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Seminole Heights community garden abounds with benefits

SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — Purple blossoms dot stems, and green peppers dangle.

But no one's eating yet.

The seedlings aren't ripe, and most of these gardeners are just getting started, too.

Dirty-handed and sweaty, residents crouched to the ground as part of a bigger family: Seminole Heights Community Gardens. Group members plant and maintain their own organic fruits and vegetables together. It's a first for the neighborhood.

Coordinator Robin Milcowitz said they planted in April. That's late. Florida gardeners typically plant seedlings in February. The group will harvest by the end of June but expects the yield to be less than gardeners who started earlier.

This is the trial run season.

"We have a lot of folks involved because they don't know what a community garden is," Milcowitz said, "and they want to know what it is."

In Seminole Heights, it means people working toward a bounty of food at least once a week. Workshops are held. Recipes await to be shared and tested. The workers gather in the garden, just past W Violet Street and N Ola Avenue, to produce organic foods more cheaply than buying in stores.

Members pay $35 a year for individual plots or $20 to share a lot with others. The communal membership requires at least 10 hours of work each season in the 110- by 80-foot lot. Neighbors get to know neighbors while exercising and reducing their carbon footprints.

It's a real picture of the green initiatives City Council member Mary Mulhern advocates in meetings. She advised Milcowitz on how to organize the group, whose squash, pineapple, tomatoes, cilantro and eggplant will be ready soon.

• • •

Balty Castillo bikes to the spot every afternoon. He tends his tomatoes and helps others despite recent shoulder surgery.

On a recent Saturday, Ben Takemori pushes a wheelbarrow. He maneuvers through the 56 plots placed in wading pools to secure moisture in the dirt. It's his first Saturday in the garden.

"My garden at home is just trial by error," Takemori said. "I don't know what I'm doing."

Around the neighbors, old sails have been propped up like a tent to lead rain into buckets. Barrels heavy with water line the fence.

Members work Saturdays from 9 a.m. "until it gets hot," Milcowitz says. Her back is smeared with sunscreen. She smiles and admits, "I'm not a gardener."

Piet Vanderhorst brings experience to the group. He works every day in the soil and has organized community gardens in California. He set up the rain-catching system here.

Talk to him about gardening, and the grandfather can't stop grinning. For him, teaching novice gardeners is fun.

"Their smiles get bigger and bigger," Vanderhorst said. "Kids start singing instead of whining and bugging their parents."

The garden may have more benefits. Community gardens make homes of vacant lots and chase out drug dealers, violence and litter, said Bobby Wilson, president of the American Community Gardening Association, based in Ohio.

Gardens transform eyesores and sometimes lives.

Wilson helped minors in trouble with the law in Atlanta get involved with community gardens.

One even demanded to stay so he'd stay out of trouble and people's purses.

• • •

Mulhern's goals to grow a sustainable community helped jump-start garden meetings.

About 100 people showed up in February to a meeting at Sweetwater Organic Community Farm in Town 'N Country. People said they were waiting for something like this. All they needed was a place.

Linda Ketley offered her empty Seminole Heights double lot on the spot. Free.

Ketley, who rehabilitates houses in the area, plans to build a couple of homes in the space, but not for two years. At that point, Milcowitz hopes to move the garden to several bigger lots.

"It does my heart good," Ketley said.

In her own plot, sunflowers and squash surround a painted frog. She bikes to the garden from her home around the corner.

"I'm sort of the hippie generation," Ketley said. "And now it's coming back."

Membership is up to 70. More than 200 connect through the group's e-mails and Web site.

The group survives on membership fees and donations.

If the enthusiasm lasts a year, Milcowitz said she'll go for the title of nonprofit organization.

Like Milcowitz, Vanderhorst sees no reason not to grow food with neighbors.

"The more you sweat, the more you work, the more healthy calories you've got room to put in," Vanderhorst said.

"The longer you'll live and really enjoy life more if your hands are dirty."

Ileana Morales can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or at imorales@sptimes.com.

Seminole Heights community garden abounds with benefits 06/11/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 11, 2009 4:30am]
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