Have you ever tried purple carrots, neon Swiss chard or candy-striped beets? They sound like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. But these unusual vegetables do exist – and they’re growing right here in South Florida.
Despite the vibrant colors, these veggies are a bit hard to find. They’re sold mostly at local farmers’ markets and grown behind rows of palm trees at Tropical Treescapes in West Perrine. The produce is a new addition for the field nursery, run by longtime Florida resident Dean Richardson.
Dean, a friendly and loquacious man whose dirt-covered nails and tanned skin give away his love of the earth, fell into the role of vegetable farmer much like the way he fell into the nursery business – by chance, during difficult economic times. Dean was working as a marine biologist in Miami in the early 1970s and found himself without work when a recession hit, wiping out research grants. While waiting for the grant money to return, Dean was hired for a job in the nursery business when an employer mistook him for a different job seeker. Dean has been in the nursery business ever since.
Fast forward 30 or so years to the current recession, which slowed down business for Tropical Treescapes (though it has recently picked up). To compensate for slumping sales, Dean’s friend Gina Melin suggested they look into growing organic vegetables.
After a little bit of research, Dean decided it could be a successful venture. His first step: selecting plants that would thrive in South Florida’s climate, and be both unusual and visual. He sought to make his own niche, growing the kinds of vegetables you don’t find in South Florida.
Among the produce he planted were the purple carrots, neon Swiss chard and candy-striped beets, as well as pak choi, burgundy-colored Marshall lettuce and Romanesco Veronica, a variety of cauliflower that has lime-green spiraled florets.
Fortunately for Dean, the cost of starting the vegetable business was fairly low because he already had a lot of the materials he needed. Besides the seeds, all he needed to buy was plastic, black tape and screws to assemble the raised growing tables. Since planting the first seeds in October 2008, the venture has turned from self-sustaining to profitable, an impressive feat for any startup company in its first year.
Over the past growing season Richardson worked with experts from the University of Florida and local chefs to improve the vegetables. The result: produce that looks and tastes great.
Dean took me on a tour through the vegetable garden, picking out produce for me to taste on the spot. I was amazed at how some of the vegetables that I would normally eat cooked tasted delicious straight out of the ground, in particular the pak choi and Swiss chard.
It is the Swiss chard that has benefited greatly from Dean’s collaboration with local chefs. At their suggestion Dean harvests the Swiss chard when it is young. The result: a sweeter and less leathery vegetable that you can eat raw or as a salad green.
The purple carrots look like small trolls that could spring to life at any second. They come out of the ground all twisted and gnarly, unlike the carrots you find at grocery stores. Boil them and add a little bit of maple syrup or brown sugar for a sweet addition to any meal. Don’t throw away the carrot tops like you would with store-bought carrots – the greens with their slightly bitter carrot flavor make a nice accent to a salad.
The candy-stripped beets are also surprisingly sweet. Roast them in the oven with a little bit of olive oil to bring out their great flavor. Even if you’re not crazy about beets, try some from Dean’s garden and you’re likely to see the vegetable in a whole new light. I could easily eat these every day.
Dean’s colorful vegetables make a great addition to any dish, whether you’re cooking at home or dining out at a restaurant. It’s also a great solution for parents of picky eaters who refuse to eat their vegetables. Just be warned – it may cause them to play with their food!
Dean Richardson sells his organic produce at farmers’ markets and small grocery stores around South Florida. He also sells to local chefs.
Dean also offers a “virtual farmers’ market” where you can order produce from him via email. For information on the virtual farmers’ market and where Dean sells his produce, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.