Edible Sharing: Community Gardens by Donna Kelly

Edible Sharing: Community Gardens
By Donna Kelly

Did you know Polk County has its fair share of community gardens?

You’ll find them tucked between churches and art galleries, behind school classrooms and transitional housing complexes, inside unlocked wrought iron gates – formerly small, unnoticed and offbeat tracts of land now used to feed the body, nourish the soul, and provide fresh organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs to health-conscious folks.

“There are quite a few in place and there are many in the process of getting started,” says Susan Tyler Webb, community gardens extension agent with University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Bok Tower Gardens Partnership.

Gardens are organized by a variety of organizations. In Polk County these include churches, libraries, non-profits, community groups and neighborhood associations.

“The purpose of the garden differs and is tied a lot of times to what the garden is trying to achieve,” says Tyler. “It might be to teach about science or Florida-friendly landscaping projects, for others it might be about providing food for the community.”

For a community, these gardens provide access to fresh, often organic, vegetables for residents.

But Tyler says they also offer benefits to those who tend and harvest the gardens: Places for people to get active and moving; opportunities for beginners to learn from experienced gardeners; and opportunities to meet and work together with other people in the community.

Before planting the first seed or plant, Tyler suggests digging in with some planning.

The first step, she says, is determining if there’s interest in having a local community garden.

“Talk to people in your area and see if they’re interested in participating,” she says.”It takes cooperative effort. You need more than one person to organize it.”

If the idea generates interest, the next task is to find a suitable plot of land for the garden.

“I really encourage people to stay in touch with their local planning department,” she says, adding that gardens must be approved by the city officials.

And then there’s the question of funding.

“There are grants available. They run the gamut in terms of who offers them, but there’s definitely grant monies available,” says Tyler.

Garden organizers don’t need to go it alone. The Extension Office offers help with community gardens, including planning, locating funding sources, gardening workshops, and site visits.

“I can walk them through the process,” says Tyler. “Part of my responsibility is to be a resource for those wanting to start a community garden.”

She also suggests contacting the American Community Gardening Association.

“There are plenty of resources out there for people,” she says.

But having a supportive team is the key.

“Having a team of people who are working on it, rather than one person, is a factor in long term success,” Tyler says. “In can be rewarding but it is a commitment.”

Community gardens aren’t one-size-fits-all. They are cultivated by different types of groups, contain plants most suitable to the community, and often provide food for the needy, although the vehicle used to feed the hungry is as varied as the seeds planted.

Platform Art: Fusing Service, Food and Art

When Cynthia Haffey became executive director of Lakeland’s Platform Art, she didn’t expect to spearhead a community garden – until folks at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church offered the organization a piece of property to use.

It was a quirky, unused plot on Orange Avenue just before the bridge crossing to the Lakeland Center.

“It’s in the oddest location on the outskirts of downtown with no residential,” says Haffey. “I didn’t think anybody would use it.”

Nevertheless, nearly four years later, the garden is a frequent stop for neighborhood residents, people who work in nearby offices, and cyclists, as well as the homeless.

Bounded streetside by a decorative metal fence a short distance from the church, the Platform Art Community Garden offers fresh peaches in season, a variety of herbs, and a cornucopia of vegetables – tomatoes, pole beans, peppers, okra, Brussels sprouts, collards, Swiss chard, and peas.

The spot offers quiet tranquility and a bit of shade providing respite from the sun.

“They told us they had a piece of property and they offered it to us,” Haffey remembers.

This started a hunt for information about community gardens and support from the public.

She found it.

Much in the way of garden information came from Anne Yasalonis, coordinator of the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods Program at the University of Florida extension service office in Bartow. She created the landscape plan, and continues to provide information as needed.

Lakeland Memorial Funeral Home dug up dirt to create space for the flower beds. Folsom Construction donated materials and a volunteer built the raised beds.

A small grant from the University of Florida Extension Service helps purchase seeds, compost, and dirt.

Maintaining the garden is also a community effort. The City maintains the irrigation system. Campfire USA sends youth volunteers to tend the garden for community service projects. And the Alliance for Independence – an organization devoted to supporting people with developmental disabilities – spends time planting, cleaning, and weeding the garden every other month.

The PACE Center for girls is developing a science and art curriculum based on identifying and creating signage for the garden.

“It’s a huge commitment, money, people, partnerships,” says Haffey. “I cultivate these relationships.  “You need someone to actively manage it because your workers will come and go.”

But it’s worth it, says Haffey, because people do use the garden.

“St. Joseph’s has a food bank and serves homeless and families in need. They have people coming twice a week – they’ve been kind in directing their clients to the garden,” says Haffey. “People who are walking midday are coming in and picking. We thought we’d have rotting food on the vine, but people are picking the garden.”

“Look at the location. It’s bizarre, but it’s on the Lake-to-Lake Bike Path,” says Haffey.

The City, says Haffey, encouraged the garden’s creation as well as the series of decorative art tiles placed on the nearby bridge.

“The City’s goal is to connect hotels at the Lakeland Center to downtown,” she explained. “We’re meeting goals in the Community Redevelopment Vision Document.”

Patricia Hendler, CRA project manager for the City of Lakeland, says the bridge tiles and the community garden support that vision.

“One of the goals of the downtown CRA was to join east and west sides of downtown, Florida Avenue dividing the two sides,” she says. “It’s very difficult to get residents to cross that road.  They’d rather drive from Lakeside Village or other areas to the Center instead of walking downtown, even though the Lemon Street promenade goes from Lake Mirror Park.”

City officials sought an answer to the reluctance of pedestrians to cross the divide.

“We chose Orange Avenue because it goes right to the front door of the Lakeland Center. We installed – with Platform choosing the artist and overseeing it – a ceramic art installation that goes all the way across the bridge,” Hendler explains.

The garden is one more enticement for Lakeland Center visitors to cross the bridge and head toward the east side of downtown, she says.

Like other gardens in Central Florida, the garden is in the process of being refurbished and replanted. Decorative pots will be installed and filled with plants, and more raised gardens are planned.

And more art elements will be added to the brightly colored bicycle sculpture and bike rack.

“This is a living public art project,” says Haffey. “It’s going to be great again.”

Restaurants Against Hunger: Meeting the Needs of a Community

The Restaurants Against Hunger Community Garden blends one man’s passion for feeding the needy and another’s 20-year quest to perfect an organic vegetable cooperative model.

It’s a winning combination.

Grant Piche is well known for his passionate approach to raising funds for the hungry through the non-profit Restaurants Against Hunger. Gil Daigneau owns and operates the Lakeland-based vegetable cooperative, Go Natural Organics.

Together they’ve created their own version of a community garden in downtown Winter Haven. It opened February 18.

Nestled along Avenue D Southwest and bounded by the new Grove Root Brewery on U.S. 17 and Outer Space Gallery and Studio on Avenue C Southwest., the garden offers a peaceful respite for those who stroll through the atrium picking and choosing vegetables, and a growing number of folks who visit the spot to meditate or write in journals.

Mostly housed in an arched atrium, the garden consists of three kinds of lettuce, three varieties of tomatoes, carrots, onions, beets, snow peas, pole beans, cucumbers, kale, collards, sunflowers, and Italian dandelion.

Free herbs are provided for garden members to snip as needed.

A cozy shaded sitting area invites daytime visitors to the garden and provides seating for special events, such as a recent Chili Jam featuring vegetable chili and live music, designed to bring people together at the garden.

“These tables were built by Al Jones for people to come down to take in the essence of the garden,” says Piche of the shaded picnic tables just paces from the atrium.

Each garden member pays a $100 donation which acts as a credit toward vegetables. Using an honor system, members harvest produce at their convenience and log their bounty in a notebook. When the $100 credit is depleted, members simply make another donation.

The garden has more than 150 members and the number keeps rising.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” says Piche. “The response has been outstanding. It seems to be selling itself.”

The growing popularity of community gardens, say Piche and Daigneau, has several roots.

“In urban areas, they’re looking for green space. They’re looking at putting them in golf courses,” says Piche. “There’s also the health aspect.”

Daigneau believes folks in general are more concerned about their food these days.

“I think people are questioning the food coming from other countries,” he says.

Now that the garden is built and in operation, the bulk of next year’s expenses will consist of management fee, seeds and soil. After expenses are paid, remaining funds will be donated through Restaurants Against Hunger to such programs as Project Love, Champion Church House of Hope, and The Mission.

“We’re not on the front lines of serving those in need, but we can support them financially and by providing food,” says Piche.

Daigneau works at the garden from 3 p.m. until dark on most days and he hopes to have inquisitive visitors.

“I’d like for people to come in and see the food they’re going to pick and eat. To me, it’s an educational effort to show how valuable vegetables are,” says Daigneau.

The atrium will be enclosed soon to make a butterfly tent and he expects this will draw more visitors to the garden.

“The butterfly tent has a two-fold purpose. Butterflies are pollinators and they will help pollinate the vegetables in there,” says Daigneau. “Also, it will be a real attraction for kids. It will teach them about nature. That’s one of our goals – we need to get that generation back to earth.”

“We want to make this a community center,” he added.”

For additional information about the Restaurants Against Hunger Community Garden, call Piche at 863-604-7721

Lake Wales Care Center: Growing Futures

For more than 30 years, the Lake Wales Care Center has been connecting people in need with folks who desire to serve them. A few years ago, an intern began a program designed to connect gardeners with transitional housing residents, and these residents to the joys of cultivating their own food.

He created 14 raised garden beds divided between two transitional housing units. While the gardens flourished for a couple of growing seasons, they soon floundered because of the high turnover in the Transitional Housing and Internship programs and a lack of materials and equipment to maintain the gardens.

“Our current gardens are a restart,” explains Briawna Kistner, internship and special events coordinator for the Lake Wales Care Center.

With interns staying with the Care Center from three months to a year before moving on to other opportunities, the garden program needed revamping.

Help came from two Lake Wales-based sources: Hunger Education and Resource Training, aka H.E.A.R.T, and the Bok Tower Gardens Partnership. Tyler and the Bok Tower Gardens Partnership provided materials – seed packets, transplants, compost, and growing pots – and instruction in gardening. H.E.A.R.T .

“We not only had enough resources to open the program back up to our Transitional Housing folks, but also to (our) staff interested in gardening,” Kistner says.

The Care Center hosted a garden work party in February to prepare areas at the two locations and held a planting party the following month.

“We currently have nine families in the program growing beautiful gardens at both of our garden locations,” says Kistner, a hint of pride in her voice.

One resident, known simply as Asia, is now an avid gardener.

“I had never tried gardening before, so I was somewhat apprehensive, but my husband and I decided to give it a try. It was so rewarding to see our first little plants spring up from the ground! I can’t wait to see all the delicious vegetables our garden will produce,” says Asia. “I’m so glad that Susan Tyler from Bok Tower and Leah Hagen from the local HEART program were able to come to our gardening site and teach us some important gardening basics.”

The gardens are also used as an education tool for children attending the afterschool care program for transitional housing families.

While several residents in the transitional housing regularly tend to the garden now, in the near future it will be a requirement for everyone in the program.

In addition, the Lake Wales Care Center will soon be offering garden programs to the public. The Home Garden Program will match homeowners with a garden mentor.

“There are several local gardeners who are passionate about helping people,” says Kistner.”

A community garden open to the general public is also in the works.

“It’s already contagious!” says Kistner. “I think gardening is the next step in finding the needs of the community and meeting those needs.”

Kistner says gardening is about more than the physical act of digging soil, planting a seed, and growing vegetables or flowers.

“It’s bringing people together,” she says. “Gardens help build self confidence, especially when they work with mentors and attend workshops.”

The gardens also foster stronger relationships. According to Kistler, One Care Center staff member bonded with grandsons by working in the garden, and residents of the two houses often have family time in the gardens.

Working in the gardens allows gardeners to gain self knowledge while connecting with Mother Nature.  For Ebony W.R., a transitional housing resident, gardening brings life.

“I have been blessed to be a part of this beautiful program to grow and garden life. The community garden has been more than just being a part of something. My garden (our garden) is a community garden of life in so many ways,” she says. “It produces veggies, herbs, plants and fruits and so much more but most of all it produces life – a life in a community that is coming together to connect, join, experience, nurture, grow, learn and live to enjoy what we can do as one. A garden supports the beauty of what nature is and what nature means to all of us.”

Gardening also encourages busy people to de-stress.

“It makes us quiet,” says Kistler. “It’s an opportunity to let go of what happened throughout the day and focus on what your plants need. That’s one of my hopes – people find a community and get outside.”

The gardens will soon be filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onions. Harvests will also include beans, corn, squash, zucchini, and edible flowers.

The surplus vegetables, says Kistler, opens entrepreneurial possibilities for transitional housing residents by allowing them to “can” surplus vegetables or sell them.

“I think that’s something we can build on in the future. I want that to be a training opportunity,” says Kistler.

For more information about the Home Garden or Community Garden programs through Lake Wales Care Center, call Kistner at 676-6678, ext. 1305.