BROOKSVILLE — A 4-year-old effort to grow natural produce is experiencing a growth spurt of its own — both in the amount of land in cultivation and in the number of volunteer members.
Auro Community Garden will celebrate its recent revitalization and spread its message of healthy nutrition with a Community Garden Fair on Saturday at its 6-acre property on U.S. 41 south of Powell Road. The free fair will include garden tours and presentations about cultivating and preserving food.
Growing "healthy, sustainable and responsible food" is the aim of the garden, said its manager, Doug Poteet.
"Our products are organic or close to organic. We use little or no pesticides. It's just like a doctor's model: if you're healthy, you don't have to go to a doctor."
The garden is the creation of Maria Scunziano, a doctor in internal medicine; John Hill, a chiropractor; and other members of the Auroveda Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of Access Healthcare.
They had previously financed a student garden under Poteet's supervision at Pine Grove Elementary School, where he teaches science.
The foundation was so impressed with the results, it asked Poteet to extend his expertise to their somewhat struggling community garden.
"It didn't look anything like this last November. It was all overgrown. It was here, but it was small," he said.
Now, "things are picking up; we're getting a little bigger," Poteet said last week while watering newly planted tomatoes. More planting beds and hilled planting rows have been added.
And, he said, "We've got a little over 60 members now."
Gail Meotti, one of two garden coordinators working under Poteet, led a recent tour of the operation, pointing out varieties of lettuce, herbs, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, peppers, watermelons and beans.
Among the features that make the garden sustainable: Roots of crops are left in the ground after harvest so they break down into nutrients for the next crop, and leftover plant tops are composted to produce natural fertilizer.
The most eye-catching part of the operation is a plot containing 200 towers of plant boxes stacked four high on sturdy stakes and growing a variety of herbs, greens, peas and squash.
"They're for people with small yards and those who have medical issues and can't bend. It's a way to have a little garden at home," Meotti said.
Also impressive is an evaporation-limiting drip irrigation system — pipes laid along each row of in-ground vegetables and rising atop the plant towers. Landscape sheeting runs between rows of plants, forming walkways and preventing weeds from growing.
Members receive a portion of each harvest in return for a $240 annual fee per household, plus 8 hours of work per month. Members believe the cost, and benefits, are worth it, Meotti said.
"With the cost of food in stores and all the chemicals being used, you're getting more people interested in a healthy diet."
At monthly meetings, members decide on the foods they want to grow, discuss chores and share their knowledge about gardening and nutrition.
Members are notified by email when a crop is ready to be picked.
During the recent tour, members were busy cutting summer squash and red dandelion greens.
Washing a tubful of bright dandelion leaves, volunteer Mary Foeller, 83, of Brooksville said enthusiastically about the bounty, "We're going to take it home and eat it."
Her husband, Paul, 89, paused with a wheelbarrow of compost.
"It's all so healthy," he said.
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]