The seeds that volunteers planted in Bill West's back yard this week should sprout, grow, blossom and produce green bell peppers by late spring.
That's not long, but it's just one piece of what will be a perennial community garden in Carrollwood Village. Vista Gardens is perhaps six months away from a long-awaited blossoming, organizers say.
The idea for Vista Gardens goes back to 2005 and came from the Carrollwood Village Homeowners Association. Growing organic produce in a community garden would not only be healthful, supporters said, but could teach residents of all ages about agriculture, hydroponics, sustainable landscaping, environmental stewardship and running a nonprofit enterprise.
Now, after at least four years of work, the first crops could be growing at Vista Gardens in August or September, organizers say.
"We couldn't really start until we got the lease approved by the county," said Bill West, president of the nonprofit Village Institute for Sustainable Technologies and Agriculture, or Vista Gardens for short.
The lease was signed in September. For $10, Vista Gardens has a five-year renewable lease on 3.3 acres owned by Hillsborough County. The land, now vacant and covered by weeds, is on S Village Drive next to the Village Towers.
At the same time, county commissioners voted to allocate $110,000 left over from two county capital improvement projects for improvements Vista Gardens will make to the land.
"Without that funding, there's no project," West said.
For now, Vista Gardens members are growing produce in their own back yards, and organizers are working on getting permits for the irrigation and electricity needed for the project's first phase.
Most of the cultivation at Vista Gardens will take place above ground, not in rows of plants rooted in the earth, partly because there's a lot of asphalt and construction debris buried on the property.
"We found ways of growing above ground that would make this thing work," West said. "Otherwise, I really don't think we would have been able to pull this thing off."
The first phase of the project will have about a quarter-acre of hydroponic "grow stacks," said Ricky Peterika, a senior design associate and landscape architect intern with Ekistics Design Studio, which designed the project.
The grow stacks will consist of rows of poles, each 5 or 6 feet tall and each supporting three levels of growing pots, Peterika said.
Vista Gardens is modeled on the nearby Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm on W Linebaugh Avenue. The vertical stacking systems used at hydroponic farms require less water and reduce weeds and bugs.
The first phase also will have an irrigation pond that will collect rainwater that flows over swales planted with sugar cane and other water-friendly edible plants.
There won't be any buildings or boardwalks or even an internal road in the initial phase.
"It's really pretty minimal for this first go-round," Peterika said.
Future phases are expected to include a multipurpose building that can be used for meetings or educational events, a farm office, and perhaps a toolshed or storage.
At buildout, the gardens could also include restrooms, picnic shelters, a windmill and fish pond, said Kess Evans, the project's operations manager.
The garden will include some traditional row crops, but those will be planted for education or comparison purposes. A Pinellas-based nonprofit group called the Plan C Initiative wants to assess whether hydroponically grown crops fare better than row crops, Peterika said.
Other in-ground crops will take advantage of the conditions on the site. Blueberries, for example, don't thrive in the grow stacks, but there's a wet area along a fence where they should do well, Peterika said.
Buying a share in Vista Gardens' cooperative — $170 for 12 weeks — entitles shareholders to regular distribution of the wide range of produce already grown by members: red and green lettuce, Swiss chard, arugula, cilantro, tomatoes, green peppers, scallions, bok choy, grapefruit, tangelos and more.
Although Vista Gardens grew out of efforts born in Carrollwood Village, membership is open to anyone in the county, organizers say.
Consolidating those efforts in one place will allow Vista Gardens members to do more than they can do now in their back yards, Evans said.
"It's a pretty piece of property," West said. "It's going to be a very nice place to have this garden park."
Richard Danielson can be reached at d[email protected] or (813) 226-3403.