Exotic plants are no longer to merely adorn a living space with potted blossoms. These tropical greens at Sow Exotic offer endless holistic benefits. The fact that they also happen to be pretty is purely a plus.
Photography by Monica Winters
Edible landscaping is a mixture of beauty and utility. Using edibles in landscape design can enhance a garden by providing a unique ornamental component with additional health, aesthetic, and economic benefits. That is exactly what Brittany Bandi and Jared Craig were working towards, a yard that is flavorful, practical, and native. Their goal is to offer the highest quality and most diverse selection of awesome edible plants, with all plants grown right here in Winter Haven.
Owned and operated on their two-acre food forest and homestead, Craig and Bandi run a tropical plant nursery growing rare and exotic fruiting and medicinal plants. Their nursery is also adorned with succulent gardens. As someone who has been trying to propagate succulents for the past year and continues to fail time and time again, it is refreshing to know I can make an appointment with Sow Exotic and learn how to take care of my plants with one-on-one help.
Homeowners with small or large yards and in all climates can benefit from a trellis of Everglades tomatoes or Malabar spinach, a fragrant border of colorful medicinal basils or culinary lolot, or an exotic and flavorful cranberry hibiscus or two. We can become educated on what to grow, when to grow it successfully, and the steps we can take to building a more sustainable community. The pair have built a business on shipping plants all over the United States, with their largest markets being Florida, Texas, and California. Each plant is shipped in coconut fiber pots — a sustainable, environmentally friendly, and 100-percent biodegradable alternative to plastic or peat-based containers.
As native Floridians, Craig and Bandi know the importance of creating a nursery that stays true to its local roots, which is why the Florida cranberry hibiscus, also known as roselle, is a major part of their business. This low-impact, sustainable plant requires no irrigation or fertilizer once it’s established. The cranberry-flavored foliage and calyxes help to grasp that fall feeling, and are a popular addition to any fall or winter holiday treat. (I always make fresh hibiscus and apple hand pies and Florida cranberry jam.)
The Florida Cranberry Alliance, started by Craig and Bandi in 2014, is more education based and encouragers other people, like themselves, who are also growing and selling this fruit to unite. One of the reasons they are drawn to this plant is because of its low-maintenance care and disease resistance. Among the expected greens of the ground-hugging herbs, the pearl-white hibiscus flowers explode with its coppery-red calyxes. Roselle is also the source of hibiscus herbal tea, which includes relief from high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Sow Exotic sells an abundance of the Florida cranberry hibiscus plants and fruit — which at any one time they can have over a thousand growing — to restaurants, growers, and direct to consumers online. They also offer an option to purchase annual garden plants in addition to those plants. They have donated plants to schools across the country, especially throughout Florida. “Whenever someone reaches out about starting a new school garden, we are especially happy to donate the hibiscus,” says Bandi. Each fall, the organization holds a tasting for FCA members and hibiscus-curious gardeners and artisans to share their products and growing information.
Craig is a local Winter Haven resident, while Bandi found her way to Winter Haven in 2014. Neither of them have a traditional agricultural background but have learned the art of it through experimentation. Craig has been experimenting with growing hard-to-find exotic edible and medicinal plants for years, while Bandi’s gardening interests came from her travels and time spent in South Korea, seeing how food was so easily attainable right from your rooftop, sidewalk, or daily neighborhood markets. Both talked about a dream of edible landscaping and edible cities and now are already on the path to making that dream a reality. It all started when Craig told Bandi, “One day I would really like to be able to sell plants online.” That night Bandi started building a website, and on the 2016 spring solstice, the company Sow Exotic was born.
Not only are Craig and Bandi successful business growers, but they have also succeeded in giving back with a program they developed, Giving Gardens. Being firm believers in the important role school and community gardens play, the co-founders understand that many life skills can be learned from sowing an edible garden, such as bringing youth closer to nature, the importance of community and stewardship, environmental sustainability, and more. It is important to have a fundamental understanding of where our food comes from. In a society where the large majority of people are conditioned to eating mostly processed foods, Craig and Bandi are working to increase awareness and encourage our community to cook from scratch with fresh ingredients, some of which can be grown in our own back yards and neighborhoods.
“Throughout the year we donate Florida cranberry hibiscus plants along with other exotic tropical plants to school gardens,” Bandi says. For each plant or product that is purchased through Sow Exotic or through local events, the Giving Gardens program donates a seasonal, edible plant that is needed to help school and community gardens flourish. Working directly with schools, individuals, community centers, and local partnerships, Sow Exotic is creating not only edible gardens, but the knowledge to grow for generations to come.
4371 Fussell ROAD
Winter Haven, FL 33880
The nursery is open by appointment only.