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A Return to the Land

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Growing vegetables in Bermuda can be a rewarding experience for those who are up for the challenge. Due to the island’s hot dry summer months and unique soil conditions, it can be difficult to grow certain types of vegetables, but with the right techniques and a little patience and we can all learn to grow our own fresh fruits and vegetables, and even turn a hobby into a profitable enterprise.

Tucked down the end of a shady lane in a quiet corner of St. David’s lies Olander Farm – the passion project of Martha Olander.

Although originally employed in Bermuda as a Spanish teacher, Mrs. Olander was raised in Costa Rica where her father had a farm specializing in growing coffee, bananas, and sugar cane, and she grew up eating fresh fruits and vegetables from a farmer’s market.

A passion for organic vegetables leads to a business.

Not finding the quality and variety of organic vegetables that she was accustomed to in Bermuda’s grocery stores led Mrs. Olander to first start experimenting with growing her own vegetables without the use of commercial pesticides and fertilizers.

Some of the vegetables that can be successfully grown in Bermuda include tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, carrots, pumpkin, potatoes, and herbs like basil and parsley.

“I got off to a very slow start over twenty years ago when I planted a small vegetable patch because I wanted to feed my family food that was really fresh and full of flavour. I was just growing simple things like broccoli and pumpkin – it never occurred to me back then that this would become a business,” she confided.

“The truth is I find working in the garden very relaxing and there is a great sense of satisfaction in eating things that you have grown yourself, but it was not until my daughter was diagnosed with cancer and I had to give up my teaching position to care for her I began growing vegetables more seriously.”

What’s the real secret to developing a green thumb?

Mrs. Olander believes that the best way to learn is to simply roll up your sleeves and start growing things.

As her garden flourished, Mrs. Olander began experimenting with an ever-increasing number of fruit trees and vegetable crops. Determined not to use chemical fertilizers inspired her to learn more about soil composition and even how to ferment her own fertilizer.

“People ask me how I get my carrots to grow so big without chemical fertilizer and I tell them that I talk to them. Some people may think this is funny, but for me, it seems to make a difference,” she says with a smile.

The importance of maintaining a connection to the land.

Mrs. Olander believes strongly that it is important for all of us to recognize that the garden is a living thing and that we all need to feel and strengthen our connection to the land.

“After a lot of experimentation, I find that the best thing to do is grow all my plants from non-GMO seeds that I collect and dry myself or import. Unlike other farmers, when you look at my fields you will see that I mix all of the crops together – planting carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, beets, and flowers all in the same place.”

“This is much more how plants grow in the wild – all mixed together – and I find that by doing this they help each other fight diseases and to thrive,” she explains. “It’s important to remember that the garden is an eco-system – some plants are great for adding nitrogen to the soil, while others with flowers attract bees to pollenate them. For example, I grow sunflowers simply because they attract bees which in turn pollinate my crops.”

As her harvests increased, Mrs. Olander began giving her extra vegetables to the neighbours and was eventually encouraged to start selling them.

“It’s funny to think that when I first started selling my vegetables at the side of the road people were not all that interested, but Covid has changed all of that and today the demand for local produce is so great that there is often a line of people waiting when I arrive to set up my Stand at Ferry Reach to the point that I can hardly keep up”. Which is living proof that with a little effort you can turn your backyard hobby into a thriving business.

Over time Mrs. Olander has also been experimenting with growing grapefruit and sour orange, avocado trees, and bananas.

“In the beginning, I planted my citrus trees too close together and they did not really get the attention that they needed because my time was taken up with my vegetables,” she confided. “You have to provide them with a lot of care if you want to get a good yield – they require quite a lot of pruning as well as compost and lots of manure.”

But her banana patch is another story.

Banana plants require warm temperatures and high humidity, so it’s important to choose a sheltered location with protection from wind and sun because Bermuda’s climate can be too cool and dry for these tropical plants.

It can take up to two years for a banana plant to produce fruit, and you have to keep the soil consistently moist and the ground beneath the plants clean. “Bananas can be a lot of work because they don’t grow well unless the ground is kept clear of dead leaves,” she explains.

“They also need regular fertilization, so I started keeping chickens right in the banana patch in small enclosures which I move from place to place, which works very well because not only do the chickens enjoy the shade, they provide nutrients back to the soil”.

There’s no doubt that in these troubled economic times, the interest in growing your own fruits and vegetables has grown. And apart from the financial benefits, the pleasure of tending to them and watching them grow, and then eating the resulting crops, can give even a novice gardener a sense of personal satisfaction that is hard to match.

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