Alexander of Clearwater Beach March 14.
LARGO – The food from Jai McFall’s garden, growing abundantly in front of her Largo store, doesn’t look much like the produce offered in grocery stores.
The plants that do look familiar taste different, stronger. But that’s a good thing, McFall said. The nutrients she feeds the plants keeps them from getting gobbled up by bugs. The produce tastes better and is better for you because they’ve been cared for properly.
“What we do is we build up soil and then we put minerals in it, because minerals are elements essential for life, and minerals are what gives food their flavor,” she said.
McFall calls herself an edible landscaper. Her business, Organic Living, has been based at 13064 Indian Rocks Road in Largo since last July. Through it, she teaches people the benefits of organic food and, more importantly, how to grow it in difficult Florida soil.
From her own garden, McFall shows off easily recognized vegetables: eggplant, kale, tomatoes, cauliflower, Romaine lettuce and cayenne peppers. She explains why the arugula and oregano tastes so different and offers tastes of leaves: sorrell, Thai basil, tarragon, cilantro, Cuban oregano, fennel, tarragon, longevity spinach, Chinese chives, Okinawan spinach, Italian dandelion, bronze fennel, stevia and dill. Even the hibiscus and snapdragon flowers are edible.
And all the plants are growing and thriving, without any pesticides.
“Everything I sell is specific to Central Florida. It might not work in Miami, and it might not work up in Gainesville, but they’re very specific to Central Florida,” McFall said.
New customer, Delalle Alexander of Clearwater Beach, browsed from shelves of seedlings March 14, selecting new plants to grow. Her garden only began to thrive last month; she failed to grow anything last year. But McFall taught her how to grow a better garden. Her new tomatoes are still green, Alexander said.
“But they look happy,” she said, explaining that she’s also growing radishes, parsley and eggplant. “They all seem like they’re happy plants. I haven’t eaten any yet, other than the parsley.”
Happy plants are what McFall is all about. She spends much of her days away from her garden, giving talks to various social groups, at preschools, senior centers, churches and doctors’ offices.
“If anybody wants me to come talk about organics, I will do so, and I love it,” she said, adding that she doesn’t require a fee. “Because people need to know, and that’s my purpose: to educate people.”
A broken system
People always ask McFall what she does to keep the bugs away. But there aren’t any bugs in her garden. The reason is simple.
“Healthy plants don’t get bugs,” she said.
Today’s conventional fertilizers give plants three minerals: nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, ingredients that can be used to make bombs.
“We need 90 minerals in the soil to have healthy soil,” McFall explained.
Without more minerals, the resulting plants are stressed and unhealthy.
“The first thing Mother Nature does is sends in the bugs: ‘Take out those unhealthy plants!’ Because we’re supposed to get our minerals from our food,” McFall said.
Scientifically, a healthy plant with no stress becomes a complex carbohydrate. A stressed plant – one growing in the wrong season with the wrong amount of water or sunlight and without proper nutrients – turns into a simple sugar. The bugs gravitate to simple sugars like candy, McFall said.
To combat the bugs, pesticides were developed.
“So now we have weak and unhealthy plants covered with poison,” McFall said. “So then Mother Nature sends in the molds, the mildews, the funguses, the diseases, the weeds. ‘Take out those unhealthy plants!’”
Plants are supposed to develop their own probiotics and immunities, but pesticides kill those too, allowing unhealthy organisms to grow in their wake.
Of course, the pesticides themselves are bad for humans to consume. McFall points customers to the “Dirty Dozen,” a list of the fruits and vegetables that are proven to contain the most pesticides, “47-67 toxins on every one of them,” McFall said. Avoiding those toxins is the No. 1 reason to eat organic produce.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘I can’t afford to buy all organic.’ And I tell them, ‘You can’t afford not to, because you’re going to pay the farmer now or you’re going to pay the doctor later.’ And it’s going to be less painful and less expensive to pay the farmer now,” McFall said.
And if you know how, it’s easiest to grow your own produce.
“When you grow your own, not only are you keeping the herbicides and pesticides out, but you’re making sure that you’re putting the minerals in that need to be in the soil to have healthy plants and to have healthy bodies,” McFall said.
McFall grew up on an organic farm in Michigan. In the 1960s, the family grew or raised all their own food: meats, fruits and vegetables.
“We canned, and every Saturday we baked whatever breads, pies, cookies, cakes we needed for the week, so we ate really, really good,” McFall said.
She bought the 10 acres from her parents in 1986 and began her edible landscaping company. When she moved to Tampa in 2005, however, she discovered that her expertise didn’t carry over exactly. Her first two gardens were miserable failures, she said.
When she moved to a tiny plot in Clearwater, she tried again, this time with lots more success. She grew herbs and vegetables and cultivated more than 40 fruit-bearing plants.
“When people would come and look at my gardens, they would walk around and go, ‘You can’t grow gardens like this in Florida. You must be using magic,’” McFall said.
Accordingly, the four plant food products Organic Living sells are called Magic Nos. 1 through 4, in order of importance.
The first provides the soil with 91 minerals, mined from ancient seabeds in Nevada. No. 2 provides the beneficial microorganisms the plants need to thrive.
“You create a living community with the microorganisms and the worms and the insects and the plants, and you don’t get bugs, and you don’t get disease,” McFall said. “You get nutrient-dense, healthy plants.”
Magic No. 3 was developed out of a specific desire to grow a plethora of tomatoes, as is easy to do in many northern areas. McFall discovered that tomatoes needed a lower pH and even more nutrients. So the third plant food is made out of bat guano, blood meal and worm castings.
Magic No. 4 is called biochar, a one-time application made from the Mayan technique of burning wood into charcoal and mixing it with organic compost.
McFall keeps an ongoing experiment to compare the difference between a plant grown with her plant food and one without. The plant fed properly always thrives, grows bigger and produces more fruit, she said.
“That’s why I teach people to grow their own, because they can. It’s totally doable,” McFall said. “There is work involved, there is money involved. There’s an investment to make. At the same time, it’s an investment in your future.”
For her own future, McFall is looking to move into the property next to her storefront and from there grow even more gardens. She wants to clear the back of her current property, plant a food forest and run a co-op through which people can buy shares and pick up produce every week.
She said she thinks her message, her ongoing mission, is having an impact in the community. Organic Living’s email list is more than 2,000 strong, and they’re all regular customers, she said.
“I’ve had people tell me that I’ve changed their lives (and) their health,” she said. “They keep coming back. And they bring people with them.”
She finds her work “very rewarding” because she can say she is changing lives, one family at a time.
Organic Living hosts regular workshops on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Most are free. A schedule of upcoming workshops, along with more gardening information, is available at the business website, www.organiclivingforall.com.
McFall also is available to give talks on organic gardening. Call 324-4435.