If anyone in the world has good reason not to grow their own food, it would be Tanja and Jared Vidovic. She’s a full-time firefighter-paramedic with the city of Tampa, he’s a nurse at the VA Hospital and they’re the parents of two small daughters.
Beyond the time constraints of a busy life, neither had ever gardened before.
That didn’t hold them back when they moved into a home on the Hillsborough River. They ripped up lawn and planted a full-fledged vegetable garden. The next year, however, Tanja looked at the time involved in planting the garden and decided there had to be a better way. “Most vegetables are annuals that need to be replanted every year – perennials just need to be planted once and they’ll feed you for years.”
She started buying fruit trees and got 200 pineapple tops from Edible Arrangements right after Mother’s Day. They’re fruiting now – and well worth the wait. “When Tanja got them, I thought ’18 months is too long to wait,’ but the time flew by,” Jared said.
Her focus on food sustainability expanded earlier this year when she led a drive that resulted in volunteers planting donated fruit trees in three Tampa parks. “Florida is known for its fruit, and it helps connect people with their food when they can pick it from a tree.”
The Vidovics are generous with both their plants and their hard-earned knowledge. They’re often found at the Tampa Downtown Market giving away seeds, cuttings and plants during cooler months, and open their garden for tours. They also run the Tampa Gardening Swap page on Facebook, where plants and knowledge are freely exchanged.
Growing food is better than serving food
As director of Tampa Bay Harvest, Will Carey helped serve more than six million meals to hungry people across the region last year. For the future, though, he’s concentrating on demonstration plots and community gardens to help families grow their own food.
“We can pass out canned goods and doughnuts forever, but this is the answer,” he said, gesturing toward a one-acre plot across the street from Lowry Park Zoo. A project of the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger, the Sustainable Living Project yielded more than 3,000 pounds of food in its first 19 months.
With community support and volunteers, it’s grown from 10 raised beds less than two years ago to multiple beds, grow towers, new beds overflowing with peanuts, a chicken coop with 45 laying hens and an aquaponics set-up where water filtered from a pond that hosts 3,500 tilapia feeds a greenhouse packed with thriving vegetables. “We’re using as many grow systems as we can to produce the maximum amount of food and to see what works best here.”
Even in mid-summer, Carey is harvesting food for the Salvation Army, which owns the land where the garden is located. “We do a lot of experimenting with seeds from places like Vietnam and Cambodia where summers are a lot like ours,” he said. “We’re researching their use here – which means we make mistakes and try not to make them again.”
Along with the demonstration garden, Carey helped set up six community gardens across the region and is working on another 25 gardens in various stages of design and completion. Next up on the agenda – a demonstration garden with native edible plants and another aquaponics system, this one with catfish instead of tilapia.
And if he can grow food on an urban lot that once hosted a colony of homeless families, everyone can grow at least a little bit of their food, he adds. “It’s the difference between feeding someone and teaching them to fish – only we’re teaching them to grow their own food.”
Learn more at the Sustainable Living Project’s page on Facebook.
Archeologist learns from past, plants food forest for the future
As a professional archeologist, “Jungle Jay” Hardman sees clear parallels between ancient societies like the Mayas, Incas and Aztecs and today’s contentious world economy. He’s hopeful that building sustainability and food security into our neighborhoods will help smooth out the cyclical rise and fall seen in other cultures.
“I’m actually optimistic about the future,” he says. “The real threats are within our control. We can grow our own food and learn to pump water by hand.”
Like the Vidovics, Hardman is focused on perennial crops that are planted once and provide food for years rather than the more traditional vegetables like broccoli or tomatoes. “They feed more people with less work and less water,” he notes.
Now a Certified Permaculture Designer, Hardman uses methods from the past to provide food for the future, generously sharing his knowledge at the Beacon Community Garden and Food Forest, behind the Unitarian Universalists Octagon Arts Center on Nursery Road in Clearwater.
His food forest contains an amazing diversity from bananas, avocado and mango to pomegranate, roselle, Asian eggplant trees, Turkish figs and African yams that may grow to 150 pounds. He also works with newbies who want to plant vegetables in the community garden area. “Some of our best gardeners are only about 20 years old, but they’ll try anything,” he said. “If they fail, they learned something.”
He’s in the gardens most Tuesday and Sunday afternoons but check for updates on their Facebook page.
Urban Park aims to attract tourists
Urban agriculture will never compete with Disney for tourist dollars, but a group of farmers in St. Petersburg is developing the Urban Food Park as an attraction as well as an educational venue.
“People across the country are experiencing a nature deficit and they need to reconnect with their food source,” said Emmanuel Roux, a long-time Tampa Bay restaurateur and director of the planned park.
He’s working with the city to explore options for a 14-acre site that could accommodate an urban farm, edible botanical garden, interactive gardens for children, greenhouses for hydroponic, aquaponic and microgreen production, plus an organic vegetable nursery. A 30,000-square-foot building would include food production areas, butcher, bakery, a cutting-edge restaurant and an education area with a food museum and demonstration kitchen.
Roux “got his hands dirty” running Faith House Gardens, which combines permaculture, vegetables and chickens to help feed residents of the half-way house. He’s also working with a juvenile detention facility and several churches to help set up more local gardens.
“As far as Tampa Bay’s urban farmers have come, they still don’t grow as much food as their compatriots in places like Detroit or New York,” he says. “We’re trying to create an opportunity for professional farmers to stay here in the winter and share their knowledge. One of the things we lack is that focus on farming to pay a mortgage vs. gardening for tasty vegetables.”
Resources abound for newbie gardeners
Along with homeowners like the Vidovics, urban farming is growing in Tampa Bay – with options for people who want to grow their own food or just want fresh, local produce.
The granddaddy of urban agriculture here is Sweetwater Community Farm, established nearly 20 years ago on six acres in Town ‘N’ Country. It operates as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in which members buy shares in the farm and then receive part of the harvest. Open markets are held Sunday afternoons from noon to 4 p.m. during harvest season (generally November through May) and volunteers are always welcome on the farm. Visit www.sweetwater-organic.org.
ECOFarm, also started in the 1990s, is a community of gardeners who focus on growing organic, sustainable food. Fresh vegetables and plants are available at local fresh markets in Lakeland, Sweetwater and downtown Tampa. Jon and Debbie Butts also produce the Sustainable Living Show on WMNF radio. Learn more at ecofarmfl.org.
Sweetwater’s sister CSA in central Pinellas County, Gateway Organic Farm owners Pamela and Hank Sindlinger grew up on family farms in Ohio and started growing organic edibles on 3.5 acres in 2003. They won the 2012 Florida Innovative Farmer Award at the University of Florida’s Small Farm and Alternative Enterprise Conference. Visit www.gatewayorganicfarm.com.
In St. Petersburg, a new take on farming offers small-scale backyard farmers access to larger markets through www.stpete.locallygrown.net.
The collective volume of produce creates a convenient, one-stop-shopping variety for local residents and makes urban farming more viable on a small scale.
For families that would rather shop weekly, a complete listing of farmer’s markets is available at edibletampabay.com/farmers-markets.
If you want to grow your own food, check out the archives at Bay Soundings for tips from John Starnes who grows most of his food on a small South Tampa lot. Or visit Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful’s Florida Learning Garden at the state fairgrounds, an interactive educational experience featuring traditional garden beds, raised beds, aquaponics, hydroponics, over 75 types of trees and an interactive greenhouse. Learn more at keeptampabaybeautiful.org.
Other online resources for plants, seeds and knowledge include:
The University of Florida and Extension services in each county for detailed information as well as answers to specific questions from trained master gardeners — General information on Extension, and Specific information on vegetable gardening.