Crop Circles

By staff April 1, 2003

On a crisp autumn morning in Sarasota, in a two-acre garden off Central Avenue, bright green heads of cabbage burst from loamy soil like flowers emerging from a magician's black sleeve. Nearby, pea tendrils race up a clothesline to escape the fiery peppers below, and ripening tomatoes seductively model beads of morning dew.

Across Sixth Street, construction crews hammer away on the old buildings, paying little heed to the neat rows of vegetables or the scarecrow standing sentinel at the garden's south end. It's a busy time in Sarasota's Rosemary District. New tenants are moving in; older ones are remodeling.

From her house five or six blocks away, Barbara Powell Harris pedals up on a weathered red Raleigh bicycle. On the handlebars, a wire basket holds her gardening gloves and plastic bags that will carry the day's vegetable harvest.

"If life were fair," says Harris, "I would only garden, ride my bike and fish." Since it's not, she works as a sales associate at Burdines and toils in the garden with her best friend, Gail Harvey, in her free time.

Harris is one of the founders of Sarasota's oldest community garden, dating back to 1996. And she loves talking about the garden and her harvest. She notes that arugula, for example, is delicious with roast beef, and that grilled apple slices brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with feta are wonderful over fresh Bibb lettuce.

"Gardeners are notorious for sharing seeds, recipes and help," says Marti Ross Bjornson of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), an organization that supports community gardens throughout the U.S. and Canada. In fact, she notes, "It's not so much how many pounds of produce are grown or how beautiful the flowers are. The garden is a by-product of the community it builds."

Community gardens, which were common in Colonial days and enjoyed a resurgence during the "Victory Garden" movement in World War I and II, are popular again. According to the ACGA's Community Garden Survey, more than 4,000 neighborhood gardens dotted the urban landscape just six years ago. "Today, 10,000 would be an understatement," Bjornson says. "As we become increasingly urbanized, we need these places of respite."

Michael Holsinger, director of Sarasota County's cooperative extension service and a passionate gardener since the age of five, when he helped tend his father's Victory Garden during World War II, oversees Sarasota's four community gardens. In all, they have nearly 100 plots. The Laurel and Nokomis gardens are in county parks. The Rosemary District garden and one on Old Bradenton Road are on city-owned property. All are in urban, lower-income parts of town, and most have a waiting list. The exceptions are two plots in the Laurel garden designed for wheelchair access. "We actually have trouble keeping those filled," says Holsinger.

Every plot owner gets a key, since all the gardens are protected by tall fences. If you neglect your plot, or if you're caught stealing from someone else's, you're evicted, but Holsinger says, "Believe it or not, there's very little stealing," and only rarely do vandals jump the fence. Smoking, alcohol and synthetic pesticides are forbidden; soaps or oils are used to discourage pests.

Pauline Grant stops by her plot on Old Bradenton Road on her way to work almost every day. In only four months, she and her husband, Bill, have produced a plot that resembles a photo spread from Garden Magazine. "I had no idea it was going to be this big," exclaims Grant. "We were eating off it after only a month!" Much of it they give away, she says, as she pulls up a collard green the size of a small child.

"The quality of what we have here is far superior to what you buy in the store," says Harris. "It stays fresher longer and is much less expensive."

Besides a garden plot, Sarasota community gardens provide basic tools, educational materials, soil testing, and compost. Soon an "heirloom" section will be added to the Rosemary garden for vegetables like Harris' onions, propagated from plants that have been in her family for 40 years.

Holsinger agrees that the gardens strengthen the surrounding community. For example, he now takes all his dry cleaning to a small place on Central Avenue that he never knew existed before he started that garden. And they improve the neighborhood landscape. "Even though you're only responsible for the upkeep of your plot, people can't resist the urge to keep other areas up as well," says Grant. She and her husband spent an entire day yanking weeds from a small pond and two wooden benches that sit beside their plot.

Holsinger, who tends plots in both the Rosemary and Bradenton gardens as well as one at home, retires from the County Extension in January, but is so passionate about the program that he's volunteered to run it after he leaves. "We're all friends, we help each other out," he says. Friends at the community garden kept his plots going while he recuperated from an injury.

Bjornson notes that community gardens often become victims of their own success. As the neighborhood improves, land becomes scarcer and more valuable, and using a parcel to raise vegetables isn't economically viable anymore.

The Rosemary District is an enterprise zone, which means it's dedicated to economic development. "If that development continues to evolve along Sixth Street, inevitably, the business people will want this space for parking," says Holsinger. He says the Laurel and Nokomis gardens are safer because they're on park land. Holsinger is negotiating with the county to relocate the plots if necessary. "There seems to be a general enthusiasm and support to sustain them," he says.

Harris would hate to see six years of composted soil buried beneath a slab of asphalt, but when the time comes, she says, tools and equipment can be moved to another plot, and she and the other gardeners will follow.

But for now, she plans for summer. On a brisk Sunday afternoon when many were huddled around television sets, Harris and a friend crawled through the rich soil, weeding, moving plants around and making room for a new crop of cabbage, peas, carrots and radishes. As usual, they stayed until the sun set behind them and the light was gone.

Each community garden in Sarasota is a functioning oasis of beauty and tranquility. If you never seen one in action, it's worth a visit.

Community Garden One

1444 Sixth St. (at Central Avenue)

Community Garden Two

Old Bradenton Road and 35th Street

Community Garden Three

509 Collins Road (Laurel Park)

Handicapped plots available

Community Garden Four

234 Nippino Trail East (Nokomis Community Park)

If you want to join a community garden, or need information on how to start a neighborhood plot, call Michael Holsinger at the Sarasota County Cooperative Extension Service at (941) 861-9800. "We don't have to manage it," says Holsinger, "but we're happy to give guidance and advise people."

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