Never doubt that you can take a gardener on a boat, surrounded by nothing but water, and that gardener will find some way…to garden. There may not be a speck of soil in sight, but that will not thwart the determination, the drive, the need for green, the compulsion to grow things. Well, at least that’s the way it is in my case. Here’s how I came to grow an itty-bitty garden in the Florida Keys:

We are on our boat on a mooring in the middle of Boot Key Harbor about halfway down the Florida Keys, here to enjoy a few weeks of sunshine and tropic breezes. There are rows and rows of moorings, 226 to be exact, which make this something like a little floating city. Every morning at 9 a.m. or so — give or take (It is the Keys you know and time does slip away down here.) there is a “cruisers’ net” which is short for a VHF radio network conducted by a cadre of dedicated, boat-bound “net controllers” who administer a daily open forum of activity announcements (yoga at 10 a.m., softball at 2 p.m. and so on); comments on all manner of things; requests for help like someone needing a boat part or advice; a floating yard sale called “Treasures From the Bilge;” and lastly trivia questions aimed for fun and enlightenment. The daily program is affectionately called “The Net.”

A couple days after our arrival, one of the announcements on the “The Net” concerned a patch of dirt (and I use that term loosely) near the marina office that has been designated a community garden, and the message was that visitors are welcome to use it.

Like a chicken on a June bug — that’s me when the offer of terra firma is extended. I immediately began planning my “Quickie Itty-Bitty Winter Garden.” I already had an herb garden on the flying bridge of our boat, meticulously encased in a clear plastic box, lest some fragment of dirt decide to abandon the box and land (GASP!) on the spotless deck. Wonderful as it is to have fresh herbs at my beck and call while on a winter cruise, the offer of a garden patch was simply irresistible.

My first step was to hop on my folding bike (our main form of transportation down here) and head for the closest garden center where I selected several packets of seeds for things which No. 1: Grow quickly and No. 2: Are suitable to this season. I also selected a few pots of annuals to brighten up the patch while the seeds were growing, and threw in an inexpensive hand trowel for working the “soil.”

Tomatoes were considered, but quickly rejected due to the amount of time they require to produce a harvest, and because of the biggest garden pest I know of (aside from deer of course) — iguanas the size of Rottweilers and twice as nasty which lurk on and under every bush and branch down here. They aren’t satisfied to eat all the tomatoes off the vine. Oh no, they’ll consume the whole plant as well, and then when you try to shoo them away, they hiss at you. Then more likely than not, they’ll rise up on all fours — Rottweiler height — throw you a death-ray glare and run like hell, hopefully the in other direction. So tomatoes were definitely out.

I have seen some pretty unorthodox methods of cultivation down here in the Keys where the topsoil is about three centimeters thick with solid coral rock underneath. One technique employed a pickaxe and the other a jackhammer. I kid you not. So there I was, tiny plastic trowel in hand wondering what I had been thinking when I bought that poor excuse for a garden tool. After a couple stabs at the surface I realized my rose-colored optimism had clouded the reality of the “soil” in that plot.

So I borrowed a real shovel from the marina maintenance department and got down to business. Well, almost. I stuck the shovel in the ground and ka-chunk! That was it. The shovel went in a full two inches and stopped dead. Redoubling my efforts, I jumped on the shovel with both feet the next time and buried it down to about three inches, bringing up some newly-mined coral rock. My visions of a lush harvest were evaporating as the sweat on my brow was blossoming. It was like trying to cultivate shoe leather. But I wasn’t about to let any of that get me down.

It took a while, but gradually I managed to loosen up about a square yard of that concrete-like stuff that masqueraded for soil. It was dark brown, almost black, and I was beginning to wonder if this garden wasn’t in reality a dumping spot for old pavement. With some effort I was able to crumble it — sort of — and in the end managed to get four little rows planted with mesclun, lettuce, spinach and bush beans. The annuals went at the four corners to add color and possession to the plot. My little garden was off and running. BOO-yah, gardens rule!

Is there anyone happier than a gardener who has just finished planing a garden? The seeds were in the ground about a week before the winter solstice, and after only four days the rows were green with tiny sprouts. I don’t know what was in that soil, but scratch the macadam idea. On second thought I decided it must be fairy dust. Who knew that stellar potion started out as hardpan? By New Years the bush beans were growing like Jack’s magic beans, almost a foot tall and ready to bloom. It was pure sorcery.

But before you sell the farm and make plans to move to the Keys, be aware that for the entire month of December, and the part of January until this reaches you, that not one drop of rain has fallen on my itty-bitty garden. Not only that, but every single molecule of H2O that has been applied by hand to said garden arrived from Miami via a 10-inch (or so) water pipe, a tenuous, delicate thread of life support. Yup every last drip, splish and splash of water that went into that garden was transported more than 100 miles via a small pipe that runs along US Highway A1A across bridges and salty mangrove flats. It hardly makes for a natural paradise without the benefit of the piped-in water. This fact is no doubt the reason why that fabled island of Key West was originally named for the bleached bones that littered its entirety. Indeed this is also a great place to bleach bones. There is no fresh water in the Florida Keys — period.

Of course this is the “dry” season, and come hot and humid summertime there should be plenty of water — buckets of water, monsoons, torrents of rain, perhaps a hurricane or two for good measure to wash those bleached bones and whisk away any trace of that fairy dust that might have settled on them. And then there are those iguanas skulking around. It may indeed be a paradise on earth, but it still has its “serpents.” Even so, the warm days and nights too, and plenty of sunshine are working their magic on my itty-bitty garden. It’s been just a little over a month, but we’ll start harvesting any day now — unless of course the iguanas get to it first.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement for 2012, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: or ”friend” her on Facebook.