On a cool morning, with a fistful of dirt in each hand, you might notice that your neighbor has a knack for growing Japanese eggplants. Maybe there’s a new gardener quietly tending to hopeful- looking zucchini or a seasoned gardener making even the most stubborn vegetable flourish. Community gardening is a lesson in both people and plants, and with public gardens scattered across Sarasota, getting your hands a little dirty can pay back in spades.
For Marcia Freeman, 81, community gardening is a part-time volunteer job. In 2012, the newly retired writer and school teacher was a founder of the Culverhouse Community Garden, a 10-minute bike ride from her home. “I didn’t even know that community gardens existed besides victory gardens in World War II,” she says. As one of the volunteer managers for Culverhouse, Freeman spends 15-20 hours a week working with fellow volunteer gardeners. In her own plot, she’ll grow anything besides tomatoes or melons because she doesn’t want to deal with the squirrels.
For Freeman, one of the biggest advantages of community gardening is the access to organic produce. But the benefits of urban agriculture extend beyond healthier food. From improving air quality and soil biodiversity in a metropolitan area to providing greater food security in food deserts, community-based gardening fosters a shared sense of purpose.
“You’re getting a lot out of that window of time,” says community and school garden coordinator Mindy Hanak, who works for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UFIFAS). There are eight community gardens in Sarasota County, and the UFIFAS extension oversees all but the Orange Blossom garden. Each volunteer gardener pays a $25 annual fee for a plot. “These gardens are very much volunteer-driven,” Hanak says. UFIFAS hosts workshops on agriculture for novice gardeners.
Unlike in most other U.S. communities, Sarasota County’s community gardens are located on public parkland. UFIFAS acts as a liaison for organizers to find a location. Hanak says the Sarasota system runs with support from residents and local government that is rare to find. “There’s a recognition [by Sarasota County] that this is important for people,” she says.
For residents interested in starting a community garden, Hanak recommends first checking to see if one nearby already exists. If residents establish a need, UFIFAS provides a checklist for residents looking to form one.
A proposed garden should be a quarter-acre and be able to sustain a minimum of 15 plots. Organizers need to raise an estimated $10,000 to cover the cost of tools, fencing and access to water. UFIFAS will help with finding grants, and neighborhood associations may also contribute. If a well is needed, the price tag can quickly increase. At least 20 residents must commit to use the space from the get-go.
You don’t need experience to get involved. “There are people who move to Florida, try a tomato plant and, if it doesn’t work out, they might never grow again,” Hanak says. But at community gardens, planting seeds side-by-side with other gardeners is a way to learn gardening skills while socializing and getting out in the fresh air. “Community gardens are just a nice thing to have,” she says.
It’s hot and steamy. Here’s what to plant.
Sweet potatoes A great source of vitamin A and C, this root vegetable can stand the heat, and you can plant them through the end of June. The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences recommends planting Centennial and Beauregard varieties; for small gardens, plant Vardaman. Sweet potatoes take three to four months before you can harvest them, but the young leaves of the plant make tasty greens throughout the summer.
Southern peas (also called black-eyed peas, cowpeas and field peas) A favorite in Southern dishes, these legumes need warm soil and full sun. They love the heat and thrive even during droughts. Harvesting begins about 75 days after planting. They’re also a good summer cover crop.
Okra A member of the hibiscus family, this vegetable—another Southern cuisine staple—should be planted in late summer. Okra is easy to grow and must be harvested when the pods are two to three inches long, about two months after planting. It’s such a pretty plant that it brightens up the garden.
Eggplant Another heat-loving vegetable, the colorful eggplant also loves full sun. Make sure to put a stake near the plant since it can grow up to six feet tall. You can begin harvesting about three months after planting. IFAS recommends planting the varieties Black Beauty, Dusky, Long, Ichiban and Cloud Nine.
Cover crops If you don’t want to plant edibles, keep your soil healthy and weeds and pests at bay by planting the cover crops of sun hemp and Southern peas.
For more information, go to UFIFAS’s Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/vh021. For classes and workshops, go to ufsarasotaext.eventbrite.com.
Community Gardens in Sarasota County
Bayou Oaks Community Garden
3530 Old Bradenton Road, Sarasota
Total plots: 18
Year founded: 1997
Bee Ridge Community Garden
4430 S. Lockwood Ridge Road, Sarasota
Total plots: 31
Year founded: 2013
Culverhouse Community Garden
7301 McIntosh Road, Sarasota
Total plots: 69
Year founded: 2012
Englewood Community Garden
1390 Old Englewood Road, Englewood
Total plots: 18
Year founded: 2012
Laurel Community Garden
509 Collins Road, Sarasota
Total plots: 24
Year founded: 2000
Nokomis Community Garden
234 Nippino Trail, Nokomis
Total plots: 26
Year founded: 2001
North Port Community Garden
12255 Durango Ave., North Port
Total plots: 40
Year founded: 2011
Orange Blossom Community Garden
1822 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota
Total plots: 65
Year founded: 2008
Interested individuals can contact UFIFAS at (941) 861-9900 or email@example.com.