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Natural Awakenings Naples and Fort Myers

Gardeners Galore: Local Community Groups Are Sprouting Up

Feb 28, 2011 04:21PM ● By Linda Sechrist

People garden not only to make something grow, but to interact with nature; to share, to find sanctuary, to heal and to honor the Earth. Ask the seasoned and novice members of the Cassena Gardening Group why they are involved in a community garden project and they’ll offer additional explanations: to foster a sense of community, enjoy solitude, save money, get more nutrient-dense, fresh produce into their diet and know the source of their food.

The Cassena garden thrums with enthused activity as members share informal duties: Rows are planned; seeds are selected, ordered and planted; and the soil is tested, aerated and built up with mulch and compost. Members also share the tasks of fertilizing the soil with worm tea and a mixture of fish emulsion and seaweed; keeping it watered and weeded; and finally, harvesting the garden’s bounty. The 3,600-square-foot plot is located in Gerry Segal’s backyard, in North Naples.

Sharing the Work and the Bounty

In 2009, while musing over how he was going to take care of a big garden for yet another growing season, the Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) professor of entrepreneurship came up the idea of sharing his plot with others. “Gardening is a lot of work, and I don’t have the time it takes to do everything, so I thought it would be nice to share the responsibilities and the bounty,” recalls Segal, who is also a permaculture design consultant. He appealed to several gardening students who had participated in a hands-on class that he and Frank Oakes, owner of Food & Thought Organic Market & Restaurant, taught together in 2009 at Oakes’ organic farm, near Immokalee.

A core group of 10 began; all finished the growing season and one went off after harvest to start another garden group. “We are a group of people who are dedicated and committed to organically growing our own food and eating better,” says Segal. “Everyone of us has an assigned job and we are all the kind of people who can be counted on to show up without being reminded.”

Giving to the Garden and Getting Back

Bill Van Arsdale shows up on Saturdays to perform his task of spraying worm casting tea on rows of plants. Added to the soil, the castings carry a rich complement of soluble plant nutrients and growth-enhancing compounds to the root zone, and they harbor a storehouse of nutrients not easily lost to rain or irrigation. “This is ultimately about us connecting with our food source, growing without pesticides, and lowering our food carbon footprint by not eating food that has been transported for hundreds or thousands of miles. In some ways, it is a form of protest against big agribusiness and its harmful effects on our environment” says Van Arsdale.

Laura Farley’s path to the project was a circuitous one that began with her pediatrician, Dr. Brian Thornburg, who uses his backyard garden to educate the parents of his patients about the importance of fresh, nutritious foods for children. Two movies, Food Inc. and The Future of Food, led to Farley’s “Aha” moment, in turn prompting Internet research and a quest for fresh foods for his daughters Grace, 8, and Katie, 7.

Farley’s search could have ended at Naples Greenola, a local food co-op, but she didn’t stop there. Additional investigating led the CPA to a client whose husband is also a Cassena gardener. Responsible for categorizing and ordering seeds, Farley is the group’s treasurer and depends upon spreadsheets to determine what seeds are stored, when they should be planted and when the supply is depleted. Her children, who help with seed trays, planting and pulling weeds, love playing with wriggling worms they pull out of the bin.

Like Farley’s children, Lindsay Smith’s 5-year-old, Cooper, and 1-year-old, Cameron, hover around the worm bin while mom and 1-year-old Annie enjoy watering the garden and feeding the worms on Tuesdays. “Annie goes along and naps in my baby backpack,” says Smith, who also spends time on Sundays doing miscellaneous tasks.

Smith’s junior gardeners love Sunday harvest time. “My children like to eat the veggies they pick and have been more eager to try new things that they’ve helped to grow,” says Smith, who adds, “It’s fun listening to the kids tell the neighbors, ‘I grew this lettuce myself!’”

Reaping Spirit-Filled Harvests

Michele Manta, an English major at FGCU, discovered Cassena via the Natural Awakenings Meetup. Although she has an extensive container garden of her own to tend, she drives 10 minutes to water the community plot on Thursdays and multi-task on Sundays. “Gardening is a lost art that I find relaxing,” advises Manta, who enthuses about the money she saves by doing it herself.

Melissa Plotkin joins in on Sunday workdays to appreciate the sense of community. “I have a garden at my home, but there is something very special about growing, learning and sharing together,” notes Plotkin, who is the organizer of the Really Really Free Market, in Naples.

Janet Weisberg considers herself a novice gardener, even though she’s preparing for her third growing season. Living only minutes from Cassena, she frequently strolls over to offer up prayers, do Reiki on the plants and wiggle her toes in the soil. “When I’m there, I’m in a place of gratitude for the bountiful harvest to come and making a soulful connection to a conscious Earth,” notes Weisberg, who describes the garden as a place of color and lush beauty.

When the garden initially exploded with big, colorful vegetables and herbs, Weisberg recalls that no one wanted to pick anything. “We’d never seen produce that looked that luscious before,” she remarks. “When Gerry explained that we had to pick the fruits of our labors, or otherwise the plants would flower and we wouldn’t have anything to eat, we rose to the occasion.”

Planting Seeds for Future Growth

A champion of community gardens, Richard Van der Meer, the group’s handyman, built the worm bin, laid a concrete block path along the garden’s edge and built trellises for tomatoes. He has high hopes for creating another larger garden elsewhere. “We’re maxed out with 10 people, and I’d like to see a project closer to town, where we can have as many as 100 people involved,” he advises. “I feel that Naples is overdue for a citywide community garden, because of all the master-planned,  gated communities that won’t allow residents to plant even a small veggie and herb patch on a spot of common ground.”

Van der Meer’s vision is based on the multi-use Meadowbrook Park, in Urbana, Illinois. Near his hometown of Champaign, it has bike and walking trails, an amphitheatre and public garden plots for rent.

Nurturing a Sense of Community

The spirit of camaraderie shared in the Cassena Gardening Group is also felt by members of the community-oriented food cooperatives initiated in 2006 by Naples residents Beth and Brian Housewert. The couple, who created Green Village Organics, note that it now offers seven pickup locations that each foster a neighborhood vibe: Green Village Organics, in Golden Gate City; Veteran’s Memorial Elementary School, in North Naples; Naples Greenola, near Pine Ridge; Neighborhood Organics, in Central Naples; Miranda’s Art of Living, in downtown Naples; Montessori Academy, in Northeast Naples; and Island Organics, on Marco Island. Organic produce is purchased in bulk from Albert’s Organics and a handful of local organic farmers, and boxes are packed with three to five fruits and four to five vegetables.

“We are a group of community-minded people who believe that our kids should be connected to the food they eat,” says Beth. “We also believe that our preschoolers and toddlers should experience the joy of whole, natural food—not only because it’s more nutritious, but because it means that as parents, we spend less on doctor visits, antibiotics and over-the-counter medicine.”

Terry Kays is working on the Naples Park Community Garden project in Naples Park. With 30 4-by-12-foot plots available for a $25 membership fee, Kays is already planning for the 2012 growing season. Kays advises that four plots are already planted; he
is working on building up the soil for next year, and a general layout, worm bins and compost pile are in the planning stage.

Farther north, in Estero, 12 gardeners have been enjoying the fruits of their labors at the Happehatchee Community Garden. The large plot, with 30-foot-long rows, is managed by another of Segal and Oakes’ gardening students, Sam Periano, who lives in The Brooks. “The garden was prepared several years ago by Frank,” says Periano, who adds that a $100 donation to Happehatchee is the cost per row, and includes mulching and water from a drip irrigation system.

In East Naples, John Puig is renting plots at the Eden Florida’s Eimerman Education Center gardens, from late October through May, for $50, which includes garden tools, compost tea and the opportunity to purchase fertilizer at Puig’s cost. “I’ll be offering a six-week introduction to organic gardening, so people can learn our methods,” advises Puig, who also offers another alternative: a lecture series that features hands-on learning in the center’s garden and taking home some of its bounty.

Not just a passing fancy, the interest in gardening and knowing more about our food and where it comes from is flourishing in Southwest Florida. Fresh local produce is now at our fingertips—whether we buy it from co-ops, farmers’ markets or community supported agriculture groups, or share the experience with others in a community plot. The Earth invites us to enjoy this closer connection, so grab a trowel—there’s a garden somewhere waiting for each of us to tend.

Gerry Segal, Cassena Gardening Group, [email protected].

Terry Kays, Naples Park Community Garden, 239-207-7971 or [email protected]. Green Village Organics, 239-784-6136 or visit

Eden Florida’s Eimerman Education Center gardens: contact John Puig at Garden at Eden. Visit or Facebook page [email protected]

For info about March 9 educational seminar on how to set up a community garden, see calendar.


Related Articles:  Healthy Soil Equals Healthy Plants

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