Grow Your Own Food in SWFL

Southwest Floridians are trading in traditional lawns for lush gardens as they adopt homesteader practices to grow their own food and heal the land.

BY June 28, 2024
Photo by Anna Nguyen
Hardiness zones and soil composition are no longer matters of discussion relegated to farmers and die-hard gardeners. Listen closely, and you’ll hear hedge funders-turned-homesteaders in tony Southwest Florida neighborhoods wax poetic on fertilizers and sustainability. They’re not alone. All over suburbia, folks are trading thoughts on crops that flourish where they are, beehive boxes that add to curb appeal and the wonders that come with composting. 
The timing is no accident, according to regenerative designer and owner of Bonita Springs-based Edulis Designs Alex Nikesch. “Like many things in society, the pandemic accelerated preexisting trends,” he says. “I saw a notable uptick in people wanting to put together a homestead once they observed how brittle the food supply chain is.” In the last few years, more clients have come to him seeking sanctuary and self-sufficiency. The idea dovetails with the push toward a slower, more holistic way of living. “Homesteading provides a lifestyle change that allows you to become more integrated with the land—it’s both very meaningful and practical,” Alex adds.
While purists define homesteading as subsisting entirely off what you grow, hunt, build or forage, there are different levels of self-sufficient living. For some, the drive toward healthy eating leads them to grow their food. Many others are guided by a mindset of conscious consumption and living in harmony with the land. Whatever the reason, incorporating some homesteading practices can result in boons for your well-being and the ecological landscape. Here, three locals share their personal approaches to self-sufficient living, the rewards of growing your own food and a peek at their bounty.
Photo by Garren Rimondi

The Crop Crusader

As summer approaches, Florida Edible Landscaping’s Erica Klopf and her partner, Greg, are preparing to mulch and cut everything on their property back between chores that include weeding, figuring out how to re-home wild honey bees from the hot tub to a new hive, and tending to a flock of quail. “We have three coops—they’re so much more efficient and easier to clean than chickens,” Erica notes. 
The landscape designer loves to toil in her quarter-acre Naples yard—her “lab,” which is planted with around 300 species, including multiple varieties of mangoes, avocados, bananas, rice, vegetables and so much more. “At the moment, I’m trying to select a perennial kale that thrives in the tropics, and I’m growing out perennial okra that will live 15 years,” Erica says. She experiments for the sake of her clients—to offer them the best of what can grow locally—but also for her benefit. The native Neapolitan delights in the fruits of her labor, with tasty crops she won’t find anywhere else. 
When she’s not turning on clients to exotic fruits and healing herbs, Erica’s in her kitchen perfecting recipes tailored to the various ingredients growing in her backyard. She often looks for cooking inspiration in foodways from subtropical parts of Africa and Southeast Asia—cultures that developed with a similar climate. “That’s part of making the transition to eating locally: You look at traditional cuisines from those cultures and figure out how they used the plants,” she says. “This is wisdom that took thousands of years to develop.” One curry paste she likes to make is stocked with medicinal and nourishing properties from the gingers, peppers and herbs. “And it’s all homegrown,” she adds. 
Living and spreading the edible landscapes gospel wasn’t always Erica’s plan. She first studied art at Florida Gulf Coast University. “During that process, I learned about the global environmental problems,” she says. Erica decided to take a break from her brushes, enrolled in environmental classes and realized she had the power to help make big changes. “We can reverse the environmental collapse and modify climate regionally,” she says. “The work I do now lays a foundation for solutions that can be implemented after my lifetime.”
Erica married her passion for ecology and art with her landscape design firm. She and Greg also make healing tinctures and teas using herbs they grow. They invite a sense of community to their plot, offering friends and family access to fresh produce and a wall of mason jars in the kitchen filled with bounty from the garden, including dehydrated fruits and herbs, salsa and Mexican masa dough, made with corn she’s grown. “For me, this is all about working toward a solutions-based lifestyle,” Erica says. “I can’t expect the world to change until I do everything I can to embody the solutions that I know are necessary.” 
“This is wisdom that took thousands of years to develop.” —Erica Klopf
Photo by Anna Nguyen
Photo by Anna Nguyen
Photo by Anna Nguyen

The Produce Promoter 

Sustenance has been top of mind for Garren Rimondi for as long as he can remember. The Bonita Springs photographer and videographer spent a lifetime experimenting with a variety of foods and how they made him feel after being diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia when he was 4. Throughout his teenage years, Garren tried different diets as he immersed himself in the world of wrestling and bodybuilding. Later, as an adult, his focus turned to the art of food photography. 
Now, at 37, Garren has fully settled into a high-fruit, raw, plant-based diet (with the occasional cooked or raw seafood dish thrown in). He finds that nutrient- and antioxidant-rich fruit provides the best fuel for his body. When Garren and his wife, Lauren, moved to Bonita Springs from Fort Myers seven years ago, he took the opportunity of the region’s nearly year-round growing season and stocked their yard with trees and plants to supply his lifestyle. Garren likes knowing exactly what he’s eating and how it was treated. 
He harvests pounds of produce from the property, including nutrient-rich varieties not often found in grocery stores, like chocolatey black sapotes, ice cream-like blue java bananas, Concord grapes, and vitamin C-rich Barbados cherries, along with a ton of mangos, starfruit, coconut, oranges, and other fruits. Despite the home’s booming bounty, Garren still considers himself to be in the early stages of the homesteading lifestyle. He is thinking about taking on chickens (“mostly because they help with certain bugs”), but for now, he’s content to focus on the beneficial vegetation he can plant for future generations and reaping what they sow each and every day. He hopes more local folks follow his lead. “Because we’re all living in such a technologically advanced state, everything is so far from ‘natural,’” Garren says. “We should all grow our own food—at least some of it—to become reacquainted with nature.” 
Garren works to keep his produce easily accessible. Now that his plot is set up, accessing healthy, fresh food can be as easy as sticking out his hand. “I trim a lot of the trees, so they grow outward rather than in height, so there’s no need for a ladder back here,” he says. Plus, he adds, there’s nothing like the peace he finds some 35 hours a week trimming foliage, transplanting plants from pot to pot, composting kitchen scraps to create good quality soil, and generally working to make sure everything is “on the up and up.” “Quality control is certainly important,” Garren says of his drive to ensure everything he puts in his body is as clean as possible. “But more than anything, I appreciate the simplistic, self-sufficient aspect of this journey.”
Photo by Anna Nguyen
Bonita Springs-based Garren Rimondi follows a high-fruit, raw, plant-based diet and grows much of his food in his backyard. “We should all grow our own food—at least some of it—to become reacquainted with nature,” he says. Photo by Garren Rimondi

The Food Forester

Joel Viloria has always been able to see the forest for the trees. After suffering from an injury, the Venezuelan native began experimenting with different herbs and plants and eventually began selling potted plants like boldo, turmeric, ginger, moringa and sorrel on weekends at farmers markets in Naples. He began studying permaculture and left his job as a chemical and sanitation field specialist. “I fell in love with the idea of creating small places that mimic nature,” he says.   
Three years ago, the 57-year-old launched his landscape design firm, Jolly’Olly Farm, through which he uses the tools of permaculture (designs that follow natural ecosystems) and agroforestry (intentionally combining trees with agriculture) to create sustainable backyards. “Ninety percent of the people who come to me start with fruit trees and then want to add something more,” Joel says. More advanced designs may incorporate heat-tolerant vegetables, edible native plants, pollinator flowers and shade trees. “We’re building an ecosystem where everything starts working automatically,” he says. “By the second or third year, they’ll have a mini food forest.” 
Joel also builds chicken coops and helps his clients stock them. “Chickens are great, and they produce the most complete food on the planet—the egg,” he says. “If you know how to utilize everything in the backyard, nature will give you foods like lettuce, kale and leaves for chickens, and chickens give you food in return.”
His own nearly 1.5-acre home, in Naples’ Golden Gates Estates, is packed with an assortment of exotic trees that he tracks down throughout Florida, as well as Asian plants like moringa, wax jambu fruit and lemongrass, and native plants that attract butterflies and migrating birds. And, he loves trying out different plants on his plot. “I’m always learning,” he says. At the moment, he’s particularly excited about the jujube, a Chinese tree that produces stone fruit that tastes similar to a granny smith. “Apples don’t do well here, but now I have an alternative,” he notes. 
While the perks of Joel’s passion are hard to dispute (“I snack all day. There’s always free food while I’m working,” he says), he’s most excited about the ripple effects of his newer lifestyle. “My youngest son, Matthew, has become very involved and is excited to learn more about what I do,” he says. “He’s 26, and I would love for him to continue my work. That’s priceless to me.” 
Naples’ Joel Viloria, of landscape design firm Jolly’Olly Farm, follows permaculture and agroforestry principles to create bountiful, sustainable backyards that mimic nature. Photo by Anna Nguyen
Photo by Anna Nguyen
Joel says rearing chickens pays off in spades. “Chickens are great, and they produce the most complete food on the planet—the egg,” Joel says. Photo by Anna Nguyen
Photo by Anna Nguyen
He gets to snack as he works, thanks to the bounty on his nearly 1.5 acre homestead in Golden Gates Estates. Photo by Anna Nguyen

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