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

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Just north of the University of South Florida campus in Tampa is an urban oasis: Harvest Hope Park. The 7-acre park is a haven for residents with a playground, athletic fields, fitness stations, a hiking trail, a 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 property with absolutely no positive activity going on, and we decided to plant a community garden of all things,” says Sarah Combs, executive director/CEO of University Area Community Development Corporation. “And surprisingly, we’ve received a lot of resistance from outside parties because that’s where they thought [were] much better things to do with this land than plant a community garden.”

Sarah’s team surveyed community members, and the consensus was that residents wanted a safe space for children to play and socialize. For Sarah—a farmer’s daughter from Colorado—a community garden was the perfect place to start.

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Today, the organic garden is teeming with fruit, vegetables and flowers, which residents can take home free of charge. There is also a teaching kitchen where parishioners learn to prepare 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 groceries, not understanding that the only form of “payment” required was to contact the garden organizers.

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

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

“This has definitely improved the entire mentality of the ecosystem,” says Derek, who was inspired to focus on a more plant-based diet.

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

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

Tips for starting a community garden:

  • Start small. Start with a garden bed or two, which will give you something to show off to potential funders. “They want to support something they can see,” says Sarah. “Don’t think about it.” When the Harvest Hope Community Garden was in its infancy, Sarah John D. Couris, President and CEO of Tampa General Hospital, invited them to come and see it. TGH committed to sponsoring the garden for 10 years.
  • Get professional advice. Sarah grew up as a farmer’s daughter in Colorado, but the climate in Florida is different. The first thing Sarah did when planting the garden was to call David Whitwam of Whitwam Organics, which specializes in gardening in Florida.
  • 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 commit to helping at specific times. “You can’t do this work alone,” says Sarah.
  • Strive for a sense of community. Harvest Hope Community Garden does not have individual plots because they want the garden to belong to everyone. It’s important to get residents involved, so they know the garden is for them and not something to be done to them.
  • Keep it sustainable. With funders and community volunteers, the future of the garden will not depend on a single person.
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