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Gainesville’s edible groves blossom as expansion plans sprout

Gainesville residents can pick fruit off of mulberry trees. (Liana Handler/ WUFT News)

Around Gainesville, loquats hang between leaves in three publicly accessible groves.

Caterpillars crawl up the bark. Birds flutter between branches.

In 2021, the City of Gainesville planted a variety of trees to create an area for people to come and pick fruit–without strings attached.

The project has had mixed success. In 2022, the Florida League of Cities gave Gainesville the Florida Municipal Achievement Award. But while the plants blossomed, public knowledge of the projects was stunted.

Laura Bittner, a 37-year-old legal transcriber and reporter for Courthouse News Service, emailed Alachua County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler about whether Gainesville had a fruit tree project.

Laura Bittner discussed her experiences with community gardens and loquat trees around Gainesville (Liana Handler/WUFT News)

The answer was a resounding yes.

“I guess people don't think to look up the city website to look for that kind of information,” Bittner said. “Just seeing the quality of trees outside of the community garden and the way people in town reacted to those. I was like, ‘Why don't we have more of these?’”

Bittner said she had been interested in the groves after watching YouTube videos of Robin Greenfield, an environmental activist who came to Gainesville in June 2016. She also saw the reactions of people who picked loquats outside her community garden.

“Everyone was eating them so excitedly,” she said. “It was just really delightful to see that humans can share and enjoy together. They're from all walks of life that maybe wouldn't normally come into contact.”

The city has three separate areas designated for fruit trees: Smokey Bear Park, Fred Cone Park and Bountiful Boulevard (a designated area along Southwest 40th Boulevard).

In 2022, Alachua County approved a 0.5% sales tax which is then divided up between the nine municipalities and the county. The city expects that more than $90 million will be generated for projects through 2032 like buying land, building or fixing parks, preserving wildlife habitat and planting fruit trees, according to a press release.

The project is also supported by the city’s Tree Mitigation Fund, which receives money as trees are removed for construction projects.

The coding language around the Tree Mitigation Fund was changed in May to increase the variety of projects that can use this money beyond simply planting trees. Now, the city can use that fund to prune trees such as those in the edible gardens. It’s an important step as they grow larger and take up more space.

One of the benefits of the edible groves is that they come with no strings attached. A negative is that animals like the fruit too. Sam Schatz, Gainesville’s 27-year-old horticulturalist, said it was a race between the city’s residents and the wildlife.

Sam Schatz, Gainesville’s 27-year-old horticulturalist, works to maintain the three groves around Gainesville. (Liana Handler/ WUFT News)
Sam Schatz, Gainesville’s 27-year-old horticulturalist, works to maintain the three groves around Gainesville. (Liana Handler/ WUFT News)

“Bring a bag, fill them up with a bunch of mulberries or whatever you like,” he said. “Bring them home and bake a pie.”

Rossana Passaniti, Gainesville’s public information officer, said the city wanted to plant trees that were useful.

“Why not have trees that produce fruit and trees that produce nuts for neighbors to enjoy?” she asked. “I like to think that those that actually provide us with some substance are even more special.”

Passaniti said it was a part of the city’s efforts to help increase access to food.

“The city has been very has been devoted to helping out with food scarcity in our community. This is a very small way,” she said.

Schatz echoed her statement. “That's a tough one to tackle, so it's not like we're solving the problem,” he said. “But at least we're trying to do something for it.”

Community gardens are spread throughout the city, but the groves provide a more accessible approach.

“Whereas community gardens, while incredible, I love them very much,” Schatz said. “They're not as open to the public.”

Expansion plans, both large and small, are being considered. Schatz is in charge of planting and maintaining the groves. In Fred Cone Park, he said he wanted to plant blueberry shrubs and other understory plants to join the larger trees. In other words, he wants plants that don’t go too tall and provide a layer to help with soil quality.

Birds and other wildlife are the biggest competition to anyone who wants to eat this fruit, according to Sam Schatz. (Liana Handler/ WUFT News)
Birds and other wildlife are the biggest competition to anyone who wants to eat this fruit, according to Sam Schatz. (Liana Handler/ WUFT News)

On a larger scale, an additional edible grove is in the process of being planted near the multi-use trail next to Waldo Road Greenway. “That project slowed a little bit since the original launch of the of edible groves,” Passaniti said. “That's in the works for this year.”

While there isn’t a definite date planned so far, the completion of the project by the end of the year would increase the total number of groves to four.

When dealing with non-native plants, Schatz said he plans to limit planting them. “We probably won't be planting too many more loquats in the future because it's starting to sprout up in our natural areas,” he said. “So, we got to keep our eyes on that and always be keeping up with the research.”

As for the caterpillars that invaded Gainesville in early April and left cocoons everywhere? “Our native bugs and pollinators are actually really good for the fruit trees,” Schatz said.

Armed with organic horticultural oil, Schatz watches over his gardens, careful to keep pests away from the plants while trying not to introduce pesticides to the fruit.

“To be honest, I've been pretty lucky so far. I haven't had too much to deal with in the groves,” he said.

Liana is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing