SULPHUR SPRINGS — Today a row of tomato plants stretches toward the sun in the center of a raised bed banked by corn stalks, tenderly planted by small hands last weekend.
Children planted beans and herbs and placed worms in the earth and climbed two large oak trees that partially shade a formerly vacant lot.
Tampa's newest community garden is growing inside a square mile better known in recent years for crime, drugs and more than its share of impoverished children.
It is also known as a food desert.
"In a neighborhood like Sulphur Springs, there's a lack of access to healthy food," said Mike McCollum, the executive director for the YMCA's programs in the area.
It's a walking community, McCollum said, where few people have cars and the elementary school has no buses. All the children live close. Nearby food options are a corner store across from the school and fast food restaurants that back up to the neighborhood.
Grocery stores are miles away.
"A lot of folks don't have access to fresh produce," McCollum said.
And so, as activists and social service agencies across Tampa poured energy into the neighborhood in past years, a community garden took root in plans.
Using donations and grants, staffers at the YMCA, students from Hillsborough Community College and volunteers from Harvest in the Hood and the Tampa Eden Project set up the site on east Eskimo Avenue.
"We plan to grow more than vegetables," said McCollum, who anticipates neighbors taking pride in growing food. "We're growing a sense of community."
Across the street from the garden is Layla's House, a place where neighborhood parents come for programs, such as prenatal care groups for moms and baby boot camps for dads.
About 75 people came to the garden kickoff Saturday, including Lisa Montelione, a Tampa City Council member who represents District 7, which includes a portion of Sulphur Springs.
Montelione, a self-proclaimed foodie who credits her Italian heritage, would like to see garden plots at schools and in parks and vacant lots across the city. She counts five other community gardens in the city, including Michelle Doll Mother Earth's Urban Farm, a co-op that she belongs to.
Montelione said the Sulphur Springs site has potential to pull the neighborhood together. While there Saturday, she said people drove by and waved and tooted their horns at friends. She thinks the location may draw people who may not have otherwise gardened.
"People in some neighborhoods get used to seeing only bad," she said. "But once you pretty the place up, people don't want to dump on it."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.