Tim May became an organic gardener by accident.
He was composting his kitchen waste in a container on the front porch of his home in Key West when his wife noticed some small tomato plants that began to sprout in the pile of dirt.
So the couple transplanted the tomatoes to pots and before they knew it, they’d produced a fresh crop of organic tomatoes to complement their fresh salads.
The compost pile then yielded the seedling of a papaya plant, and within a few months, they had a productive papaya tree to replace the mango and avocado tree killed by Hurricane Wilma’s floodwaters.
“With year round sun that we have down here, there was no reason why we couldn’t grow our own garden,” May recalled enthusiastically.
At his daughter’s third birthday party, May canvassed other parents to explore the option of a community garden, and though initial feedback was positive and plentiful, less than half a dozen people showed up to the first informal organizational meeting.
One important connection was established, though.
May met Jody Smith Williams, vice president of Florida Keys GLEE, who said she’d tried to initiate a community garden the previous year. Time constraints, along with a lack of momentum and influx of chickens kept her from getting the project off the ground.
The pair combined their email lists and network of contacts, and Williams said the project “kind of grew organically!”
The GLEE Community Garden Key West is located behind May Sands School and currently has about 45 members. For $100, “locavores” like May and Williams grew their own fruits and vegetables on individual plots, while $75 allowed for participation in a communal plot.
Williams, who admitted she was never a gardener before, was not only excited about her garden plot’s yield, but also found the project a great way to connect with the community.
“Our food system is kind of broken, and way down here at the end of the road, we’re particularly more dependent on deliveries from the mainland,” she said. “The things we’ve been able to grow have been mind-boggling. I think it’s really important for people to be more connected with where their food comes from.”
The nationwide movement towards organic gardening not only gives people more control over their own food supply – knowing exactly what goes into the dirt and watching their gardens grow – for many, it has been a way to reduce costs and shave dollars off their grocery bills.
May said during the peak season of the community garden’s yield, he and his wife were spared the expense of purchasing costly organic lettuce for several months.
“It’s not cheap buying the good stuff at the store,” May said, adding that fresh salads are a staple of his family’s diet.
Williams said she was most proud of her cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, which even though weren’t necessarily the most successful plants, opened up a whole new world for her.
“It’s all been a great learning experience,” Williams added.
As the garden’s board begins laying out their plans for the growing season this fall, May said the group is exploring other plots of land within the city limits to expand their efforts.
“We only have a handful of plots with members that are opting not to renew, so our goal is to be full again this year,” said May.
One stipulation for using the parcel of land behind May Sands school was that organizers would incorporate students at nearby schools into the Community Garden project. Students from Horace O’Bryant Middle School learn the basics of planting seeds in the plot they maintain.
Community Garden Board Member Will Shepler and his son Liam collect their harvest from their plot.
Madison Zintsmaster, 6, is one of the many active participants in GLEE’s Community Garden Key West.