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Residents of all ages grow their own crops at community gardens across the county.

The benefits of community gardening abound for people of all ages and levels of experience.

Major factors for starting a garden include: a lower grocery bill, healthier food choices, beautifying the community, developing camaraderie with neighbors and educating the next generation.

But South Pasadena resident Mickey Heilweil keeps it all in perspective: "There's nothing like fresh food from the ground."

Heilweil has been growing his own produce for three years, but limited sunlight and space on his condo terrace proved to be problematic.

Two years ago, the health conscious, 82-year-old entrepreneur went to the Azalea Community Garden on 22nd Avenue N to expand his efforts. Today, he tends two plots (350 square feet) with 14 varieties of fruits and vegetables that include tomatoes, squash, peppers, and watermelon.

He spends two hours a day working his garden before going off to the gym. Since his garden yields more produce than he and his wife, Debbie, can consume, Heilweil has a nice barter arrangement with a small local restaurant for the excess of his harvest.

Recently, he ran into St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster at the Saturday Morning Market and suggested that the city should do more to publicize the community gardening program.

"There is wonderful camaraderie between gardeners," said Alexis Shuder, public information specialist for the city of St. Petersburg. "They can share crops and techniques. They are the essence of community."

The St. Petersburg Parks & Recreation Department has a Food for Life program at 12 of its recreation centers that offer summer camps for youth. The goal of the program is to get children (and their parents) to make healthier food choices through projects, games and events.

As part of the program, the children plant and manage grow boxes. "We received a $50,000 grant last year from the Wal-Mart corporation to continue and grow our efforts," said Shuder.

Elsewhere in south Pinellas, the Gulfport Community Garden on Preston Avenue S is beginning its third season and also is open to St. Petersburg residents.

"This has come together through hard work of many folks along with generous contributions of things like fencing, tree trimming, top soil donations and more," said Andrea Royce, primary coordinator of the garden and vice president of 49th Street South Business Association.

Gulfport resident Linda De-Zwaan says her dogs take up her back yard so she rents two plots (192 square feet) in the Gulfport Community Garden, across the street from her home.

DeZwaan, 68, spends about four hours a week tending 12 types of vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, corn, eggplant, cucumbers and collard greens. She freezes some of the excess harvest and gives some away.

"Our gardeners tell us it is a peaceful spot for feeling less stressed and meeting other neighbors within Bartlett Park," said Andrea Hilde-bran, coordinator of Bartlett Park community garden. "We engage about 20 young children in gardening several days each week."