How do their community gardens grow?

Community gardens reap benefits, but advocates are having a tough time convincing Tampa officials of that.

click to enlarge HOMEGROWN: Maria Ortiz is trying to establish a community garden in East Tampa. - Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry
HOMEGROWN: Maria Ortiz is trying to establish a community garden in East Tampa.

On a recent Wednesday evening in a stuffy boardroom on the second floor of Union Station in Tampa, Andrea Hildebran has just a couple of minutes to advocate for an ordinance that would regulate community gardens in the city of Tampa.

She's the third guest speaker at the June meeting of THAN, the umbrella group of neighborhood association leaders in Tampa. Hildebran, one of the leading activists in the Bay area over the past three years in the growing community garden movement, eschews a slide presentation and quickly discusses the ordinance. But she soon encounters resistance from one elderly woman, who doesn't think such gardens are as wonderful as advertised.

"We were going to ask that there be a public hearing so that the neighborhood associations, as well as the immediate neighbors, can chime in as to whether they really want this or not, and not just have it... where we learn there's a community garden next to your house, because every neighborhood doesn't want this..."

THAN director Wofford Johnson quickly interjects, informing the 25 people or so in the room that the ordinance is going to the Hillsborough Planning Commission for review, and then will go back before the City Council, so the neighborhood groups will get plenty of time to weigh in.

With her three minutes up (which seems exceedingly short, as it preceded a 30-minute presentation by a HART member on the transportation sales tax referendum, followed by a speech about the census), Hildrebran returns to her seat, showing no signs of discouragement. She later says that the idea of community gardens in Florida is still a foreign concept to many people. (While local objections weren't articulated that night, fears in other parts of the country have included vandalism, messiness, lack of supervision and the possibility that the gardens might just be a fad.) But Hildebran believes once residents see what the gardens can actually do for a neighborhood, they'll back the concept.

Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern has been talking up the idea of community gardens for a few years now, suggesting that Tampa could offer up city-owned land as a way to join the burgeoning national demand for citizens to grow their own vegetables.

But city officials haven't been willing playmates. Mulhern's frustration was evident earlier this month when she engaged in a spirited discussion with Karen Paulus, the city's Parks & Recreation director, who said that current policy does not allow for such gardens in city-owned parks because of concerns about insurance, liability and water provision.

Mulhern says it's obvious that the city doesn't want anything to do with such gardens, and says for the most part their buy-in hasn't been needed, because citizens are doing it for themselves. Mulhern has done her part by hosting two workshops over the past year at the Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, and says she's collected an email list of over 200 people involved and/or interested in the process.

In the city of Tampa, there are roughly a dozen gardens either operating or in the planning stages, with an equal amount in St. Petersburg. Leading this grass-roots effort (pardon the pun) has been Hildebran, the founder and executive director of Green Florida, a non-profit group committed to supporting community gardens through fundraising and advocacy.

Hildebran says that, even though it has been difficult for cities in Tampa Bay to embrace the idea, the movement has taken off elsewhere.

"Seattle, Portland, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and, closer to home, Sarasota and Orlando have been developing ordinances that say when there's a certain level of demand that the city will make available plots," she says. "It's something that many cities have done....to take empty lands and put it to good use, and it provides enormous benefits." (There are over 600 such gardens in the five boroughs of New York City alone.)

And what are those benefits? Increased property values, lowered cholesterol, new friendship, even a reduction in crime. "It's a win-win- win," she says.

Last year, First Lady Michelle Obama added her voice in praise, saying she was a big believer in community gardens "both because of their beauty and for their access to providing fresh fruits and vegetables to so many communities across this nation and the world."

In East Tampa, Maria Ortiz became interested in cultivating a community garden after reading a Tampa Tribune article about a private landowner in the area who wanted to lease his vacant lot. She ended up attending Councilwoman Mulhern's workshop at Sweetwater, and met another East Tampa resident, Frances Brooks, who had the same idea.

For Ortiz, planting a garden in the oft-troubled East Tampa community is significant. "The area doesn't have the best profile," she says, "so we're attacking it from a different angle."

"We're trying to say you can bring your kids, bring your grandkids, they don't need any previous experience to work on this," she says.

She admires how nearby Seminole Heights has established supporters for its garden on Violet Street through its neighborhood website. But in East Tampa, where there's still a digital divide, online networking is not a viable option. To communicate with local residents about the garden, she and Brooks produced a newsletter and other fliers.

The garden also had no direct source of water, but two neighbors came through to supply that. Now all that's needed is a fence, and she's asked city officials for help. But they've been intransigent, saying that only a PVC fence is allowable the way the land is zoned.

That's why Ortiz says she looks forward to discussing the community gardens ordinance when it comes back before City Council — because she says somebody leasing land for a garden shouldn't be held to the same standard as someone who owns the land. And she says that's another reason why the city should offer up its own land for a garden.

Another community garden of sorts is being planned this fall in the Channelside district by Ken Stoltenberg, developer of Grand Central at Kennedy. He said he got inspired to start growing his own vegetables when he moved to Tampa from Delaware over a decade ago and was outraged that Publix charged 49 cents for a lime.

He intends to hire ten people this September, and will set aside one day a week when the public can purchase his vegetables. But he intends mainly to sell his local produce to nearby restaurants that have already expressed an interest. "It's the economics of transport," he says. "If it doesn't pack well, it never makes it to the stores."

Andrea Hildebran says she remains convinced that the majority of elected officials will come around to community gardens. She reminds those skeptical in Tampa that the St. Petersburg City Council expressed similar reservations a year ago. Then she took them on a tour of her own community garden in the Bartlett Park area in South St. Pete.

Shortly afterwards, the Council approved changes in the permitting process that now allow gardens to be established on private property on any zoning area throughout the city. Activists in Tampa hope the same thing can happen on their side of the bay.

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