Urban gardening movement growing in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

Layer by layer the planting beds rose along the southern boundary of the 7-acre property.

Flattened cardboard boxes came first. Next, a sprinkling of natural minerals, layers of mulch, palm branches, more mulch, heaping helpings of horse manure and yet more wheelbarrows of mulch.

It was into this organic mix that the men, women and children from Maximo Presbyterian Church and neighbors from Pinellas Point on one recent Saturday made an inaugural planting of collards, lettuce, parsley and tomatoes for a new community garden.

Maximo's foray into community gardening is part of a nationwide movement to grow food locally. The movement, which embraces healthy eating and community building, typically uses terms such as urban agriculture, permaculture and sustainable living. Its disciples employ rain barrels, create worm ranches and build compost piles with everything from vegetable scraps to coffee grounds.

In St. Petersburg, the interest has found expression in thriving home gardens, a recovery center, elementary school and a quirky neighborhood. It is drawing support from the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, a City Council member, a well-known former restaurant owner and local activists. It soon could get a boost with funding from the Bon Secours Foundation.

The goal of a core group of supporters, the Sustainable Urban Farming Working Group, is to champion St. Petersburg "as the center for sustainable urban agriculture in the state of Florida."

"It's building its own momentum,'' said council member Karl Nurse of the growing interest. "It has its own legs. I'm tickled by how many different groups have jumped into it."

Nurse, who estimates there are at least 10 community gardens in St. Petersburg, said urban farming is thriving in Cleveland, which has 45 community gardens. "In Detroit, they have really gone into urban farming. Teenagers are growing and harvesting corn,'' he said.

Chris Steinocher, chamber president, said he sees urban agriculture as an educational movement that offers opportunities for economic development. "I like to term it inclusive prosperity,'' he said.

It also is about improving health, he said. "If you talk about eating better as a community, you're talking about lowering insurance."

The Sustainable Urban Farming Working Group, which began meeting about two months ago, has grown to about two dozen members, Steinocher said.

"It's a very eclectic group, but you can tell from everybody that they are there for the right reason,'' he said.

The group hopes to hire a part-time coordinator, who will have an office at the chamber, to create a blueprint to enhance sustainable agriculture in St. Petersburg.

Kip Curtis, assistant professor of environmental studies at Eckerd College, has written the grant that would fund the study. Three years ago, he established the Edible Peace Patch Project (peacepatch.org) with his students and created an organic garden at Lakewood Elementary School that is part of its science and nutrition curriculum.

Curtis said he hopes to build on Lakewood's success by developing gardens at Sanderlin, Melrose and Campbell Park elementary schools.

"We're applying for funding to build one at Gibbs High School as well,'' he said. "It's an exciting time."

One of the early proponents of the urban gardening movement is Emmanuel Roux, former owner of the Garden and Redwoods restaurants and now owner of a company that makes organic, gluten-free chocolate cakes.

Friday morning Roux showed off a 3-year-old community garden on the edge of the Driftwood neighborhood. Rows of lettuce, sweet potatoes, peppers, radishes, collards and other vegetables grew along with papaya trees laden with unripened fruit. Worms flourished in an old bathtub filled with food waste and other organic material, chickens laid eggs in a pen, and a hill of compost rose in a corner of the 7,000-square-foot property.

Roux took the concept to Faith House, a transitional facility for people recovering from drug and alcohol abuse, at 302 15th St. N, which now has a thriving community garden that gets help from dozens of volunteers.

Students from Creative Clay began growing seedlings at Faith House about a year ago, and it is some of those seedlings that members of Maximo Presbyterian planted.

Vince Cocks hauled about 3,000 pounds of manure from Wild Spirit Stables in Pinellas Park, and he arranged for the city to deliver 60 cubic yards of the tons of organic mulch that fill its brush sites each year. He helped create the layers of material that made up the planting beds.

The Rev. Bobby Musengwa, who said a prayer to launch the garden along a long stretch of land at the congregation's property at 31st Street and 58th Avenue S, said the project was part of the church's mission to serve the community.

"The greater process is teaching people about food and healthy living and sustainability," Musengwa said. "We see it as being good stewards."

That day, Roux arrived with boxes of collard stems that had been discarded by a farmer at the Saturday Morning Market. The now-rooted stems were planted in Maximo's new garden.

He was joined by Bill Bilodeau, who owns Earthsong Gardens and also helped build the Faith House garden, in directing Maximo church members and their neighbors as they set up their garden.

Roux is pleased to see the urban movement spreading.

"In life, there is a question with timing,'' he said.

"It's like a chemical reaction. You put a number of components in a test tube and nothing happens and then you add one and then things start to happen. Five years ago, it would have been absolutely impossible to go anywhere with any of that. Now it's happening.''

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

Urban gardening movement growing in St. Petersburg 12/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 3, 2011 3:31am]

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