A once-thriving community garden in the Greenbrook Adventure Park of Lakewood Ranch is about to make a comeback.
When important volunteers stepped away, the garden became overrun with weeds, and problems were further compounded by the pandemic. However, local leaders are hoping vegetables and flowers will once again replace the weeds.
Mike Griffin, the board chair for Community Development District 4, which oversees Greenbrook, said he has received calls from residents about the state of the garden, which is adjacent to the Lakewood Ranch Dog Park. He said interest is growing.
“I think it's a great program, a great idea, and there is a lot of interest in it,” Griffin said.
The garden, which opened with some seed money from the CDD in 2016, had built to a point in 2018 where almost every square foot hosted some kind of vegetable growth. CDD board member Joe Sidiski was the organizer when the garden opened with 24 beds available.
In 2018, Sidiski suggested improvements to the garden, such as doubling the size of the 70-by-70-foot space, and building a new shed, a compost pile and an arbor. At the time, the Lakewood Ranch Garden Club was overseeing the garden and had a waiting list of four people who wanted plots. Lori Walker was president of the club at the time.
The club had one section in the garden that was dedicated to growing vegetables and donating them to the Stillpoint House of Prayer food bank.
But Lakewood Ranch Community Activities Executive Director Keith Pandeloglou said interest declined in the garden.
Lakewood Ranch Community Activities began working with the CDD early on to help maintain the garden. But Pandeloglou said the garden was dealt a blow in 2020 when Walker stepped down and her presence was missed. He said those using the garden simply concentrated on their own plots, and the community aspect had been lost.
As the CDD oversees the rebirth of the garden, questions remain about what the rules for its use should be and who will hold responsibility over what features.
“Everybody's going to have his or her own slice of heaven, but who's going to manage that?” Griffin said.
Pandeloglou said he could envision a new community group being formed under Lakewood Ranch Community Activities to monitor the garden. It most likely would be called the Community Garden Club.
Membership in the club will not be required to rent a plot in the garden. However, he said that having a club would ensure that a group of individuals most passionate about the garden would be responsible for its maintenance.
One result of a dedicated management, Pandeloglou said, is a mechanism for dealing with abandoned garden plots. He said some users might try gardening but fail and then never return to their plots. Events like quarterly cleanup days could be held by the club.
However, a major responsibility of the club would also be the purchase and installation of the boxes, the wooden segments in which the plants are placed that have functions including blocking the spread of weeds. Responsibility previously fell to the individual plot owners.
In the past, Pandeloglou said, there were no consistent construction standards; different types of wood was being used. One of the proposals of Community Activities is to have the boxes rebuilt in phases so they meet standards.
He added that a goal would be for those who use the plots to provide a small donation to ensure future funding for the boxes, which are expected to last four to six years.
Pandeloglou compared the boxes to condominiums, saying, “In a condo, you're responsible for the contents, but the association's responsible for your walls.”
Some current boxes, due to inadequate construction, have become weathered and no longer create sufficient barriers to weeds. One reason has been storms, which have tended to flood Greenbrook Adventure Park due to an intentional function of its design to direct water away from homes.
Pandeloglou is working with Community Gardens Program Assistant Mack Lessig at the University of Florida Extension Office to evaluate options for the garden, including those for the boxes. He said Lessig was highly knowledgeable about everything required to create a garden such as this, including what types of wood are most effective.
Lessig said one possibility for dealing with weeds would be to raise the boxes higher off the ground, and irrigation would be spread to each box through a micro irrigation line.
Pandeloglou said another benefit of the club managing the garden would be a collective ownership of the grassy paths. The paths require weed maintenance in addition to a weed barrier because weeds can still occur even with a barrier is present. Previously, there was not a plan for how to maintain these areas.
Pandeloglou said the group would have autonomy to decide how the garden is run. This, he said, means it would be possible for a tool shed and picnic table from the original plans to be added, if the group decided this was necessary.
“We want the group to have some ownership over it,” he said. “We just want to put infrastructure in place to help get them to that point where they can make those decisions.”
Pandeloglou said there would be no significant restrictions on the types of plants.
“If you plant within your walls, you should be OK,” he said, noting some larger plants might require supports.
Griffin described the options as “flowers or vegetables or whatever you want.”
The garden handbook is being updated to reflect changes. The manual is currently under review by Steve Zielinski, the Inter-District Authority's chief financial officer and chief operating officer.
Griffin said he did not find the original version of the handbook as specific as it should have been. He said the new version needed to clearly define how responsibilities were divided between the garden club and the maintenance team at the Inter-District Authority.
“We all felt that if we were going to invest in bringing the garden back, that we needed to know who was going to be responsible for what, and we needed to put it in writing so that everybody would have a very clear picture of whose job it is to clean up afterwards or what happens if a plant goes fallow," he said.
During a July 20 board meeting of CDD4, Zielinski said the board could assign an individual responsible for handling disputes between users.
Pandeloglou said the timeline for opening the garden is difficult to estimate based on staffing and funding but expects completion no earlier than January 2023. All plans pend approval by the CDD4 board.
However, those hoping to get a head start on gardening knowledge will find an opportunity in the near future. Pandeloglou said a Lakewood Ranch Community Activities guide being released in the first week of September will feature two class sessions taught by Lessig, likely held in October and November.
“We are appreciative of the CDD4 board empowering us to help take the lead in creating this group,” Pandeloglou said. “We are appreciative for the partnership we have with Town Hall staff and leadership and that they are so open to keeping this amenity. In some ways, it would be a lot easier to not have one. But we know that this is a great amenity and a great community, and we want to make sure we do what we can to keep it active and thriving.”