Alexandra Golovac does not have much room in her home for a garden.
As a tenant in a Coral Gables apartment, Golovac, 24, can only fit a couple of pots on her balcony. So far, she has two pots: In one, she planted basil and mint; in the other, oregano and rosemary.
But at “Althea’s Garden Party,” a free event held Sunday at the Coral Gables Merrick House, Golovac learned how to expand her garden despite having a limited amount of space. At the event, volunteer master gardeners gave tips on how to grow herbs and vegetables in a backyard garden, whether that would be a container- or a raised-bed garden.
“I’ve already learned how to grow my own lettuce in a container,” said Golovac.
“Althea’s Garden Party” was the second event from a series of seven at the Merrick House, 907 Coral Way. The City of Coral Gables and the Merrick House Governing Board organized the events, which are collectively called “Sundays on the Porch with George.”
The aim is to showcase the Merrick House and gardens, and educate people about the Merrick family. Each of the seven events is designed to teach about a chapter of the Merricks’ history or about one particular family member.
George Merrick, a real estate developer, is the founder of Coral Gables, which he designed with an eye toward creating a Mediterranean village with lush landscaping. Coral Gables incorporated in 1925 and to this day, remains a city proud of its canopy.
George Merrick came to South Florida when he was a preteen. He made the journey from Massachusetts in 1899 with his father, the Rev. Solomon Merrick, who had purchased a homestead, 160 acres for $1,100. Solomon’s wife, Althea, and their other children soon followed.
While the Merricks relocated to escape the harsh winters of the north, once they got to their South Florida land, a new challenge lay ahead: They found nothing more than a rocky tract with an austere wood cabin.
So they set to work. The family planted okra, beans, eggplant and other vegetables that their eldest son, George, sold in Miami. The funds subsidized the Merricks until their grapefruit trees began to bear fruit.
It is also believed that Althea had a vegetable garden of her own near their home.
Today, a small garden with onions, lettuce, kale, tomatoes, broccoli and herbs has been planted on the side of the house. The garden was created and is maintained by the Edible Community Gardens Project.
“That’s what we would presume the kind of garden Althea would have had,” said Marlin Ebbert, a Governing Board member and chairwoman of Sunday’s event. “Sort of outside her kitchen door that you could go to and pick what you might need for dinner that night.”
“Althea’s Garden Party,” which drew more than 200 people, was a way to not only teach guests about the Merricks’ endeavor with growing vegetables for sale and for themselves but to also teach guests how to grow a backyard garden of their own.
“Think about where we are geographically. Contrary to the rest of the United States, this is when people should be planting their seedlings. This is our spring,” said Angela Kim, a certified master gardener, who answered questions as part of a plant clinic held by the University of Florida/Miami-Dade County Extension Service.
In South Florida, vegetable gardeners should plant in the fall, harvest in the winter and, prepare the plant beds for the next season in the summer, said Kim.
Raised-bed gardens work well in Miami-Dade County, Kim added, because the soil here is high in alkaline, has coral rock and is infested with insects, all of which are not conducive to growing vegetables.
Golovac’s choice of a backyard garden – a container garden – also gives budding vegetable and herb growers more flexibility and creative options.
Some possibilities for containers include: plant pots, plastic beach balls cut in half, and old bathtubs.
After several attempts at growing herbs and vegetables, Mercy Hospital registered nurse Francis Reese said she will try something new. Reese, 66, will purchase a bag of soil, slit it in the middle, and plant sage, basil and thyme right into the bag.
“I am going to start with those three, see how it goes,” said Reese at Sunday’s event. “This way I don’t have to bother with the nutrients, maybe just water it once in awhile. I think it is cleaner.”
At “Althea’s Garden Party,” there was also a cooking demonstration by Chef Norman Van Aken as well as orchids, art and fresh produce for sale. Van Aken is the executive chef at Tuyo, which sits atop Miami Dade College’s Miami Culinary Institute. Van Aken has also been called the founder of New World Cuisine, a fusion of Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African and American flavors. At “Althea’s Garden Party,” he made a cooking demonstration of shrimp ceviche.
For Golovac, she is looking to expand on her balcony container garden. The endeavor will be beneficial not only to her but also to her students.
As a cooking teacher, educating her students on how to garden “is definitely an added bonus,” she said.
“Just to focus on the fact that they can produce their own food because this is real food and what they purchase in stores typically had pesticides and herbicides.”