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Tampa Heights' community garden takes root

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 04:36 PM
TAMPA HEIGHTS -

On an avenue that dead ends at Interstate 275, where motorists fly past on a curving slab of highway looming above on concrete stilts, there is a grassy oasis that spreads toward a grove of trees.

The sight recently brought forth dozens of smiles that not even the heat of a July Saturday morning could melt away.

"It looks like a botanical area," said Carrol Josephs-Marshall, who looked across the open field. "We'll definitely make sure we've a good amount of flowers and berries on the side."

Those splashes of petal and berry colors will be garnishes for the first community garden in Tampa Heights. But Josephs-Marshall was ready to dig into the earth and get started with a few vegetables.

"I love my tomatoes and cucumbers," she said.

Last week, about 50 people gathered in celebration of the Tampa Heights Community Garden at 605 E. Frances Ave. The event was sponsored by the Tampa Heights Civic Association, Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association, Metropolitan Ministries, the University of Tampa, the Tampa Heights Stewardship Team and 100 Black Men of Tampa Bay.

About 10 people signed up for individual or communal plots and a handful more took away applications.

Arielle Milligan signed up for an individual plot for her family.

Her 4-year-old daughter Arie got a trowel and a lesson from Tampa Garden Club member Kitty Wallace who showed the "young'uns" how to loosen up a plant's roots before putting it in the ground.

Arie dug in the soil and planted a coral sage in a new flower bed.

"It seems like a good idea to get involved in the community and get my daughter involved," Milligan said. "I'm showing her how interesting it is to get involved."

The Frances Avenue garden was a long time coming for Tampa Heights residents.

More than two years ago, residents in other neighborhoods, including Seminole Heights, Palmetto Beach and East Tampa, planted community gardens. But they did so without a city ordinance on the books.

Garden supporters lobbied the city to craft one and then waited as bureaucratic wheels turned slowly and city council wrangled over the rules. Some neighborhood opposition sprang up over issues of noise and traffic. Then, in May, council approved the city's first community garden ordinance.

"You don't anticipate you're going to have to go downtown and tackle city council," said Virginia Green, president of the Tampa Garden Club.

But the community garden in Tampa Heights has flourished with an evolving partnership with the city, state and residents. The land is owned by Florida Department of Transportation and maintained by the parks and recreation department.

It is the first venture of its kind for parks and recreation, said the city's parks and recreation director Karen Palus.

"It's a great way to engage the community," she said.

The site eventually will have flower and butterfly gardens, along with the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, watermelons, cantaloupe and leafy greens that will sprout in beds, which, for this "soft" opening, were marked off with twine and plastic covers.

A more official grand opening, and the digging of vegetable beds, is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 27, with Mayor Bob Buckhorn and city council members among invited guests.

The site has a long-range future as a feature on a proposed citywide greenways trail. Just beyond the grove of trees, the historical Faith Temple Baptist Church, on Palm Avenue, has been renovated as a youth and community center. The church property also is owned by FDOT for the potential widening of a nearby interchange of interstates 275 and 4. The state has leased the property to the city, which has in turn sublet it to the junior civic association for a token fee.

"One of the nicest things is, it's very rare you see state government and local government combine with residents to make something happen," said Lena Young-Green, president of the junior civic association. "It's a model we should use from here on."

The plot of land was just made for planting, said Ana Maria Mendez, spokeswoman for Metropolitan Ministries. Residents of the charitable agency will help with the garden; the ministries will receive some of the fresh produce grown there and provide compost for the garden.

"It's been a labor of love for the neighborhood," she said.

On this summer morning, residents pulled up chairs under shady tents to learn about composting, butterfly gardens, water-wise conservation and rain barrels.

A jar of butterflies, cocooning and nearly ready to flutter to life, transfixed 4-year-old Khalia Woodley.

"I think (the community garden) is a great place for people to get together. You don't find many places to meet," said her mother, Jacinda Woodley. "I'd love to get (my children) interested in gardening. I think it's important to eat locally grown food."


ksteele@tampatrib.com (813) 295-7652

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