The sign that welcomes all to Hillsborough County’s First Community Garden Park. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
Evans Bostick, Chair of the Garden Committee, modifying a table made by Eagle Boy Scout Troop 9 for physically challenged members who will benefit from a raised garden bed. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
Jennifer Grebenschikoff, President of VISTA Gardens, poses with her prized purple “broccolini” or baby broccoli. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
Composting aging fruits and vegetables contributes to the garden’s success by enriching the soil. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
The AARP sponsors two double-beds that produce approximately 660 lbs. of food annually that goes to the Village Presbyterian Church food pantry nearby. Any leftovers return to garden and get composted. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
Plans for the landscape garden that will be on the berm to educate passersby about native wild flowers. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
The garden’s apiary is home to the honeybees that pollinate the flowers, vegetables and fruit. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
Jerry Wentzel, a retired civil engineer, who took advantage of pandemic downtime, built this herb spiral bed nicknamed “Herbopolis” which is inspired by parking garages he’s designed. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
The greenhouse or “The House of the Rising Seeds,” where Kaydence Rao, a 15-year-old Steinbrenner High School student, is putting in her community service hours and is fascinated by edible flowers. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
Organic gardening has become a family experience and a chance to meet others who enjoy tilling the soil. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
Members enjoying a good morning stretch led by VISTA Gardens President Jennifer Grebenschikoff who bicycles to the garden. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
The solar panels used to power well water pumps. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
Intergenerational gardening is a common sight at the gardens. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
The gardens cover 3.31 acres, almost the size of three football fields. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
Hillsborough County’s “first garden park” features over 70 raised cedar beds, mostly measuring 4 X 16 feet and tended by seasonal gardeners who are passionate about their native vegetables, flowers and being part of what has become a family. Photo by Michael F. Shapiro
Looking at VISTA Gardens in the Carrollwood Village neighborhood of northwest Tampa, it’s hard to believe the 3.31 acre organic garden was once an abandoned water treatment facility.
The transformation didn’t happen overnight.
In 2008, a coalition of three Carrollwood Village homeowners associations formed a non-profit 501 (c) (3) to create a full-fledged community organic garden. With the support of Hillsborough County commissioners, the pioneers agreed to lease its current space from the county for “pocket change.”
Then came the hard part, clearing the overgrown land. The early group, including current VISTA Gardens President Jennifer Grebenschikoff, was indefatigable in working to achieve today’s vision. “It took several years to clear it but, with just 6 plots and 10 active members, we finally opened in 2014.”
Today, Hillsborough County’s “first garden park” features over 70 raised cedar beds, mostly measuring 4x16 feet and tended by seasonal gardeners who are passionate about their native vegetables, flowers and being part of what has become a family. There’s even a waiting list to join.
Rolfe Evenson, who is on the membership committee, expects those waiting to become members soon. “There’s turnover. People are burnt out, returning to the office now (after working from home) and some are moving to other areas.”
The growing season begins August 15th and runs through June 15th.
Membership to rent a bed is currently $150 per season. Members are expected to bring their own vegetable seeds and organic fertilizer. They are also required to put in two hours of volunteer time per month in addition to working their own beds. Many are working overtime.
Deb Ramos who moved from New England to Northdale in October, has become a fixture at VISTA Gardens. “As an avid gardener, this is everything I wanted” she says enthusiastically. “I’m growing so much of my own food.”
For those who just want to bring a lounge chair and soak in the atmosphere, there is a social level of membership for $25 per season. There are 105 individual and family seasonal members and 75 social members. They are not required to live in Carrollwood Village but they must be Hillsborough County residents. Some hail from all over the world and all walks of life. There are a number of older members, including a retired rabbi, who bring their passion and knowledge to the gardens.
The local chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, AARP of Tampa Bay, has a group that has been gardening together for three years to benefit the food pantry at the Village Presbyterian Church in Carrollwood. AARP sponsors two raised 4 foot X 16 foot double-beds that produce a staggering average yield of 660 pounds of food each season.
“Sometimes, they can’t give it all away so it winds up back here in the compost area, along with fruits and vegetables from members’ kitchens,” explains Evenson. “Nothing goes to waste here.”
Benefits of living off the land
None of the fruits, vegetables and flowers that are grown at VISTA (Village of Institute for Sustainable Technologies and Agriculture) Gardens are for sale. “Having a garden makes a lot of people think about eating healthy for the first time” explains Grebenschikoff. “There’s the obvious economic benefit as well.”
Grebenschikoff is especially proud of the sugar snap peas and broccolini that she grows with Barb Mahlmeister, Chair of the Education Committee. “If you plan your garden well, you shouldn’t have to buy ANY vegetables.”
You shouldn’t have to buy any herbs either. Vicki Kuse, a social member, spends her time tending to herbs, which ALL members are welcome to harvest for their own use.
“Right now, we have all kinds of tropical sage, spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint and pineapple mint.” There’s also “Oreganoland,” “Basilville,” “Thymetopia,” “Mintmania,” and “Herbopolis.”
To get VISTA Gardens to work, part of the preparation involved sinking a 200-foot well that taps into an aquifer. Water is pumped by solar power.
Not only do you need water and fertilizers to make things grow, you need bees. There are active bee hives off to the side of the garden. “The owner of the hives keeps the honey,“says Evenson, “but we get the bees to pollinate our gardens (along with Monarch butterflies). It’s a win-win situation.”
Educational and intergenerational
At VISTA Gardens, you can find high school students putting in their community service hours. The first thing they’re asked is “where do vegetables come from?” The answer you’re likely to hear is “a can.” The learning curve is steep for these youngsters but many remain engaged long after they’ve fulfilled their educational commitments.
You’ll also find families working their beds together. This warms the heart of Roberta Owens, a retired pre-school teacher who wears many hats including Chair of the Wildflower Garden Committee. Owens is developing a native wildflower garden on a berm at the property with a grant from the Florida Wildflower Foundation.
“There are 22,000 cars that pass by everyday along with strollers, walkers, runners and bikers,” she explains. “We hope to get them to watch the garden change with the seasons and maybe inspire them not to bring exotics into Florida but to grow native plants.”
It’s more than just gardening
VISTA Gardens features a multi-use pavilion where weddings and baby-namings have been held. You’ll also find members stretching and chanting in a yoga class on Saturdays twice monthly.
VISTA Gardens is a place to meet people, even your neighbors. Owens says, “people I didn’t know before I’m now running into at Publix.”
The garden became quite a refuge when the pandemic hit, although a lot of the classes, lectures and gatherings for children and adults have been cancelled for the time-being.
Members still socially-distance themselves but do partake in potluck dinners and Friday night happy hours. VISTA Gardens really IS a place where everybody knows your name.