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Fruit lady Eileen Shirley likes to save money by growing fruits and vegetables and sharing in Tampa


It's harvest season, and Eileen Shirley has free produce again. This time, it's grapefruit.

Want some?

She has plenty, and she hates waste.

Anybody's waste.

She'll even picks trees in other people's yards — with their blessing, of course. She'll pluck your harvest anywhere south of Kennedy Boulevard and see that it gets in the hands of someone who'll enjoy it.

"I think we should be required to grow fruit trees," says Shirley, 54. She grew up in the Philippines and came to Tampa in 1980 via California, toting with her a potted calamondin, her favorite citrus.

"You can grow a lot in a small plot," she says.

• • •

You should see Shirley's back yard. Pineapples grow next to ginger, miniature bananas next to beds of lettuce and onions.

A tomato plant dangles down her fence from a hanging container.

Her idea to share fruit sprouted from a small seed. A drafting contractor, Shirley felt the pinch from the waning housing market last year. Instead of sitting around waiting for calls to come in, she hopped on her bike and rode through her neighborhood each morning.

She started analyzing her neighbors' plants. She jotted down addresses and mailed notes on homemade cards like this: "By the way, I have bromeliad that would look great in your yard."

She gave away bulbs.

Then the trees laden with fruit began to weigh on her. Her mother grew up through wars and the Depression and taught her that wasting food was a sin.

Shirley envisioned gallon jugs of orange juice, mojo sauce for Cuban pork, pepper jelly.

Most of the people she approached were eager to have her pick their fruit trees. Others turned her down, saying someone else would pick it. She watched that fruit rot.

"It's a shameful waste," Shirley says. "In these tough times, we need to conserve."

She recalls hearing of Victory Gardens, which the government once encouraged during wartime. In 1943, home gardeners produced about a third of all the vegetables consumed.

"Now would be a great time to get back to Victory Gardens," Shirley says.

When a gallon of orange juice costs $5 in the grocery store, she says, "every little thing you don't have to go out and buy is a nice help in the budget."

Not only is it cheaper, but it tastes better than produce from grocery shelves, the way she sees it.

Four trees anchor her back yard: orange, mango, avocado and chiku, a tropical fruit.

From one hangs a 15-year-old orchid, which blooms more than 500 flowers. It's her oldest plant. She has no children. She says the cuttings she's given away are like her offspring.

On the side of her house in a nursery, used plastic cookie containers cover seeds as they sprout. Dryer sheets line the bottom of pots to keep dirt from running out.

"Squirrel," she whispers to Bugsy, her Boston terrier dozing at her side in her back yard. He takes chase. Sometimes rodents damage tender plants.

She dreams of setting a basket by her street near Gandy Boulevard for neighbors to pick out what they'd like.

"I prefer a simple life," she says.

She picks lettuce, tomato and onion from her back yard for a lunch sandwich.

She dries her hands with a paper towel and hangs it up for another use.

• • •

On a recent Saturday, she and two friends pluck 2,000 oranges from a neighbor's trees. It takes them two hours.

"Bring your laundry basket," she tells them.

Ann Orand came to help and escape a football game. Shirley's sister-in-law, Patty Greenfield, plans to make fruit cake and pickled grapefruit rinds.

They take their fill and pass extras to neighbors with children. Shirley delivers even more to the Arbors at Rubin Padgett, a nearby public housing complex, and Metropolitan Ministries.

"It's all about paying it forward," she says. Things have a funny way of coming back to her, she says.

Two weeks ago, she dropped off grapefruit at Tampa Presbyterian Village.

"Everyone loves it, and it goes so fast," says Linda Gray, working the retirement home's front counter.

Gray picked one with a stem and leaves still attached and cut into it right away.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at or 813 226-3431.

Picking, sharing

Wanted: Fruit trees in need of picking and people willing to pick.

Free: In-season fruit, herbs, flower cuttings and plants. Find out what Shirley has to offer at her Web site. She has ideas for beautifying neighborhood entrances, conserving resources and swapping plants. She wants to hear your ideas.

Call Eileen Shirley at 832-4247 or e-mail

Fruit lady Eileen Shirley likes to save money by growing fruits and vegetables and sharing in Tampa 02/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 24, 2009 7:56pm]
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