The right plants attract butterflies. COURTESY JOSE GERMAN-GOMEZ

By Jose German-Gomez
For Montclair Local

I first learned about agriculture techniques as a teen in the Caribbean while watching the farmers during vacation visits to my sister’s hacienda. At the age of 17, I created my first “urban farm” in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. We were living in an old colonial house with a large backyard. The farm was very successful; we produced veggies, eggs, and even chicken meat.

JOSE GERMAN-GOMEZ

About 10 years later, inspired by the “El Yunque” rain forest, I created in our backyard a micro-rain forest planted with native plants only. Months later, the magic of the garden changed everything in the backyard. Hummingbirds, lizards, butterflies, and uncommon birds started visiting.

Over the years, my career took me on a different path. I was working at the executive level in finance and accounting and started feeling the effects of accumulated stress. Then I rediscovered the joy of gardening and noticed how relaxing it was to spend time in the backyard creating my little tropical paradise.

In 1995, I moved to New Jersey. I fell in love with the spring and its colors and found similarities between the summer in New Jersey and the Caribbean climate. Both were sunny, hot, and humid. However, it took me years to accept the mystery of autumn, when almost everything “died.”

We moved to Montclair in the fall of 2000, making sure we had a sizeable yard to create a garden. My curiosity about plants, trees, and local wildlife was growing and growing until one day I had an epiphany about native plants. I started making the connection about the natural food chain to sustain wildlife and pollinators as well as creating a holistic approach, where humans and wildlife can coexist in a healthy environment.

The first project was the creation of a vegetable garden along the driveway and adding native perennials around the edges of the yard. These projects were expanded year by year until today there are more than 165 species of native plants and the vegetable garden produces many of the veggies we consume at home and more to share with others.

In the past 17 years, I have seen the evolution of the garden and the gardeners too. I have experienced the benefits of gardening, as therapy but most importantly as an environmental contribution. I became a Master Gardener in 2009 and found joy teaching others about gardening. I believe in sustainability and making organic food affordable. I also believe that we can make a contribution to improve our environment from our homes and with the choices that we make as consumers.

I intend to cover gardening and environmental topics in this column, share gardening tips, and motivate you to practice “gardening for life” for yourself, your family, our community, and, most importantly, to sustain our environment and make it healthier.