Tampa Bay: Urban Gardens Create Sense Of Place, Build Community

Tucked away between the soccer field and the baseball field at Eckerd College, in Pinellas County south of downtown St. Petersburg is an incongruous site. About two-dozen raised garden beds stretch 32 feet long and three feet wide, their sides painted in bright swirls of color. 

Inside there's a healthy winter crop of bok choy, kohlrabi, zucchini, radishes, lettuce, carrots, turnips, spinach, tomatoes, all sorts of herbs and flowers, and even some native edible weeds. Nearby are about a half-dozen citrus trees. Back by the oversize compost bins, you'll also find a grove of bananas.

Welcome to the Eckerd College Sol Food Grow-Op, a student-run garden managed by the Eckerd College Garden Club.

On a recent visit, senior Deborah Hilbert is relishing the quiet as she works the garden alone, but most days you'll find anywhere from two or three students to a couple dozen with garden tools in hand as they plant, weed, water, harvest and compost.

"The biggest challenge we have is balancing student life with the demands of the garden,'' says Hilbert, who hails from Texas and is a double major in biology and environmental studies.

Hilbert has been a member of the college's garden club since she was a freshman. Now she's the club president and the garden's biggest cheerleader. 

"Some college gardens have full-time garden managers, but we're all volunteers,'' says Hilbert. "We're really passionate about gardening and motivated. Our dedication keeps us going.'' 

Sophomore Sean Bossardet is another garden regular. He's from New England and joined the garden club last year after he met Hilbert, who was a resident adviser in his dorm at the time. 

"I wanted to fill my time with something useful and the garden is just one of those things I found,'' says Bossardet. "I love it. It's great to play in the dirt and it's good to know where your food is coming from.''

He's a shift coordinator, helping oversee the work of other student gardeners and teaching the "newbies'' about the basics. But as the club's president, Hilbert is the garden's taskmaster. 

She emails daily "to do'' lists, recruiting students to fill morning or afternoon shifts for a variety of garden tasks. There's also a compost crew, she says. They pick up food waste from food prep areas in the college kitchens. Buckets are also located in all of the dorm lounges.

There's a small core of group of committed garden club members, but other Eckerd students also drop by to help and often the garden is taken on as a class project. 

"A lot of environmental studies professors encourage students to undertake research projects. For example, experimenting with different types of organic fertilizers,'' says Jamey Handorf, assistant director of Residence Life at Eckerd and the garden club adviser. "The garden definitely fits into Eckerd's philosophy of green and sustainable. It's a great place for students to get outside and get their hands dirty.''

Although they've occasional donated extra produce to a shelter, the focus is education rather than growing volume, says Hilbert. "We're really about promoting local, small-scale agriculture and raising students' awareness.''

For example, she says, "we're always trying out new things, like growing rosemary and marigolds to repel bugs or companion planting, the idea that certain plants can benefit each other when grown together.'' 

Networking Over Chemical-Free Veggies

While Tina Levy was looking for work after being downsized from a corporate job as an IT project manager, she started helping her husband Nathan in their ever-growing backyard garden. 

Originally just a hobby, the garden soon began supplying the couple with more produce than they could eat. Tina started bring the extra to yoga class and selling it to friends. Within a short time, she was putting together a distribution list of people who were clamoring for their chemical-free veggies and Nathan was expanding the garden.

But the big questions was, could they support themselves as garden entrepreneurs?
"I've always had a knack for bringing people together and building community,'' says Tina. She also knew that she didn't want to return to a stressful, 9-5 corporate job.

In 2011, she and Nathan launched St. Pete Locally Grown, a unique online fresh produce market for the St. Petersburg community that also serves as a co-op for local growers who don't use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. 

While Nathan manages the garden -- Nathan's Natural Veggies, Tina runs the business, serving as the market manager, organizer and visionary. "It's beyond anything I could have imagined,'' says Tina.  "We're having fun and we're really pleased with where it's going.''

Currently they represent 34 growers, everyone from small urban farmers who grow veggies in the backyard to all-natural bakers, as well as people who make herbal products or raise grass-fed beef. 

"My philosophy is everyone grows too much, so sell your overage through us and make a little extra money,'' says Tina. "People are very proud of what they grow and have to sell. It's about building a community of growers, customers and volunteers who are all passionate about the food we eat.''

Their customer base has doubled in the last year. Customers pay an $50 annual fee and then order online weekly, no minimum purchase required. The produce is delivered to drop-off points throughout the St. Petersburg area. Monthly potluck socials for customers and vendors bring everyone together in the Levy's backyard.

A Company Garden As An Employee Perk

Last year, top management at Molex Inc. approached Richard Duncan, a buyer for the company, and asked him about the feasibility of starting up a company garden for employees and their families. 

Molex, a supplier of electrical connectors, with manufacturing plants in Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg, had five acres of land set aside for future expansion. Why not do something with it? 

"The idea is to create a greater sense of community among employees of a large company, something good for company morale,'' says Duncan.  "A company garden could be a place to bring people together, to share ideas and create some friendly competition.''

Duncan also sees the garden as an employee wellness project. "People will be eating healthy and gardening will provide them with a little peace of mind, something to bring the stress levels down,'' he says.

Molex asked the right person to spearhead the project. Duncan is a certified master gardener through the Pinellas County Extension Service, which is affiliated with the University of Florida. He's also turned his St. Petersburg backyard into a showcase for aquaponics, an integrated method of raising fish and using the waste to grow plants.

With help from the Pinellas County Extension Service, he's been drawing up plans for how the project will unfold. He's gotten the official okay to move forward from the lawyers at the company's corporate headquarters in Illinois and he has a list of about 15 employees who want to participate, including the local plant manager.

In February, he'll present the local Molex management team a formal garden plan. And once they sign off, he'll begin building a demonstration test plot to show both employees and management what they can expect. "It's been a slow, step-by-step process, but we're proceeding,'' he says.  

By September, Duncan expects to have a dozen raised garden beds in place, each 20-feet long by six-feet wide and two-feet high – big enough for a healthy crop of veggies that could potentially supplement the food budget for a family of four, he says. Employees will be able visit the garden on their lunch hour, in the evening and on weekends.

The beds will have a modular design so they can be moved as needed and there's a deep well on the company property, which will support the planned automated micro-irrigation system for each plot. 

Funding for materials and other start-up costs are expected to come from a variety of sources, says Duncan. Molex has promised to make an unspecified contribution and the Pinellas County Extension Office will be providing in-kind services and support. Duncan is also applying for a Florida Department Agriculture grant.

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about innovative businesses, communities and individuals that showcase the creativity, talent and diversity of Tampa Bay. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.