Many hands worked through the past year to transform a barren, nondescript rectangular plot just north of downtown into a lush, green oasis. Today at the Tampa Heights Community Garden, sweet potatoes burst from the earth near where pumpkin vines crawl from bushel baskets and purple eggplant globes hang heavily. Gardeners from all over Tampa gathered recently to celebrate the garden's first anniversary, taking pride in crops and more.
"We are not just growing vegetables," said Kitty Wallace, the garden coordinator. "The garden is growing community."
Kids dug into a dirt pile and played games while adults visited and enjoyed a picnic of chicken and fish.
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Wedged up next to Interstate 275 at 605 E Frances Ave., the strip that holds the gardens is owned by the Florida Department of Transportation and managed by the city, which allows for the garden.
It was first envisioned 20 years ago by Tampa Heights residents who wanted to redefine the blighted neighborhood with green spaces for community gatherings.
The goal was to involve everyone in the neighborhood.
The urban pioneers, who gambled on the stately neighborhood founded in the 1880s, now weed plots alongside formerly homeless people living at nearby Metropolitan Ministries and A Safe Place.
Residents from these shelters harvested armloads of peppers, tomatoes and collard greens this year, Wallace said, not only gaining food but skills to improve self-sufficiency.
Teens from the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association tended rose bushes in a butterfly garden.
Wounded veterans and their families living at Tampa Fisher House planted in two wheelchair-accessible raised-bed gardens.
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The gardeners started planning in March 2010 and planting in July 2011. They bought lumber, irrigation supplies and seeds with donations of $1,000 from the Tampa Garden Club and $2,500 from Home Depot. They fenced an area 120 by 150 feet.
A soil test found high levels of arsenic, Wallace said, so gardeners opted to plant in raised beds and buy organic soil. Neighboring restaurants contribute to compost bins for future soil enrichment.
Now more than 100 gardeners have stakes in the garden.
Malina Spokas lives three streets away and comes a few times a week with her 6-year-old daughter, Ella, and 8-year-old son, Caden.
They bike along a newly opened section of the Green Artery, an asphalt trail dreamed up by fellow gardener Lena Young Green to one day connect the region with a circular network of trails for cyclists and pedestrians.
The open section, nearly a third of a mile, runs from Amelia Avenue to Seventh Avenue.
Spokas planted a variety of her favorite vegetables. As a new gardener, she learned what plants work together when her "tomatoes went wild."
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Neighbors come for yoga classes and picnics under a large oak tree. Two smaller beds were set up recently for children, who will plant broccoli. The children decorated the beds with painted handprints.
The gardeners plan to put in nine more beds Saturday. Membership fees are $35 per year for a 4-by-8-foot bed or $25 to use a communal plot.
Diana Dionesotes-Phillips is planting now. This month, more vegetables can be planted than any other, said Bob Dickey, a master gardener who specializes in organic growing and advises the group.
In the past year, Dionesotes-Phillips harvested tomatoes, peppers, romaine, kale, broccoli rabe and carrots.
"You're amazed at how much you can grow in that little plot," she said.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.