Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Home and Garden

Diggin' Florida Dirt: Community garden helps patron dig in, shed some pounds and make friends

Community gardening saved Marty Kleiner's life. He's sure of that.

Five years ago, he weighed 285 pounds. At 5 feet 10, he was obese. Drugs kept his skyrocketing blood pressure and cholesterol in check. Exercise? Pshaw! A walk around the block might kill him!

His daughter Jennifer, home for the summer from the University of Florida, goaded him off the computer and TV. Within a month, their short strolls became mile-long treks and eventually, miles-long bike rides with his wife, Laurie. As the fat burned away, Marty started paying attention to what he ate.

"A year later, I had lost nearly 100 pounds; I was down to 189. But I'd done that before with fad diets and I always gained it back," he says. "The big challenge is keeping it off."

In 2014, he joined VISTA Gardens and became one of the 16 percent of people (according to a Penn State study) who lose up to 20 percent of their excess body fat and keep it off. Yes, digging holes, ripping up torpedo grass and turning compost make for sweaty, calorie-burning workouts. But for Marty, planting arugula with a bunch of strangers became the secret for a lasting lifestyle change.

"I'm no longer on blood pressure or cholesterol medication," he says. "I do ballroom dancing with my wife and she can get her arms around me."

If you've thought about joining a community garden, for whatever reason, now's the time. August marks the end of summer siesta for many Central Florida edible gardens and the beginning of prepping for fall veggies. And now, you have more options! The Coalition of Community Gardens, a new nonprofit, has been busy building a network for sharing resources and information to grow gardens throughout Tampa Bay.

"Community gardens have become a must-have amenity for more homebuyers, right up there with swimming pools and clubhouses," says coalition co-founder Kitty Wallace, coordinator of the hugely successful Tampa Heights Community Garden. "Tampa Bay has lagged compared to other major metropolitan areas when it comes to numbers. A lot get started here but they're gone in a couple of years. We're creating a model for establishing gardens that will succeed, and by that I mean they've stayed afloat for at least three years."

The coalition recently received a $10,000 grant to help achieve that.

Kitty calls VISTA Gardens, established in 2008 in Hillsborough County's Carrollwood Village, one of our success stories. It was a deciding factor for Roberta Owens when she prepared to move from Valdosta, Ga., last year.

"When the Realtor asked me, 'What do you care about?' a community garden was third on my list," she says.

Located on county parkland, the organic garden has 76 plots and 85 active memberships at a cost of $50 per season (fall/winter and winter/spring). The property has no running water, so a solar panel fuels a well pump. A beekeeper's hive ensures plants get pollinated, and a robust composting system supplies members with rich soil amendments.

"On Thursdays, we have volunteers who come out to work the compost," Marty says. "We call it Compost Fit."

Today, the 59-year-old retired engineer, who once lived on burgers and Oreos, welcomes the good sweat. But VISTA has been so much more.

"I could garden in my own back yard," he says. "Here, the gardening is almost secondary. We're a community. I used to know just the neighbors on either side of me, now I go to Publix and I run into people I know. I have relationships with people I wouldn't have interacted with — older people, younger people. We may have political differences, but we all love tomatoes."

It also gave him a new appreciation of food. "I never would have eaten kale before. Never!" he says. "Now I bring my kale salad to all the potlucks. Everyone loves it!"

Depending on their mission, community gardens educate; provide fresh, nutritious food for people who can't afford it; help build a sense of community; and, for people like Marty, become the catalyst for lifestyle changes. Find a garden near you, or add your own community garden, at coalitionofcommunitygardens.weebly.com and communitygarden.org.

"It's the best thing I've ever done in my life," Marty says. "I'm the luckiest guy in the world."

Contact Penny Carnathan at [email protected]; visit her blog, digginfloridadirt.com; join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt; and follow @DigginPenny.