TAMPA — When the Sustainable Living Project kicked off on Earth Day last year, it was little more than a few raised beds of produce growing on the side of West Sligh Avenue.
A year later, the one-acre garden that produces hundreds of pounds of fresh vegetables for the area’s needy, has blossomed in to a hub for gardeners intent on joining the local food movement and serves as an example of what can be done in an urban environment.
“If a guy like me, from Brooklyn, can grow vegetables in the middle of Tampa, anybody can,” said garden founder and former chef Will Carey. He also serves as the executive director for Tampa Bay Harvest, a network of volunteers that helps fill local food pantries.
As the garden has spread over the land, the community has embraced it in various ways. Neighbors fill small white buckets left hanging on the garden fence with table scraps that help produce compost for the vegetables. Animals at the nearby Lowry Park Zoo provide the “zoo poo” that helps make the soil.
Four families living nearby tend a small flock of chickens on the backside that provide eggs for the hungry and fertilizer for the plants. And several times a week, the garden is open to those seeking to learn more about how to grow their own food, using sustainable gardening practices.
The food grown in the garden goes to the Salvation Army’s feeding program in downtown Tampa and to several area food banks.
In addition to the rows of turnips, bib lettuce, rutabagas and broccoli produced here, Carey has added a 3,500-gallon tilapia tank — part of a closed loop system that will provide fish for area food pantries and fertilizer for hydroponically grown plants. Those same plants will cleanse the water that eventually goes back in to the fish tank.
“We are at a point here where we have to consider sustainability in our everyday lives,” said Joo Lee, a recent University of South Florida graduate who lives nearby. Lee is assisting Carey to set up the new aquaculture component of the garden.
“Traditional aquaculture has a big problem with fish waste,” Joo said. “In aquaponics, that negative becomes a positive. By the end of the cycle, the water will be clean. It’s a closed loop system.”
Numerous organizations have come together to make the Sustainable Living Project a success, Joo said. “This project has become a catalyst for those groups to work together.”
And it’s not just for nonprofit groups, Carey said. Beginning at noon Tuesday, the garden is open to anyone interested in learning about how the garden works and how that translates to backyard gardening. The Sustainable Living Project is located at 918 W. Sligh Ave., directly south of the Lowry Park Zoo.