NEW PORT RICHEY — Sunday afternoon was proving to be fruitful for the volunteers working at Grand Gardens, a new community venture at Georgia Avenue and Grand Boulevard.
Yellow Scotch bonnet peppers and the more mild green, bell variety were ripening on the vine. Tomato plants were sprouting pale blooms. Winter greens that had been stunted by an unseasonably warm fall were finally perking up. And the herb garden, planted in vertical beds constructed from repurposed bricks that were removed when the street out front was repaved, was showing a bountiful return for those who had poured their sweat into the garden since breaking ground in September.
Gardening is part of the "after church" routine for Sylvia Spencer, 41, and her son, Houston, 13, who tend their own 9- by 12-foot plot and lend a hand weeding and watering the rest of the garden. Joining them each week is Spencer's sister, Reggie Gauvin, 43, an avid Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan who was busy adding compost to the beds while tilting an ear to the play-by-play on the radio.
"I love it," Gauvin said. "Anytime I'm outdoors, it's good. It's better than exercising. It is exercising."
Grand Gardens is the latest and one of three organic community gardens to crop up in New Port Richey.
It's an "epicenter" for what's sure to come, said garden facilitator Dell deChant, 61, a master instructor of religious studies at the University of South Florida and a former City Council member who heads up Friendship Farm & Fare and Ecology Florida, two of the organizations supporting Grand Gardens. "We've got gardens on Montana and Illinois (avenues), and now, we're here."
The project is supported by those, like deChant, who are immersed in a budding urban gardening movement. They have been fueled by the growing trend and the passage in 2013 of the city's urban agriculture ordinance, which is designed to promote the planting of gardens on vacant lots. Grass roots organizations backing the various efforts in the community also include the Nature Coast Real Food Project, the East Madison Growers Club and the Green Commerce Association. Local residents have helped out, as have students and faculty from Gulf Middle School, which recently sponsored a contest for students to design a sign for Grand Gardens.
While other community gardens are off the beaten path, this latest project, planted on a half-acre owned by business partners Steve DeMatos and Gary Gann, is a showpiece.
"We're on the main stretch, so it is something people are going to see when they're going downtown. It opens a whole other avenue for us," said Travis Morehead, 31, who serves as a garden facilitator and also advises others in planting organic gardens through the Nature Coast Real Food Project.
"I think it looks great; we couldn't be happier. Our employees come out here every day to check on it and see what's growing. And it's all organic. It doesn't get any better than that," said Gann, 65, who got the notion to offer up the empty lot that sits adjacent to his and Dematos' Creative Institute of Dental Arts after attending a permaculture presentation by local urban gardening guru Jim Kovaleski at a New Port Richey Rotary meeting.
Volunteers can partake in the harvest by committing to at least four hours of work each week. All are welcome to use garden tools stored nearby. A water source also is provided. Those wanting their own stake can donate $50 to $80 annually to tend their own plot, something that appealed to Steve and Edwina Wexler, even though they grow vegetables in their own yard.
"We plan to plant onions, beets and things we don't have room for," Edwina Wexler, 52, said. "It's well worth it, even if it just ends up going to the community."
Some of the harvest will likely end up in the bellies of others.
Overages from bumper crops will be sold at the Tasty Tuesdays fresh market held weekly at the New Port Richey Public Library or at Rose's Bistro Off Main. Profits will then go toward purchasing supplies for future garden beds that might be tended by volunteers such as Noreen Hilliard, 70, who stopped at Grand Gardens out of curiosity and ended up making a commitment to come back.
"I'm a farm girl from Indiana," said Hilliard, adding that she had been keeping an eye on the garden's progress from her nearby mobile home. "I want to experiment with my own little garden, but I can come here to weed and water. I can definitely do that and meet people, too. I want to know the people in my community and be involved."
That's the kind of buy-in those at the forefront of the community garden movement have been hoping for — one that will feed volunteers, offer organic produce at a reasonable cost and eventually grow to sustain others who might be living in urban or rural "food deserts" that don't have access to fresh produce.
"I think it's a wonderful way for the community to get together to learn about each other and what's going on in the city," said garden facilitator Deborah Jimenez, 52, a former elementary school teacher who got involved while embarking on an organic-based diet two years ago after being diagnosed with breast cancer. "It's also a way to educate others so they can learn how to produce their own food in their own yards. It's a way to help make ends meet."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.