If you drove down Virginia Street, you would never know it existed. Amidst the condo complexes, next to Dunedin’s Waste Management truck station and tucked behind the fire department, sits the Dunedin Community Garden. It began in November of 2009 when a group of residents, working with officials from the city of Dunedin, organized and leased a city park to renovate into a community garden; not your typical plant some flowers and leave it to the city to maintain kind of garden, but rather, one that is productive both socially and economically: one that grows both food and community. The residents wanted to build stronger connections in their neighborhood and working together has a way of doing that
Not only can community gardens enhance the quality of life by increasing access to fresh food, but they can also provide a space where people can create lasting bonds by uniting in a common cause. These bonds are often referred to as social capital. This phrase is used to describe the multiple benefits that manifest when people come together to serve – strengthening communities and empowering residents. The ties created through community gardens extend across multiple generations and ethnicities, making them even more valuable in today’s increasingly isolated world. Garden-based social networks translate to political involvement and other community engagement opportunities for people through the act of environmental stewardship. When people take an active role in cultivating the place in which their community resides, they have more stake in its well being. In the process, we learn about our planet and we learn about ourselves.
But it doesn’t come easy. Building community is a painstaking process that takes time, dedication and resources.
When the group first met two years ago, they had great positive energy and high expectations for what they could achieve. Little did they know how difficult organizations could be to start from the ground up. Interest in community gardens was growing in Pinellas County, largely due to the efforts of Andrea Hildebran and the non-profit organization, Green Florida. Residents of Dunedin began calling on city officials to inquire whether or not there were plans to allocate space or funds to the construction of a garden. In November of 2009, Sustainability Coordinator for the city of Dunedin, Valerie Brown, organized an initial meeting with a group of about twenty people that had previously contacted her about a garden. Most of the group did not know each other. There was no leader. There was no money behind them. They were essentially just a random group of individuals assembled together to kick around ideas.
In December 2009, Parks and Recreations Director, Vince Gizzi, working with other city officials, selected a property as a potential place for a garden: an under-utilized park on Virginia Street called, Eagle Scout Park. Local landscape designer, Jason Beck of Wilcox Nursery, drafted the garden’s future design plan. Dunedin resident and member of the Garden Club, Nancy Schmidt emerged as the group’s early leader, facilitating meetings and beginning the process of forming by-laws for the group. The group was divided into sub-committees based on their interests and the feeling of progress grew with each accomplishment.
Recognizing the need for additional volunteers, the group organized a meet and greet at the site and contacted local publications to help advertise. The group met with around thirty Dunedin residents and answered questions regarding the proposed mission and history of the site. Parks Superintendent, Art Finn put to rest some of the fears about the former sites usage by informing residents that the site was actually a city pool and recreation area for years until it was struck by lightning multiple times. After condemning the pool, the city filled the area with construction debris and topped it off with fill dirt and sod.
This outreach event attracted the attention of local residents, Gayl Scruton and Dave Wolters who joined the group and offered their skills to help the garden grow. Scruton, an interior designer and entrepreneur, took the helm of fundraising and marketing for the group. Wolters, a retired federal employee, contributed his knowledge of organizational structure and recommended that the group elect a board and begin the process of state incorporation. Subsequently, the DCGA elected its first board of directors with resident and schoolteacher Jim McGinity taking the helm as President.
By the end of 2010, the group had finalized its lease agreement with the city and incorporated with the state as the Dunedin Community Garden Association. In November of the same year, they organized their first fundraiser at a local restaurant, Jollimon’s Grill, which raised almost $600.00. The group now had enough funds to begin phase one of the proposed design. Working with the city, the DCGA scheduled dirt and mulch deliveries from the county’s free sources. They began to promote a group build day for February 2011. The goal was to gather volunteers for laying irrigation pipes and constructing raised beds. In effort to keep it local, they purchased wood from Viable Lumber Company, which locally harvests wood using sustainable methods. Engaging the youth, Gayl Scruton recruited the help of a local Boy Scout to construct a tool shed. The scout hoped to achieve his Eagle Scout designation by facilitating the construction of a shed with the help of his friends and family with materials donated by the local ACE Hardware store.
The next month, Gayl Scruton organized a garage sale and the group held another fundraiser at Jollimon’s Grille raising the total funds to over $3,000. With the increased funds to work with, the DCGA continued to expand the site. DCGA Treasurer, Dave Wolters finalized the application for federal non-profit status. By the end of the summer of 2011, the DCGA had become an official 501[c]3 non-profit organization with over thirty members and a continuously expanding garden, and they had raised enough funds to complete the design they drafted two years ago.
Many of our gardeners remember growing up with beautiful butterfly gardens and fresh tomatoes in the summer. We hope that Dunedin would one day have such a place that could be shared by all. This is the source of our motivation. But other volunteers hope to learn more about food production and living more sustainably. As food production has shifted to mechanized processes, people have been separated further away from the sources of their food. Today, less than 3% of people work in Agriculture (Fisk 2003). Older generations remember growing gardens and harvesting their own food, but young people have little opportunities to access this knowledge.
On top of that, many people relocating to the Dunedin area to retire have moved into condominiums and assisted living facilities that do not have access to land allowing them to grow their own plants and vegetables. We see in Pinellas County that the demand from younger generations to seek out agricultural knowledge is increasing, while older retirees are searching for spaces to cultivate plants.
Even though the demand for urban agriculture is increasing, forming a grassroots organization from the ground up presents many challenges for eager activists. The DCGA has faced many obstacles such as: funding, finding volunteers, organizing, coming to a consensus on initiatives, delegating tasks, and fostering new leadership.
The DCGA intends on creating a space that can be used to provide training and education while sponsoring and encouraging sharing and caring among the users of the Garden, leading to a stronger and more effective local community (DCGA By-Laws).
The DCGA believes that urban gardening can be a strong way to bring elders and youth together. As researchers like Anthropologist, Dr. Jay Sokolovsky note, an urban garden is an inclusionary landscape that encourages residents to assume a more active role in the well being of the neighborhood. This connection established between people and place creates what people have called: civic ecology. These elements compel people to take responsibility for their neighbors and the place where they reside. The result is healthier and happier citizens.