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Urban gardeners dote on miniature plots

MIAMI BEACH — For two years, Rosie Betancourt has been able to grow her own tomatoes, lettuce and herbs — even though, like most people who live in South Beach condos, she has no back yard.

Betancourt is one of the lucky few who can reap the fruits of their labor at Miami Beach's Joseph Villari Victory Garden, a small slice of community vegetable and herb patches sandwiched between two concrete buildings on Collins Avenue.

Since its debut on Collins, the garden has grown so popular with local urbanites looking for a patch of their own that there's a two-year waiting list.

Betancourt got one of 20 coveted spots thanks to a one-time lottery for the plots.

"My friend said a tomato you grow has a significant(ly different) taste from the supermarket one," said Betancourt, one of about 40 people who came out recently to the Victory Garden at 226 Collins Ave., for a lecture.

The gardeners, who ranged from hobbyists to hard-core growers, got advice from Benoit Jonckheere, the horticulturist at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden.

Jonckheere joined local historian Jeff Donnelly in giving a two-hour lesson about victory gardens — and improving homegrown produce.

In South Beach, land is scarce, hence residents' willingness to wait two years for a plot, although many people share the land with others.

Altogether , 37 people tend the garden's 20 plots, said Claudia Caro Sullivan, a volunteer who supervises the garden.

New Victory Gardens

The popularity of the Victory Garden, which was originally at another spot on Washington Avenue before moving to Collins Avenue, also inspired another community-run garden.

The North Beach garden, on the corner of Dickens Avenue and 73rd Street, opened last year — and does not currently have a waiting list, although all 97 plots are taken.

Anyone can sign up for a plot — even those who may not have green thumbs, said Sullivan.

After the lecture, Sullivan checked out her parcel, which she shares with husband Caleb and Niki Harsanyi, another gardener.

She planned to grow herbs, mesclun, chard and tomatoes after hurricane season ended Dec. 1.

"We recommend starting the gardens in December because we've had a lot of losses with hurricanes," she said.

Sullivan pointed out that community gardens are important in urban settings such as South Beach because they foster a sense of community among neighbors.

"We have a group of passionate people in the beach that have been around," she said.

Victory gardens, where people cultivated vegetables and fruit during World Wars I and II to contribute to the war effort, are getting a new boost as people look to locally grown food.

The reasons vary.

Some want to try a new hobby. Others want to cut down on fossil fuels or save on food costs.

The Victory Garden opened in 2005 and was named after Villari, a community activist and proponent of community gardening.

Their own space

Miami Beach's Parks and Recreation Department runs the program, which also relies on volunteers.

Betancourt comes to the garden two or three times a week, watering her parsley and other plants like onions, basil, rosemary and thyme.

She learned some helpful tips from the lecture — such as lining the bottom of her garden with newspaper or cardboard to keep out weeds and using ladybugs to ward off pests.

Still, Betancourt doesn't rely on her garden for sustenance.

"It makes sense environmentally to grow food, but it hasn't stopped me from going to the grocery," Betancourt said, pointing out that keeping up her own garden is almost as expensive as buying produce.

Diane Downs, a member of the Miami Beach Botanical Garden who helped organize the lecture, said there are benefits nonetheless.

"It's an outdoor activity," said Downs. "And few people have their own space."

Urban gardeners dote on miniature plots 12/07/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 7, 2008 11:44pm]
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