By Margaret Morrison, Walton County Master Gardener
Ah, springtime! When many have the desire to do something about getting into gardening. The thought of growing some food for your own table becomes a thought brought to mind from many prompts we see in newspaper articles about healthy eating, healthy living, and the importance of exercise and sunlight in our lives.* Community gardens are one venue to explore, especially when you may not have the space or the permission to plant your own garden plot. What you may not know is that an opportunity for you to join in this worthwhile adventure exists here in Walton County, ready and waiting for you.
Cultivate Community Gardens was established as a Section 501(c)(3) organization in 2017. It was initially the dream of Tracy Whealy Miller, a Walton County resident coming here from a background making her well versed in the advantages of growing your own food. Tracy grew up in Iowa in a family dedicated to preserving and sharing seeds. Her parents went on to found the Seed Savers Exchange, a source of high- quality seeds well known and respected in gardening circles. What she realized is that many people would like to have an opportunity to work a plot to grow items that were personally known to be GMO-free, and grown to organic standards to benefit the health of their families. Having a garden plot perhaps would allow people to grow some types of special heirloom or culturally important foods for their families that cannot readily be found in stores. Being in a county where the space we live in does not always lend itself to this type of activity (whether through lack of space, living in a rental, lacking knowledge, or the restrictions of HOAs), Tracy committed an enormous amount of energy to taking the steps necessary to achieve this dream.
The story of how this project came into being is part of history: lots of work with the County officials, a great deal of personal dedication from Tracy and her original board members, times of frustration and wondering if this would ever achieve fruition. Finally, with permission from the Board of County Commissioners, space was set aside in Padgett Park, on J.D. Miller Road, to allow the project to move forward. Grants from both the J.W. Couch Foundation and the St. Joe Community Foundation allowed this effort to begin taking shape. Clearing the land, erecting a fence, creating the 20 4’x12’ plots, and acquiring and loading quality soil for the raised beds, brought the Garden to the point on May 22, 2021, for the Grand Opening and the dedication. Since that time, beds have been available for individuals to rent on an annual basis. Several beds are set aside for local school and civic groups to use. All must go through the application process to be accepted, and must agree to observe the basic rules of the Garden. Whatever is planted must be non-GMO organic, legal, and non-invasive. Any products – like fertilizer, or fungicides – used in the garden must follow those same rules and be environmentally safe. Gardening etiquette applies, since you are sharing this space with many others. At least two times each year, Master Gardeners offer on site learning opportunities. Other events are sometimes scheduled in the pavilion at Padgett Park for gardeners to share their experiences – both successes and failures. These events help not only to strengthen the cultivation of the gardens, but also to create a community of gardeners, strengthening broader community ties as well. The current President of Cultivate Community Gardens is Angie Reilly, a South Walton High School teacher. With volunteers from the High School, Angie has continued the tradition of community gardening. Students learn the value of gardening, using this space as a teaching tool, providing not only fresh produce for food security, but connecting with others, and being educated about the importance of being good stewards of the environment. I would say these are important lessons for each of us, and invite you to explore the opportunities that exist at Cultivate Community Gardens, 810 JD Miller Road, Santa Rosa Beach Florida, inside Padgett Park. The Master Gardeners of Walton County will be on site on March 4th, 2023, for the spring gardening event. Think about attending this event, open to the public, to see what has been accomplished and consider your own interest in obtaining one of the available plots for growing. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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