ST. PETERSBURG — A large wooden post in the middle of the garden includes the sign: "The Plot Thickens."
Andrea Hildebran has spent the past year promoting a local garden in Bartlett Park accessible to neighborhood residents. The idea originated as a way to bring the neighborhood together and spruce up an eyesore.
Now, with more than 24 plots and an expansion in the works, Hildebran is hoping it will change the way the community views itself.
Hildebran, 39, is president of Green Florida, a group that aims to create community gardens throughout the state. On Saturday, the group will commemorate one year since opening its first garden.
Membership in the garden is $25 per year for a 50-square-foot plot. For a little sweat equity, gardeners can receive a big return on their investment via their grocery bill. "That's always helpful in a recession," Hildebran said.
Hildebran selected the lot off Newton Road, which was previously vacant. The group rents the 10,500-square-foot lot for $100 per month with an option to buy from owner Mark Mobley, a Tampa developer.
The program is modeled after several community gardens that have been long popular in places like Cincinnati. The program there, established in 1981, now has more than 42 neighborhood gardens.
"It puts people together to work on positive projects," said Peter Huttinger, administrator of the program. "In addition to providing healthy food, it also provides a central point to get together to know each other."
The lot in Bartlett Park has come a long way from its origins.
It took a huge cleanup effort to make sure the land was suited for yielding produce. Volunteers dug for hours each week to remove shards of glass, cigarette butts and other trash.
"It had been a site where people hung around drinking all day," Hildebran said. "There were broken plastic chairs under the big tree. It was a regular hangout. Police had to get called on that spot regularly, a lot of times the grass was very high and the trees were in terrible shape."
Now, in that same place, rows of collard greens, kale, grape tomatoes, eggplant and spices are growing. Gardeners installed an environmentally friendly drip-irrigation system from a well they built to conserve resources. The group has received a grant of more than $3,000 from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to help educate the public about the system.
Betty Hayes, president of the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association, has been able to grow turnips, string beans and tomatoes.
Hayes, 59, said it has been a convenient, healthy option for the organic food she serves.
"I've made more than a couple of tasty meals of white potatoes and string beans," she said.
What Hayes views as more important though, is the fact that it has allowed neighbors to get to know one another.
"The garden's going to bring some people together and they'll become friends and start looking out for one another once again," she said.
It has been useful to others who had no access to a yard of their own, like Missy Feathers, 36, who lives on a sailboat in the marina downtown. She has used herbs from the garden to make homemade pizza as well as fresh salads.
It takes a few hours of work each week for a successful plot. Hildebran said the group will open an additional 20 plots in the next year and she has a waiting list to join the garden.
Austin Bogues can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8872.