ANNA MARIA -- Pine Avenue is living up to its reputation as "The Greenest Little Mainstreet in America."
Thanks to landscape designer/native habitat expert Michael Miller and Pine Avenue Restoration Developers, Ed Chiles and Michael Coleman, the island has assembled an Edible Community Garden along one of its must-see streets.
"We had a meeting with the Pine Avenue merchants and they wanted to continue with the development of Pine Avenue," Coleman said. "The merchants actually thought of the idea as a community garden which later evolved into the idea of having community boxes."
Pine Avenue Merchants Association thought gardens would enhance the community.
"But the problem of having a community garden was there was no land -- land is so expensive here," Coleman said.
Owner of the Sandbar, BeacHhouse, and Mar Vista restaurants, Chiles came
up with the idea of earth boxes, Coleman said.
The idea flourished from there.
Miller, 75, used his 30 years of landscaping experience to create the Edible Community Gardens.
Since vegetables can't thrive in the summer heat, Miller had to find alternatives.
"I really wanted an image of abundance out in front of the merchants," Miller said. "But the obstacle here was how to do that if we can't grow vegetables in the heat."
Utilizing the web, Miller googled "Summer Vegetables Florida" and the first site on the page was a link to ECHO, Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization."
ECHO, based in North Fort Myers, is a Christian, non-denominational organization that grows tropical vegetables, then sends the seeds to other groups in third world countries to distribute and teach people there how to grow produce.
Miller contacted the community gardens intern at ECHO immediately and began the project.
"I went to ECHO two times and they have a community garden intern every year who helps community gardens get started," Miller said.
The process of creating the project proceeded from there.
The eight boxes on Pine Avenue were built in December, followed by the construction of the sheet mulch in spring.
The sheet mulch contains layering of items beginning with a base of recycled newspaper, cardboard or old clothes, and topped with repetitive layers combining seedless hay, bulk compost, and a variety of composted manure, bone meal, soil acidifier, green sand and chemical-free green yard clippings.
With the help of four landscapers from Shady Lady Horticultural Services and Miller himself, the mulch was planted by the end of May.
"The planting of the vegetables was done several weeks after," Miller said.
The 4-foot by 12-foot boxes were paid for by the Pine Avenue Restoration Partnership. The merchants hosting the boxes paid for the sheet mulch and vegetables.
"This is a community project between business people, private people, tourists, and public people," Miller said.
Miller said the edible gardens will first attract environmentalists, but thinks food lovers and tourists will be pleased with the project as well.
"I come here every day and whenever I come, there is a tourist walking by asking me questions about what they see," Miller said.
The edible gardens will especially attract "foodies," Miller said. And word is getting out. Taiwanese exchange students from the University of South Florida toured Pine Avenue community gardens on Tuesday, then had a tasting lunch at the Sandbar.
Each box contains seven ECHO vegetables which are edible right off the plant.
"The ECHO vegetables are particularly nutritious because they are a gathering of vegetables from all around the world that are highly nutritious," Miller said. "And we have really created this fantastic growing medium here."
Michael Brinson, owner of FlipFlip Shop and Candy Stop on Pine Avenue, said he gets questions from people all the time regarding the vegetables.
"We get questions about them and that's why were just sharing it along," Brinson said. "It's great that it's a community thing and that we can actually eat a lot of what's there."