By Jerry Forney
Tradition, Family and the Future
The movie “The Yearling”, based on the book by Pulitzer Prize winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, depicts the difficult life of the Baxter family as they struggle to survive in the Big Scrub, a semi-wilderness area located between the Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers. It is an area measuring about fifty miles long by twenty-five miles wide that today falls within the Ocala National Forest. Those early pioneers had to be resourceful and mostly self-supporting because of their isolation. Occasional visits to Volusia for supplies and family visits were the only connection they had to civilization. These men and women were hard working, dedicated and characterized by a deep love of the land that supported them.
In 1960 a post-pioneer by the name of Harry Witte, a native of Cincinnati Ohio, migrated to Rockledge Florida from a cabbage farm in St. Augustine. When he and his wife Mary arrived, the Rockledge community was fairly well settled… not exactly a pioneer outpost. Rockets were being launched into space from nearby Cape Canaveral and it was readily apparent that the so-called Space Coast had a bird's eye view of the future. It was an outpost of a different kind. Harry had found a place where he could put down roots, literally. Harry is now considered a pioneer in the Brevard County environmentalism and beautification movement.
Doing what he knew and loved best Harry started by selling flower bulbs from a roadside stand that the family ran on the honor system. The sign said, "grab a bag of soil and leave your money in the can". Eventually the business expanded to a full-scale plant nursery that he called Rockledge Gardens. Harry and his wife Mary exemplified the traditional pioneer values of hard work and dedication. They had a deep love of the land and the soil of the Space Coast. The business grew, as did their family, and it soon became a local landmark. His nursery thrived over the decades and today Rockledge Gardens is a family-owned business that is currently run by his daughter Theresa Riley and her husband Kevin Riley.
The nursery, which is located on the west side of US 1 in South Rockledge, operates on 12 acres of beautifully maintained gardens filled with tropical and hardy trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials; a lush sprawling greenhouse full of house and patio plants, orchids, and bromeliads; huge selections of garden accessories, tools, and supplies are available for every gardener from beginner to advanced.
Harkening back to Harry Witte's own roots as a farmer and inspired by the current interest in organic farming, hydroponics and sustainable agriculture Theresa and Kevin created The Farm at Rockledge Gardens on 1.5 acres of land on the East side of US 1 approximately a quarter mile south of the nursery. The first thing a visitor notices when touring The Farm is the vertical hydroponic vegetable farm. “We use only natural organic methods for growing our produce. We don't use pesticides or chemicals,” said Theresa to Robert Wicker and I when we visited The Farm recently. “The plants are grown in a sterilized medium of coconut fiber and vermiculite, which allows for proper distribution of the nutrient-rich water.” Robert and I were wondering what the blue and yellow plates hanging from the supports were there for. “The blue plates you see hanging there catch thrips on the sticky side. For some reason they're attracted to blue. The Yellow plates attract and catch white flies.”
Diana Salopek is one of The Farms official “farmers”. Her son, Ayden Byrd, was busy watering some pots when we arrived. He has been helping his mother with plants since he was 3 years old. Ayden is also a farmer at heart and represents the future of small-scale sustainable farming along the Space Coast. Growing food, according to Diana, is a way of “encouraging our current and future generations to sustain health, vitality and happiness”.
One of Diana's jobs is to regulate and maintain the elaborate system of nutrients dripping into the top of each vertical stack of pots. The nutrients slowly drip down each level until they reach the large pot at the bottom that anchors the entire stack. Each vertical structure is attached to a large metal framework that gives the hydroponic farm a stable environment that can withstand the wind and weather of the Space Coast.
The Farm also has an organic container production side. Rows of traditional pots, filled with organic soil, are home to squash, peppers, borage greens, sunflowers and eggplant to name just a few. Many of the plants are currently in bloom. Theresa showed me her phone that had a striking photo of one of her sunflowers serving as a landing pad for a beautiful butterfly. “Our flowers attract many beneficial insects like bees, butterflies and ladybugs. I was lucky enough to catch this.”
What's in the future for The Farm? “We have blueberries over there that should be producing sometime in 2013.” Theresa pointed to rows of large pots filled with bushes. “We also plan on putting in a small orchard of peaches and plums on some cleared land sometime in the very near future.” So those roots that her father Harry Witte put down in Rockledge in the early sixties are spreading and continuing to bear fruit. It might not be surviving the tough land of the Big Scrub as described by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings but it's an accomplishment any pioneer would be proud of.
Tours of The Farm at Rockledge Gardens are available by appointment. Classes and Garden Tips are also available. Rockledge Gardens can be contacted by phone at 321-636-7662 or _by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The nursery website is http://www.rockledgegardens.com/ and The Farms website is http://www.rockledgegardens.com/farm.html.