SEBRING — At the moment, it doesn’t look like much more than a fenced-in pasture at the end of a dirt road, with a few oak trees scattered about.
But by next fall, the almost two-acre field behind the Bert J. Harris Jr. Agricultural Center, 4509 George Blvd., should be blossoming with an array of vegetables, fruits and herbs grown and cultivated by Highlands County residents.
A new community garden enterprise called “Growing in the Heartland Community Garden” has begun on the lot for whoever wants to get down and dirty, grow their own crops, and have a place to commune.
Under the direction of the Highlands County Soil and Water Conservation District, at the site, a total of 37 25- by 12-foot plots will be available to those who want to tend them. There, any resident of Highlands County can sign up for a plot once he or she has signed a “Participation Agreement.” Each plot can be used for vegetables, flowers, herbs or ornamentals with the planting, tending and harvesting done by each individual participant.
Wednesday morning from about 7 a.m. to noon, 10 to 12 volunteers and county workers spent time getting the area ready for planting for the fall season beginning in September. Among them were Master Gardeners with the Highlands County Extension Office, the Extension Office director, employees with the Highlands County Soil and Water Conservation District and individual volunteers.
Heading up the effort has been Susie Bishop, executive director with the soil and water district. As she paused from pulling weeds from along a wire fence, she said the day was being devoted to cleaning up the area and delineating where an irrigation-sprinkler system would eventually be installed.
Around the garden area, Bishop said a wash stand and picnic area would be built so those involved could clean the fruits of their labors. Along with the shared picnic area and wash stand, she said there would be a shared facility for storing some basic hand tools and equipment provided by the community garden for gardeners to use.
Bishop, who has been executive director for two years, added the community garden is aimed to give residents who live in mobile homes or RV parks, community organizations and grandparents with grandchildren a place to do some semi-urban farming. She said she had seen similar community gardens in Orlando, Panama City and Gainesville.
“I had seen these (gardens) in other cities and I thought it would be a benefit to the citizens of Highlands County to grow their own vegetables,” Bishop said. “It’s rewarding to be able to grow your own produce, to eat healthy and get exercise by being outdoors instead of being in front of the TV.”
For a spot in the community garden where beans, potatoes, herbs, tomatoes, eggplant and other crops could be grown, it will cost $10 for six months, giving winter visitors the chance to be active in the garden during their winter stay in the area. Bishop said she has often heard retired farmers speak of missing their farming activities in their home states and hoped the garden would fill the farming-gardening void.
To get the community garden budding, Bishop applied for and was awarded a $1,100 grant from the Heart of Florida – Florida Division of the American Planning Association for start up costs. She also received support from the Conservation District Board of Supervisors, the Highlands County county commissioners, the City of Sebring and various businesses and individuals that donated labor, materials and supplies.
Les Baucum, Highlands County extension service director, said there is an intrinsic value in planting, tending to and harvesting one’s own crops. He said their is a certain satisfaction of watching efforts come to fruition.
“This gives everyone the opportunity to get their hands dirty in the soil. Successful gardening is something you accomplish with your own hands. Plus, you have the reward of fresh food or beautiful plants and flowers,” Baucum said.
And that’s just what Patty Handley wants to reap from her efforts. At the community garden Wednesday, she volunteered about two hours weeding, raking and picking up debris. She called working in the garden “good, fun labor.”
“I enjoy gardening as a hobby; it’s therapy,” said Handley, who lives in Sebring with her husband, Ron. “I’m thinking about getting a plot. I have grandkids and thought it would be fun to come out and help. They could learn a lot out here.”
Avon Park has a similar community garden started in September 2012 by the Highlands County Extension Office. The program helps residents navigate through the basics of planting vegetables and herbs in what the housing authority calls its “self-sufficiency garden.”
For information on the Growing in the Heartland Community Garden, call 863-402-7020 or email email@example.com.