Plant City Communiy Garden: Co-founder Karen Elizabeth sitting on the side of a garden bed filled with collards

Farm to Spork: Meet Karen Elizabeth (Plant City Commons Community Gardens)

Karen Elizabeth, Co-founder of the Plant City Commons Community Gardens

Carrots, flowers and collards, oh my! These are some of the things you will find while wandering around the Plant City Commons Community Gardens complex. If you live in the greater Plant City area, I highly recommend visiting and becoming a member of this amazing community garden. Why is that? Well, in this Farm to Spork feature, I interview Karen Elizabeth, co-founder of the garden. In this segment, we get to learn more about one of Plant City’s best kept secrets.

[The Funky Spork]: Tell us about yourself, and your background.

[Karen Elizabeth]:  I’m originally from Ohio and moved to Florida in 1985. Prior to that, and before I had children, I did some gardening with my Grandparents. Gardening was something that ran in my family. Gardening led me to an interest in health and nutrition at that time. I put all that on hold when I moved to Florida, and did the whole ‘corporate life’!

Eventually, I came back full-circle, when I retired. I studied and became a Certified Holistic Health Coach and also helped found this community garden in 2012. The garden originally began in the Historic district of Plant City, where we leased some space from St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.  We moved to the space here at Hillsborough Community College in 2015, which was essentially a space that was…awaiting our arrival!

Plant City Community Gardens: A garden bed filled with a beautiful harvest of collards and other local greens grown by the community garden members.
A garden bed filled with a beautiful harvest of collards and other local greens grown by the community garden members.

[The Funky Spork]: What exactly is a community garden?

[Karen Elizabeth]: Typically community gardens are groups of people who come together and find a space to grow food, who support and share knowledge and resources and advocate for health. Each individual or family grows their own vegetables that they love the most during each season. Any sharing would be done individually.  

The Plant City Commons Community Gardens is a part of the Coalition of Community Gardens. Currently, in Tampa Bay, there are 34 gardens established (within the coalition). As word gets out, people understand that they can have a space where they can join friends and knowledgeable people if they need help growing things and bring their families. They can grow the foods they love to eat and supplement their meals with seasonal food varieties. 

[The Funky Spork]: How long has the Plant City Commons Community Gardens been in existence, and what was its historic evolution?

[Karen Elizabeth]: To me it was at some point prior to 2012, after visiting several community gardens; I felt that there was a need for Plant City to have its own. I wanted to have a space for the community to come together to share and grow their own food. As it turned out, I ended up being acquainted with three other folks who happened to have the same intention.

Eventually, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church reached out to us and offered space for the garden.  When our lease was up, they [the Episcopal church] needed their space back. Later in 2015, our current space came together with the help of Hillsborough Community College, their President, Dr. Martyn Clay – an incredible and very amazing space, a place everyone needs to visit.

Plant City Community Garden: Strawberry popcorn growing from a blue pot
Strawberry popcorn growing from a blue pot

[The Funky Spork]: If you were to describe this garden campus to someone who has never visited before, what would you say?

[Karen Elizabeth]: It’s going to be more than you’d expect.  There’s a whole botanical area with some beautiful pathways, and a gazebo to rest in or contemplate life. There are examples of Florida-friendly trees and other native plants. Additionally, we have a greenhouse facility here. We have a space with our community garden beds, and another space that we grow food to share with the community, like the United Food Bank of Plant City, as well as with groups that prepare meals for the hungry.

We also have a bat house and some special wetlands, on-site. The bat house, while originally on-site before this garden, is one of the amenities here on the grounds. Bats eat a lot of insects, they love mosquitos, (and do not bite people!) and are also pollinators.

We have a wetland area located on the east side of the botanical gardens (near the succulent and meditation garden). The wetlands actually became a project of a member who mapped its 49 mile journey from Plant City all the way out to the Gulf of Mexico. With that being said, it matters what gets into our water systems.

We have a lot of programs and have developed several since we have been at this location. For example, we have a permaculture (earthworm) program, a food forest, aquaponics and hydoponics systems, pollinator garden, native bee habitat, and an heirloom seed library. We also host monthly workshops

Plant City Community Garden: Oriental eggplant growing from a vine
Oriental eggplant

[The Funky Spork]: What type of produce and other food varieties are growing at the garden?

[Karen Elizabeth]: Besides annual vegetables items that can grow within the Central Florida region we have added  bananas, lemon grass, and a couple varieties of apples and plums growing on-site. We also have golden Asian pears, mulberries, pomegranate, persimmon, loquats, sugar cane, cranberry hibiscus, pineapple, asparagus, peach, papaya, and cherries, and a variety culinary and medicinal herbs growing on-site. All plants and trees in the gardens are  for public viewing and information only.

 [The Funky Spork]: What’s your favorite thing that you have grown here?

[Karen Elizabeth]: I’m all over the place! Celery and French Sorrel have become favorite bites, and I love starting seedlings.

Plant City Community Garden: These are lettuce seedlings sprouting in special plugs that will be inserted into the aquaponics grow bed.
These are lettuce seedlings sprouting in special plugs that will be inserted into the aquaponics grow bed.

[The Funky Spork]: What are the benefits of becoming a member of this community garden?

[Karen Elizabeth]: Community garden membership is $35 per year. The membership includes a 6 by 12 foot garden bed, as well as a mix of soil created at the gardens, and irrigation! Some of the other benefits include having the freedom to grow some of your favorite seasonal vegetables, it adds to the quality of life through exercise, growing clean organic food, provides opportunities for social engagement & education, intergenerational interaction, and cross cultural connections, children learn where their food comes from. There’s something really special about being able to grow your own food and eat it right away. Membership also includes access to the Seed Library and discounts on workshops.

The Succulent Garden, located on the community garden campus
The Succulent Garden, located on the community garden campus

[The Funky Spork]: What are two-three words of wisdom you would offer to someone who is trying to eat more locally and sustainably?

[Karen Elizabeth]: First thing I would say is to find local food-particularly food that is local and fresh. You could take it to another level and find organic. Try to find folks who are growing organically, whether it is a farmer or someone else who may just have a couple of acres of produce growing. You can also eat more sustainably by visiting local farmer’s markets. In fact, in most of these market’s you will find folks who are offering fresh, seasonal produce. And fresh is key.

The Plant City Commons Community Gardens is located at 2001 E. Cherry Street, Plant City, FL, 33563, and is open seven days a week (free admission!).  To get in contact with Karen, you can reach her at 813-435-8111. To learn more, visit www.plantcitycommunitygarden.com

The Plant City Commons Community Gardens is located at 2001 E. Cherry Street, Plant City, FL, 33563, and is open seven days a week (free admission!).  To get in contact with Karen, you can reach her at 813-435-8111. To learn more, visit www.plantcitycommunitygarden.com You can also like them on Facebook, too!

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