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Volunteers will plant fruit trees in three Tampa parks

TAMPA — Visitors to several of Tampa's parks will someday be able to pick a snack, such as an orange or a star fruit, straight from the source after volunteers plant fruit trees this weekend.

"You don't even really see fruit trees in public places, but that's what Florida is known for," said Tampa resident Tanja Vidovic, who proposed the idea to the city about a year ago.

Volunteers with Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful will plant the trees today in Rowlett, Al Lopez and Gadsden parks, and they also will hold cleanups and other beautification projects in several other Hillsborough County locations as part of the Great American Cleanup.

"There are so many different varieties of fruit trees that grow in this zone," said Vidovic, 32, who is a Tampa firefighter-paramedic. "We pay $3 for organic grapefruit in the store, but we can just grow them."

Her first idea was to go to local businesses and ask whether they would be willing to put fruit trees on their property, but she wasn't sure who would then take on the responsibility of maintaining them. It made sense, she thought, to put them on city property, but her first proposal was rejected.

"They were concerned with fruit falling and other issues," she said.

Vidovic and her husband grow about 300 varieties of edible plants in the yard of their Tampa home. So members of the city Parks and Recreation Department came to tour the yard.

The tour helped dispel concerns about upkeep.

"They could see it's not riddled with pests, and it looks nice, and there's not fruit on the ground," she said.

Under the arrangement, the city of Tampa will water the trees, and volunteers will maintain them.

The upkeep is minimal, Vidovic said. Two of the parks will have five trees; one will have six. They need to be pruned once a year and fertilized four times a year for the first few years.

Some of the trees already have fruit on them, Vidovic said. The Chickasaw plums should be ripe in a few months. The lemons and oranges should start to ripen in December. Loquats will be ready to eat next year, and the star fruit could take a few years, she said.

Cities such as Seattle already have fruit trees in public parks. Vidovic said one of the biggest problems she saw in researching other cities was a lack of fruit to meet demand, "a good problem to have," she said.

The project was expected to cost the city about $8,000, which would have put it off until funding could be set aside. But Vidovic got the trees, fertilizer and mulch donated from about eight or nine local businesses.

City Council member Mary Mulhern said these initial fruit trees are a good opportunity to see how the idea fares. The city already has a lot of trees, such as palms, that also require upkeep, she said. With the new trees, "you get fruit from your investment," she said.

Anyone would be able to pick the fruit, Vidovic said. She hopes to get signs for the trees explaining what kind they are and when the fruit is ready to pick.

Eventually, she'd like to see fruit trees in more parks and along walkways and bike paths.

Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful is working on that vision in its own way as well. The organization is working with the Boys and Girls Club near St. Peter Claver Catholic School to plant fruit trees on the land between the club and the school, said Pat DePlasco, development and community relations director of Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful.

The project has the potential to bring residents together to beautify their neighborhoods and make them more inviting for businesses, DePlasco said.

Vidovic thinks it will help people become more connected to their food and where it comes from.

"People think pineapples grow on trees or in the ground. They don't know where they come from," Vidovic said. "Once you get a sense of that, it's pretty freeing."

Keeley Sheehan can be reached at ksheehan@tampabay.com.

Volunteers will plant fruit trees in three Tampa parks 04/11/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2014 11:32pm]
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