Brittany Bandi and Jared Craig met at Mitchell’s Coffee House in Lakeland. Though each from different backgrounds, Jared from Lakeland and Brittany had just come to Lakeland from teaching English in South Korea, a love of plants and gardening brought the pair together.
“He had a small greenhouse out back with a small collection of plants and was really into them. We were both really into growing edible plants and creating an edible landscape out here,” Brittany said of their budding relationship.
Deciding to dip their toes in the water of making a living doing what they love, Brittany and Jared started selling plants on Etsy.
On a February day in 2016, Brittany, who is a freelance web and graphic designer was working on a rather dull project. Jared walked into the room and mentioned how cool it would be if they had a website that they could sell their plants on. “I stopped what I was doing and I just started our website right then,” she said.
Fittingly, on Earth Day during the spring of 2016, Sow Exotic was born, starting with only 25 varieties in their glass greenhouse built by Jared.
Today, Sow Exotic is a 2-acre nursery and bio-intensive food forest with over 300 varieties, 200 of which are on their website, of rare fruiting plants, tropical fruit trees, culinary and medicinal herbs, fresh seasonal fruit, and exotic house plants.
Brittany handles the website and computer side of things, with Jared working with the production and research. They both work on maintenance, which up until they hired people recently to help with, they were the only ones doing.
The Sow Exotic owners source seeds from all over the world. “We want to bring herbs from everywhere and have them all in one place and make them available for everybody,” Brittany said. Other than being planted from seed, they also use grafted or air layered methods, as well as buying some plants from a wholesale distributor.
“It is really important for us to be completely natural in our techniques,” said Brittany, explaining that they do not use any chemical fertilizers and are completely GMO-free. They even ship orders out in 100% biodegradable coconut fiber planters. “It feels right. At the root of it, it feels better to use things that are natural and from the earth,” she added.
In an effort to further the education aspect of what they do, Brittany and Jared created a platform in which they could donate plants to schools, called Giving Gardens. “Every purchase that is made through our website, we take a percentage of that and put that into our Giving Gardens Fund. When schools approach us and are looking for donations to get their garden started, we have plants that we specifically choose, to donate to them.”
Schools that are interested can contact them and apply online. “We donate plants all over the country, but we really like to donate plants that are geographically specific or important historically. In Florida, we donate the Seminole Pumpkin which is a Florida native squash and we donate the Florida Cranberry Hibiscus which is a naturalized crop from settlement times.”
Brittany and Jared have another project that is a nonprofit, called The Florida Cranberry Alliance which specializes in educating people about the hibiscus.
Since Sow Exotic specializes in growing medicinal and culinary herbs along with their other plants, I asked Brittany a favorite herb of hers for recipes or remedies. She recommended lemongrass for both uses, explaining that it is a tropical perennial grass that has a soothing and cooling effect on the body, and is frequently used in southeast Asian cuisine. “I like to do an herbal tea blend of lemongrass, tulsi, turmeric, and cardamom,” she said. This tea is great for colds and congestion and Sow Exotic has all the ingredients for it.
Brittany took us on a tour of the property. Greenery everywhere, plants both foreign and domestic, an outdoor shower, a seasonal vegetable garden, a glass greenhouse, two adorable cats – it was a magnificent jungle wonderland, right here in Central Florida. Jared’s son, George, who just turned 8, even accompanied us for part of the tour. When we got to the building they ship orders out of he said, “I kinda help. I weigh it and put the stickers on.” Oh, and his favorite plant? A cactus.
When we spoke, Brittany was hard at work building a new website for Sow Exotic. Apart from that, visions of the future promise a bloom for the nursery. They plan to expand their edible landscaping services and their line of gardening supplies including the same natural soil blends and conditioners, fertilizers and pest repellents that they use.
“My goal with Sow Exotic is that it works,” she said. “That we can get out there and share all of these plants that we’re growing, with a larger audience.”
The green thumb couple is also in the works of converting an old school bus into a mobile plant nursery. “It’s going to have a really strong digital element to it too. When you go in, you can scan your phone over one of the plants and it will tell you everything about it.” She plans to utilize her digital background to build an accompanying phone app.
“We’ve been able to meet so many interesting people online and in person that love the plants that we’re growing because of the background they have with it,” Brittany explained. They often hear stories of people that grew up with certain plants and are glad to find them locally. She told one story of someone who grew up climbing a Jama tree to eat the fruit where they were from. Finding Sow Exotic gave them the opportunity to share that experience and that connection with their kids and grandkids.
“Where I’d like to see it go is having more experiences like that,” she said. “Traveling to those countries and meeting people and learning directly about those native plants in their environment. That would be cool.”