Community gardens all over Central Florida cultivate plants and friendships, one neighborhood at a time. Here are three standouts.
By Marta Madigan
Lake Eola Heights
“Free arugula at plot #11. Take all you like. Leave four inches for more growth to come up,” Andrea Ruiz-Hays posted on the Lake Eola Heights Community Garden’s Facebook page. She’s the president of a group of gardeners who collectively tend their healthy greens in downtown Orlando. The nearly 2-year-old gardening project of the neighborhood and Broadway United Methodist Church tempts with its lush appeal.
Their blessed harvest often fills a “share box” attached to the picket fence. Behind it are 39 orderly raised garden beds, each 4 feet by 12 feet. “It’s a lot for one person,” says Tracey Jacobs, the secretary. Several members, including Jacobs, have plot-mates. Young couples and seniors, singles and families with children, advanced and novice growers—Lake Eola Heights Community Garden welcomes all as long as they live close enough to show up daily.
For $30 a year, residents of Lake Eola Heights can learn how to grow their own fruits and veggies. “Gardening is really about trial and error,” says Jacobs. “The positive of a community garden is that I can ask anyone here about planting.” The group shares useful tips on the spot and on Facebook. Sometimes, gardeners post a request for watering their plants while they are out of town. They repay in tomatoes.
On community work days, everybody contributes. Thanks to the Mayor’s Matching Grant program, the garden has recently gained new plots and a three-bin composter designed and erected together.
Slightly over a mile west of Broadway United Methodist Church, another group of urban gardeners helps each other and those in need. At Parramore Community Garden, they’ve been growing food and pride for almost a decade. And there is plenty to be proud of at this oldest community garden in Orlando.
It morphed from a dumping ground into a calm oasis that heals the neighborhood. One of 19 wood-framed plots is dedicated to medicinal plants. Fleshy and spiky aloe shares the garden bed with three varieties of fragrant mint. “We also have moringa, which is good for healing cancer,” says Joyce Nichols, who together with her daughter and grandson occupies plots #3 and #9. She takes particular pride in her cauliflowers and sweet Vidalia onions. She plans to sell some of her good-looking vegetables at the Parramore Farmers Market. Most she gives away.
“About 80 percent of our harvest goes to the community,” says Lynn Nicholson, who runs the garden and coordinates the farmers’ market. His gardeners produce abundantly. Some of them are retired farmers. “They are pros,” says Nicholson. “They can out-garden anyone in this area.” And they did. Parramore Community Garden received a Golden Brick Award in 2009 and was designated the 2011 Garden of the Year by The University of Florida Extension program.
The National Football League roots for the garden’s bright future. With their financial support, old rotten wooden frames will be replaced, the greenhouse fixed and other repairs done.
Renewal can mean a complete makeover. When post–Hurricane Irma chaos disabled gardeners from dealing with their damaged plants, Sanford Community Garden closed. This apparent disaster, however, became an opportunity to address decaying wood and squirrel invasions. Because the garden was chosen for the local Lowe’s Heroes program, the rebuild became reality.
In addition to labor and supplies from Lowe’s, many volunteers pitched in. “We had Sanford leadership, Boy Scouts Troop 849 from Altamonte Springs, gardeners, neighbors, even a few hardworking Florida Highway Patrol troopers,” recalls Sheila DiPace, president of Sanford Community Garden.
Seven years after its opening, the garden was reborn bigger and better. “The Seminole County Master Gardener students have joined in a coaching program so each gardener will have one to work with,” says DiPace. She also envisions growing for local food banks in collaboration with the Sanford Mayor’s Youth Council.
One of 47 large plots framed in brand-new concrete blocks belongs to Aislin Cerron and Angelo Santiago. In the community garden, this young couple found a solution to living without a yard. Happily, they get their hands dirty three times a week. “Sometimes you have to put in a lot of hours,” says Santiago, who is eager to grow and pickle his own cucumbers. Thanks to a new, more tightly woven fence, the gardeners won’t have to share their crop with pesky varmints.