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Community gardens grow so much more than vegetables

Kids celebrate the children’s garden bed at Tampa Heights Community Garden. It’s important to have some giving component in your community garden, organizers say. Helping children learn the joy of planting qualifies.
Published Oct. 30, 2013

Planting one bloom en masse makes for a dramatic garden display, but it requires tremendous self-discipline, at least for me.

I fall in love with new plants almost daily, so I've got a crazy quilt of yellows, purples and oranges, natives and non-natives, conservative types, liberal self sowers and progressive edibles.

It's much easier for people to congregate in homogenous drifts. We tend to like those who think like us and steer clear of those who don't. We plant ourselves on one side of the line or the other, be it Obamacare, gun laws or immigration.

If we were flowers, we'd look like acres of lavender abutting acres of sunflowers; big visual impact, but unhealthy in the long run.

"Monocultures are bad because disease can run rapidly through the crop," says longtime Tampa agriculture instructor Allen Boatman.

"One disease, one species or variety, can result in many deaths. Think Irish Potato Famine."

There's nothing singular about community gardens — or gardeners.

"We have young and old, rich and poor, black and white and everything in between," says Temple Terrace Community Gardens founding president Elizabeth Leib of the group's 50 or so members. "We see people helping other people, strangers, all the time. They see someone who's overwhelmed, and they just step up to help.

"People form relationships around, 'What are you growing?' In a country with so many big issues dividing us, it's good to have a conversation about a plant."

That's one of the inspirations for Community Gardens 101, a free workshop from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Pasco County Cooperative Extension, Pasco County Fairgrounds, 36702 State Road 52, Dade City. The morning will be packed with information, refreshments and giveaways. Topics range from garden management and insurance to seed-saving and strategic shade.

Anyone can participate, but take note: The registration deadline is Friday (Nov. 1)! To sign up, contact Michael Sherman, Dade City's community development director, at msherman@dadecityFL.com or (352) 523-5048.

Dade City instigated this event; Zephyrhills, both cities' chambers of commerce, and the Pasco Extension banded together to make it happen.

Community gardens are taking off in Pasco. Just this year, New Port Richey and Zephyrhills approved ordinances to encourage them.

In Hillsborough, Tampa approved its ordinance in 2011 and Temple Terrace is working on one. Pinellas has seven city and county ordinances.

Dade City is on track to allow community gardens in parks and other city-owned properties by the end of the year. Its plan calls for permits to cost nothing. Instead, garden organizers must promise to give back to the community, whether through education, providing food to shelters, a kids' garden — something.

Why would this bucolic little city of 6,510 people, most of whom have room to grow veggies in their own yards, want community gardens?

"The difference between individual gardens and community gardens is the sharing," says urban planner Tammy Vrana, who helped New Port Richey and Zephyrhills develop their ordinances and is now helping Dade City.

"It's a community versus a solitary venture," she says. "People learn from each other; you have novices working alongside master gardeners. It's an opportunity for community building."

Which is what residents of Dade City wanted. During a neighborhood planning survey more than a year ago, they were asked, What will make our community better? Many answered, "Community gardens."

That's what got the ball rolling, Michael says.

It's not easy to make a community garden work, say local organizers. People get excited, then lose interest. You've got to have a convenient water source, volunteers to create the beds, publicity to generate interest.

But the payoffs are huge.

"We don't know what folks are going through," says Kitty Wallace, coordinator of the 2-year-old Tampa Heights Community Garden. "We see them in the garden tending their plants, say, 'Hi, how's it going?' But we really don't know.

"One of our gardeners shared that the garden had really helped her keep her sanity this year as she and her family were dealing with her child's health crisis. I don't think anyone had any idea how valuable those moments in the garden were to her."

Reach Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com. Find more local garden stories on her blog, www.digginfladirt; join the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt, or follow her on Twitter, @DigginPenny.

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