April Casey's dwarf banana trees are placed along the fence of McIntosh Community Garden. Casey runs the garden she started almost a year ago. (Aurora Martínez/WUFT News)

Community Gardens Grow In Purpose During Pandemic

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The satisfaction of growing your own vegetables is only surpassed by the satisfaction of making kale chips and getting your children to love it.

“Ah! I got you to eat something green and you don’t even know,” April Casey, who runs a community garden in McIntosh, said to her two sons, Logan, 2, and Damien, 4.

Casey started the community garden about a year ago, driven by her passion for gardening and desire to grow her own organic products such as squash, okra and bell peppers. Due to COVID-19, she has not received much help from the community, she said. However, her love for nature, willingness to share her harvest and a Facebook group she uses to exchange knowledge about gardening with members of the town have kept her going.

“Even if nobody’s there, people know about it,” Casey said. “They follow it on the page, and I get advice for what to do with it.”

Since March, protective measures against COVID-19, including lockdowns, have restrained many from having face-to-face interactions or participating in social activities. But gardening has been one way for members of the Gainesville community to connect with nature and interact with people of all ages and backgrounds — all while being outdoors, keeping distance and staying safe.

In Gainesville, people have access to at least 12 community gardens across the city.

(Aurora Martínez/WUFT News)

The City of Gainesville has been running a community gardens program for almost 25 years, said John Weber, park operations manager for the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. The program’s mission is to provide Gainesville residents with places to engage in a healthy outdoor activity that can also improve their nutrition and environment.

While the city oversees 11 gardens by providing the space and resources, such as water and fencing, all gardens are operated by community representatives.

Using the city gardens is completely free and open to the public. People interested in a plot would get in touch with the site coordinator of their preferred garden, fill out a participant agreement and obey the do’s and don’ts. Basic guidelines include using water wisely and the promotion of organic gardening: Pesticides or synthetic fertilizers are not allowed, Weber said.

When the pandemic hit, all city gardens were put on lockdown. About three months later, they were allowed to reopen following social distancing guidelines and wearing masks. Weber said all gardens follow the state and local COVID-19 guidelines.

The space community gardens provide is too small to serve as a sustainable food development option but not to bring the community together and serve as educational venues, Weber said.

“It’s a great activity for people of all ages and all backgrounds,” Weber said, “and it brings a lot of commonality from a lot of differences.”

Community members continue working their plots in the gardens for the social relationships they create, the opportunity to take their minds away from the everyday routine, and the satisfaction of bringing food to their tables — food that comes from their own work, said Brent Warner, McRorie Community Garden’s coordinator.

April Casey’s tomato seedlings rest on a table that allows them to receive ample sunlight. (Aurora Martínez/WUFT News)

People from all walks of life are welcome to come and use the community gardens, Warner said. Within the last four years, since he has been managing the garden, he has seen people of all ages, education levels and socioeconomic backgrounds come and share a common space.

“It’s kind of therapeutic for a lot of people,” Warner said.

Jane Whitehill, who has lived in Gainesville since the late 1970s and coordinates the Green Acres Park Community Garden, said plots are given on a first-come, first-served basis. Green Acres counts with about 14 plots about 12 feet by 15 feet each. About 30 people, including single individuals and families, make use of the garden.

Coordinators at each community garden keep a waitlist to make sure people interested in a plot get the chance to start gardening as soon as one becomes available.

People make working on their plots a hobby, a way to relax and an excuse to be outdoors. Families also look at them as an opportunity to teach their children gardening skills, Whitehill said.

Ginny Campbell, 67, is the plot coordinator for the UF Organic Gardens Cooperative. The space is UF’s property, but it is completely run by the Gainesville community, she said.

Unlike the community gardens run by the City of Gainesville, at the cooperative, people have to pay $15 for a six-month plot rental, plus a $35 initial deposit. All the money goes back into the garden to buy new tools, seeds and truckers to deliver manure, among other things, Campbell said.

People are also expected to participate in community chores at least for six hours throughout their six-month rental. Chores include composting, mowing, repairing tools and cleaning fences, among others.

The cooperative includes about 110 plots, all of which are taken at the moment, Campbell said. The plots are used by a couple hundred people, including families, groups of friends, undergraduate and graduate students — people of different ages, backgrounds and nationalities.

“It’s kind of like a little United Nations,” Campbell said. “There are people from all over the world, people of all different ages, people from different walks of life, that come together because they love gardening or they’re wanting to learn about it.”

At the gardens, people work collaboratively and share planting advice, seeds and vegetables. They also learn about gardening and practices used by different cultures. When it is time to harvest, they usually share the products of their labor among themselves, Campbell said.

During the spring, people harvest vegetables from the cabbage family, especially, including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, mustard, radish and peas, Campbell said.

“It’s wonderful that we can still be outside, Campbell said, “that we can be at a safe distance, and still talk to people.”

A date has not been set, but Weber said this spring, a new community garden will start at the Possum Creek Park.

About Aurora Martínez

Aurora is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by emailing news@wuft.org.

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