Alachua County Commissioner Mary Alford grew up gardening. As a sixth-generation Floridian, she knows the advantages of having her own locally grown, fresh food: it tastes better, it’s sustainable, it reduces her stress and it brings communities together.
Now, she’s working with organizations to bring her gardening tips to all of her constituents.
The Alachua County Commission announced its Plant of the Month Program Sept. 1 in a county newsletter. It aims to bring community members together and encourage county residents to grow their own food for their benefit. Alford partnered with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Working Food, a local nonprofit, to plan her idea.
Alford’s community-based plant project idea comes from her childhood experiences with her family’s home garden in Gainesville. Every fall she would make and freeze creamed corn with her family — her dad’s specialty.
“It’s just part of my heritage,” she said. “It’s about maintaining a heritage of resiliency and self-reliance.”
When her brother was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer when the COVID-19 pandemic began, she became his caretaker and revisited her family’s tradition for gardening.
Planting blueberry bushes, tomatoes, onions and other plants was a stress-relieving activity that got them both outside, she said. The fresh food also would have meant fewer trips to the grocery store during the pandemic.
Although he didn’t live to see their garden flourish, Alford wants to share her love of farming with Alachua County.
“I want us all to be healthier,” she said. “I want us all to be able to manage our stress and I want our county to be resilient in the face of any future emergency.”
Planting brings people together during tough times, Alford said.
“The one thing that isn’t political is a tomato plant,” she said. “We can all lean over the fence with the neighbor that we don’t agree with almost anything else on and ask, ‘Gosh, how did he grow those spectacular tomatoes?’”
Not everything in Alford’s garden grew, so she started to research which plants would grow well in Florida during different seasons. She used UF/IFAS research as a guide to help choose which plants to feature monthly.
The program also features culturally significant plants, where September’s plant of collard greens is tied to Southern heritage and April’s plant of tomatillos is important to Hispanic cultures, Alford said.
IFAS is also helping promote the project through community education programs, creating a website and putting out monthly announcements, IFAS Extension Director for Alachua County Cynthia Sanders said.
The department wants to be a one-stop resource for helping people learn how to garden. It plans on changing up the monthly plants for the program next year, Sanders said.
“I think the whole initiative of growing your own food and buying locally, it’s been huge especially with COVID going on,” Sanders said. “That fits perfectly into our mission, which is to provide research-based information out to our citizens of the county.”
Working Food, the county’s nonprofit partner, sells seeds on its website. The organization sells seeds that grow well in the county, Working Food’s co-founder and Community Programs Director Melissa DeSa said.
DeSa said the nonprofit works to teach people how to save their own seeds and how to garden through workshops and social media. It also helps facilitate seed exchange programs called seed libraries, where people can get free seeds through the Alachua County Library District.
“We want people to succeed and have fun growing gardens, and not be struggling with growing the wrong things at the wrong time or just the wrong things period,” she said.
Alford said she hopes that partnering with other organizations will expand the reach of the project. She would love to see other organizations, like churches or schools, participate by planting their own gardens, too.
“There’s just so many options for how this can grow and expand,” Alford said. “We’re at the very beginning and this is not to make a joke, but I see organic growth in this.”
Contact Meghan at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @meggmcglone.
Meghan McGlone is a UF junior majoring in journalism and English, and this year she’s the City and County Commission reporter. In past years, she’s served as the University Editor, the Student Government reporter, and other positions. Her favorite past time is eating gummy worms and reading a good book.