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Because it’s strange and beautiful and hot, people from everywhere converge on Florida and they bring their cuisine and their traditions with them. The Zest celebrates the intersection of food and communities in the Sunshine State.

How to start a community garden: Lessons from University area CDC's Harvest Hope Community Garden

Three people gathered around a picnic table

Sarah Combs and Derek Laracuente share how the garden has transformed the neighborhood and offer advice for starting a community garden in your area.

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Just north of the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus is an urban oasis: Harvest Hope Park. The 7-acre park is a sanctuary for residents, with a playground, sports fields, fitness stations, walking trail, tilapia fishing pond and more. It all started eight years ago with the park’s first feature: Harvest Hope Community Garden.

“It was a 7-acre plot of land that had really no positive activity happening on it, and we determined that we wanted to plant a community garden of all things,” says Sarah Combs, executive director/CEO of the University Area Community Development Corporation. “And surprisingly, we got a lot of pushback from outside parties, because they thought there [were] a lot better things to do with this land than to plant a community garden.”

Sarah’s team surveyed community members, and the consensus was that residents wanted a safe place where kids could play and residents could socialize. So for Sarah—a farmer’s daughter from Colorado—a community garden was the perfect starting point.

Today, the organic garden teems with fruits, vegetables and flowers that are free for residents to take home. There’s also a teaching kitchen where community members learn to cook up the garden bounty.

Still, there were challenges along the way. At first, residents didn’t understand that the food was free. Some even broke through the garden fence to steal food, not understanding that the only form of “payment” required was to engage with the garden organizers.

“Residents didn’t understand what was happening,” Sarah recalls. “They didn’t understand that this was for them, so it took about a year to get them truly engaged.”

One of the most engaged residents is Derek Laracuente, a local resident who volunteers in the garden every Friday.

“This definitely improved the whole mentality of the ecosystem,” says Derek, who has been inspired to lean into a more plant-based diet.

The garden reflects the residents who care for it. In addition to strawberries, mangoes and cucumbers, you’ll find Jamaican sorrel, Korean melons and other plants that reflect the community members who tend to the garden.

Says Derek, “It’s a very diverse community, and you can even just see it in the garden.”

Tips for Starting a Community Garden:

  • Start small. Begin with one or two garden beds, which will give you something to show potential funders. “They want to support something that they can see,” Sarah says. “Don’t overthink it.” When Harvest Hope Community Garden was in its early stages, Sarah invited John D. Couris, president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital, to see it. TGH signed on to sponsor the garden for 10 years.
  • Seek expert advice. Sarah grew up as a farmer’s daughter in Colorado, but the Florida climate is different. When starting the garden, the first person Sarah called was David Whitwam of Whitwam Organics, which specializes in Florida gardening.
  • Learn from other communities. Visit other community gardens to learn best practices.
  • Recruit volunteers. Gardens require a lot of work. Find a core group of volunteers who will commit to helping at specific times. “You can’t do this work alone,” Sarah says.
  • Strive for a community feel. Harvest Hope Community Garden has no individual plots, because they want the garden to belong to everyone. It’s important to engage residents, so they know the garden is for them, rather than something that’s being done to them.
  • Keep it sustainable. With funders and community volunteers in place, the garden’s future won’t depend on any one person.

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