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Monday, October 02, 2023

Smaller community gardens call for local, dedicated volunteers

The garden at Highlands Presbyterian Community Church is green with potential, yet overgrown with expectation.

Smaller, lesser-known community gardens like that of Highlands lack dedicated coordination with other organizations, leaving them thirsty for volunteers.

Beth Hartwell, coordinator of the church’s gardens, is the only person in charge of the congregation’s lonely plot.

“It’s been a little bit discouraging,” said Hartwell, who works part time. “I’m pretty much the only one out here doing anything.”

With the Union Street Farmers Market at Bo Diddley Community Plaza and the expanding appeal of organic, vegetarian and vegan-based restaurants, Gainesville is a hub for people with a positive attitude toward sustainability and community food sharing. 

The sweet potatoes, rosemary and cabbage currently growing in the Highlands garden have been cultivated and maintained by the hands of Hartwell and church members. 

The garden needs volunteers who can help with upkeep, she said, and students are ideal candidates for participation. 

“You’re so connected with the natural world. … It’s just calming,” Hartwell said.

A percentage of the Highlands garden’s produce goes to charities like St. Francis House and other city food banks.

“There’s a sense of doing something positive — taking and caring for the Earth and caring for the community,” Hartwell said.

Larger local organizations like Florida Certified Organic Growers and Consumers Inc. have a paid staff with the means to coordinate and organize with UF for volunteers.

Travis Mitchell, the organization’s food project coordinator, said they also have student interns and host service projects for student clubs.

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“I think the desire is there from the students, certainly from UF. Creating the sort of infrastructure and connection points, that’s what’s missing,” Mitchell said. 

UF chemical engineering senior Levi Davidson is a supporter of local grocery stores like Ward’s Supermarket and the downtown farmers market.

“I think we kind of disassociate from how food is processed and delivered to stores,” Davidson, 22, said. “Maybe we should know good growing practices like what’s more ethical and what’s not chemically altered.”

The Highlands community is hosting a garden workday Nov. 8 in connection with Forage, Gainesville Gardening and Homesteading Parties and Grow Gainesville.

“We have water, we have tools, we have the Earth, and we’d be glad to let people work with it,” Hartwell said.

[A version of this story ran on page 9 on 10/10/2014]

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