When Rex Stanford asked the two classes of first-graders lined up outside Villa Madonna School if they knew what "organic" meant, he faced a few puzzled expressions. Some took guesses, like "100 percent," "healthy" or "natural." • But when Stanford told them they could start working on their little gardens, planting things like Chinese cabbage and cantaloupe in the 18 "grow boxes" he had fashioned, the children jumped up and down and clapped before scurrying through the soil with their bare hands to prepare their boxes for seeds. • By day, Stanford, 46, works as a civil engineer for Kimley-Horn and Associates. But when he comes home, he looks forward to assembling the boxes.
Since 2009, in his free time, he has worked with churches, schools and other local organizations to plant urban gardens — or gardens in places where you don't typically find them.
And when Hillsborough County began using the new 65-gallon recycling bins in favor of the smaller blue and green bins in November, Stanford saw an opportunity to, well, recycle the recycling bins.
Most of the urban gardens he had worked with used raised beds with wooden boards, which rendered them inflexible once the garden was set. He had seen the concept of grow boxes before, but most were quite costly to make.
So he covered the bottom of one recycling bin with duct tape, drilled about 50 small holes into the bottom of a second, made room for a pipe to go through both boxes and created a two-bin contraption that he says is water efficient and perfect for growing in Florida's climate.
"The problem with the raised beds is once they're set, they're set," he said. "There's no moving them around or protecting, unless you cover them or something.
"The great thing about these boxes are that if somebody says there's a hurricane coming, we can move these boxes and the whole garden is fine. And you only have to water them about once a week."
He started Hope Growers, a microchurch connected with the Tampa Underground Network, through which he received a $400 grant from the Sustany Foundation. He also connected with Progressive Waste Solutions to see if he could pick up old recycling bins before the new bins were delivered. During his last pickup, he collected close to 1,000.
Stanford is now down to his last 100, having given out boxes at three schools, the Sustainability Living Project, the Brandon Emergency Care Help Organization and others. But next week, he plans to collect 1,000 to 2,000 more.
So far, many of his projects have been through connections at his job. Tiffany Dawson, a first-grade teacher at Villa Madonna, heard of Stanford's work through her husband, who is his colleague, and thought her students could benefit from the experience.
"Most of them had never planted a garden before," Dawson said. "It's got them talking about growing things, and they've been very excited about it. I think it might make them try some of the things they're growing."
Stanford said he hopes to find more projects in order to share his passion for growing food with others, particularly young people.
Growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania, he said he always knew where his food came from. After moving to Florida at 18, he said he found gardening to be very different and something most people don't know how to do.
"Kids have no idea where their food comes from," he said. "They just see it in the store and have no idea where it comes from. These kids are eating foods which are full of chemicals, which is terrible."
He said he hopes students will take what they learn home as well. At Villa Madonna, he left each student with a cantaloupe or watermelon seed to plant at home. After visiting the first school in Lakeland a month later to check on the gardens, he said 17 of the 36 students had started gardens at home.
Stanford enjoys the simplicity of sharing his love for growing.
"I've never had a passion in my whole life" — until now.
"I have a 15-year-old-daughter that's going to the Royal Ballet in London in September. She's been passionate about her ballet since her first class, when she was 6, and I've always admired that passion she has where she can't wait to get up and do it.
"I can't wait to get up and do this."