LARGO — After Amaziah Gilbert pulled the cabbage from the ground, she wrapped it in a plastic bag for her grandmother.
"We're going to make cabbage soup," said the 10-year-old. "My grandma taught me how to do it. You take the cabbage, vinegar, pepper, salt, onions, mushrooms, bring it to a boil, and it is delicious."
It's harvest time at the Ridgecrest Community Garden, where Amaziah and 19 other students have been participating in a joint venture between Pinellas 4-H Youth Development and the Greater Ridgecrest Area Youth Development Initiative. The 150-square-foot garden took root in September, and now it's overflowing with cabbage, carrots, lettuce, collard greens, radishes, mustard greens, Swiss chard and sugar cane.
The sugar cane was Marva Perry's idea. Perry, who grew up in Ridgecrest and graduated from Largo High School in 1968, is a master gardener and owner of a horticulture design company. She was the primary designer of the garden.
"I remember when I was growing up, sugar cane was grown in back yards all over Largo. I wanted the kids here to be able to experience planting it, picking it and eating it," she said.
In the summer of 2009, Perry, along with Bebe Hobson, regional vice president of Pinellas County YoungLife, led a summer gardening project at the same site on 130th Avenue N.
Michelle Wilson is the executive director of GRAYDI, which was set up in 2006 to offer positive activities for the youth in the Ridgecrest community. "We had always wanted to do a permanent garden, and we wanted it for the entire Ridgecrest community, families, adults as well as the children who come here," Wilson said.
"After we saw the success Marva and Bebe had, we said, 'Okay, now let's do it.' "
In October, Wilson secured a $19,000 grant from the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board, and she immediately contacted Jean Rogalsky, Pinellas County's 4-H representative, in hopes of adding a formal educational component.
Wilson conducted several brainstorming sessions between Perry, Rogalsky, retired master gardener and Largo resident Allen Cordell, and community volunteer Vernon Bryant, who is also the horticulture manager for Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources.
By November, the team broke ground. The garden now includes seven raised beds and a 20-foot-long pergola. Eventually, more raised beds will be added, including several that will be accessible to the disabled.
According to Bryant, gardens like the one in Ridgecrest can do wonders in strengthening the sense of community.
"Through including things like the pergola, we really tried to do something to make it clear the garden is here to stay," he said.
Twenty children, from third to eighth grade, work in the garden on Wednesdays and Fridays. They meet after school at the garden gate.
During Wednesday's session, Isaiah Bellamy, a fifth-grader from Ridgecrest Elementary, planted white potatoes.
"I knew I'd be good at gardening," he said. "But since we started, I've learned it takes listening, too. Like today I was told don't water too much. Don't put the potatoes too deep in the ground. And if I do what I'm supposed to, the potatoes will come out good like our cabbage did."
Wilson believes one of the greatest parts of the garden is that it represents Ridgecrest's heritage.
"Through the vegetables we raise in the garden, like the collard greens and the mustard greens, the kids not only eat and see the vegetables that they all know and love from their own upbringing, but it is a way for them to celebrate their neighborhood's rich culture and tradition."
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.