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Community orchards and garden fun at the fair — sweet!

When gardens doze off in the winter, gardeners wake up. Or maybe we just get some spare time. Less weeding, pruning, dead-heading, amending, planting and chasing after monster grasshoppers means more time for other pursuits. • Whatever the reason, there's a lot of fun stuff sprouting in Tampa. • Two highlights: We have community orchards coming to four city parks; and the final phase of a great hands-on learning garden at the Florida State Fairgrounds will soon begin thanks to a $100,000 grant.

Picnic in the park? Don't pack dessert

The Sunshine State may be the nation's fruit bowl, but beyond the oranges on our license plates, most visitors here don't see much evidence of that, Tanja Vidovic says.

"Florida's known for its fruit, and then you're in the city of Tampa and you don't see any," says the 32-year-old firefighter who, with her husband, Jared, grows the groceries for their family of three in their half-acre urban garden near Busch Gardens.

Tanja's also a tireless crusader for sustainable, edible gardening, freely sharing her knowledge, plants, cuttings and seeds (visit the Tampa Gardening Swap on Facebook). About a year ago, she branched out.

"Tampa will give you trees for shade; I wanted to add fruit trees," she says.

She got the idea from Seattle, said to have the most ambitious community orchard initiative in the nation. She researched, then she lobbied.

When the Tampa City Council finally relented, she started rounding up donations of mulch, compost and trees.

Soon, you'll see ripe lemons, oranges, loquats, starfruit, kumquats and chickasaw plums in some city parks. Go ahead and pick a few — they're free for the snacking.

The orchards will start with five trees each at Al Lopez and Gadsden parks, and six at Rowlett, says Greg Bayor, director of Tampa's Parks and Recreation Department. The 6- to 7-foot trees will be planted sometime in March by volunteers with Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful. Later, Riverside Park downtown will get about five trees, two at Beneficial Drive and up to three at Doyle Carlton Drive.

They'll be "more or less organic," Greg says. "We will not use chemicals."

Tanja wants Tampa to eat, but she also wants us to learn.

"Each tree will have a sign with information about what it is, the flowering time, the harvest time," she says. "I picture schools bringing classrooms out to see them when they're blooming and when the fruit is forming."

A big high-five to the city and to the donors who answered Tanja's call, including Busch Gardens, Neem Tree Farms, the University of Florida, Each One Teach One and Home Depot — thank you!

And a huge attaboy to one determined gardener.

Pick it, touch it, smell it

If you're heading to the Florida State Fair, which opened Thursday, be sure to stop by the award-winning Florida Learning Garden at Gate 3. Especially if you have kids in tow. It'll be lots more fun than the roller coaster — if you prefer happy surprise over abject terror.

Plenty of veggies in the 1-acre, touch-me garden are ready for harvest, which should make for some memorable discovery moments. Love those!

Debbie Evenson particularly likes seeing kids meet carrots. Little eyes pop when tour guides pull up ferny greens to reveal fat orange carrots dangling below. Herbs can have the same effect.

"I remember one kid who sniffed the mint and said, 'It smells like bubble gum!' " she says. "Well, yeah, I guess mint will make you think of gum."

Debbie's the executive director of Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful, which started the garden in October 2012. It will be plenty busy through the end of the fair on Feb. 17, but it's open year-round. It's free, and pretty darn special.

The garden recently won first place for Innovation in the 2013 Keep America Beautiful awards. That's from a pool of hundreds of affiliates of the national nonprofit, which is dedicated to beautifying our communities.

Think that's impressive? Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful also won first place for best affiliate in the nation!

The Florida Learning Garden has lots for adults, too. You'll see garden boxes and hydroponic gardens, rain gardens and butterfly gardens.

When the fair ends, the garden will get to work on its final phase — building a seating facility for teaching. The funding comes from a $100,000 grant from Humana.

"That should be done by the end of October," Debbie says. "I feel like we're really doing the right things, because so much is happening."

I agree!

Hands-on activities for kids are scheduled at the Florida Learning Garden during the fair. It's also a great place for anyone needing to earn community service hours. Visit keeptampabay beautiful.org for more information.

Penny Carnathan can be reached at pcarnathan49@gmail.com or on her blog, DigginFloridaDirt.com. Facebook: Diggin Florida Dirt. Twitter: @DigginPenny.

Community orchards and garden fun at the fair — sweet! 02/05/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 13, 2014 12:00pm]

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