Organic Garden Educator
Jai McFall has been an organic gardener for over 50 years and an organic landscape designer for over 30 years, starting in Michigan and now in Florida.
She 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, 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 there until 2001, when she sold the farm to follow a dream to help others. As part of that, she moved to Clearwater in 2005. She started her gardening business in Clearwater because so many people asked her about the phenomenal success she had with her home gardens. They wanted her knowledge about how she raised pest-free, abundant fruits, vegetables and other plants.
Initially, she worked out of her home to establish Organic Living Garden Center, a flourishing enterprise that oversees the planting and growing of edible landscapes at homes and businesses.She moved the business to its present site in Largo, FL in 2013. In the ten years she has been in Florida she has helped thousands improve their gardens.
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. Strawberry tree by Organic Living landscapingShe 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 soil does not hold nutrients nor moisture so gardeners need to use a good, rich soil and add mineral supplements to produce healthy plants.Part of her job 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.
She goes to people’s houses and discovers their goals, dreams, desires, needs and wants for their yards and their health. Then she analyzes their yard to create the best design for them. Her clients’ choices in gardens run the gamut. 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.”
It isn’t just homeowners planting gardens they can eat. A few years ago she 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 were grown and harvested.
McFall said that edible landscape enthusiasts sometimes run into conflicts with their homeowners associations. Many associations don’t want residents growing food Gorgeous organic landscaping by Organic Livingin 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.” At Organic Living Garden Center, you can find Jai showing off her gardens to anyone who stops by. The lush shrubs and plants are not only beautiful to the eye but delicious, too.
The yard is filled with a wide variety of healthy-looking edibles, intermingled with colorful ornamental bee and butterfly plants for pollination. In her garden, with the exception of the ornamentals, every vine, leaf and berry can be eaten on site. In the mix are kale, spinach, celery, onions, crook-neck squash, broccoli, cauliflower and sweet Brazilian cherries.
There are also herbs, including six types of mint, a Meyer lemon tree with fruit, and young moringa. These are fast-growing trees native to Africa and Asia that are almost entirely edible — leaves, bark and seeds filled with vitamins and minerals.
“I change the plants season by season,” she said. “This place will look different at different times of the year.”
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.”
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.
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.”