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Wednesday, Sep 20, 2017
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School garden grows into community effort

TEMPLE TERRACE - For fifth-grader Amauri Banks, the small garden tucked behind Riverhills Elementary is where he goes to be at one with nature. It's where the 11-year-old dug his first hole and discovered the wonders of plant life. "Science makes it easier to work with the plants," Amauri said. Amauri is a member of the Dragonflies, a group of Riverhills students chosen to assist teachers and volunteers in the garden.
In recent months, Amauri and his schoolmates have seen a lot more activity at the garden just outside the school's backdoor. A group of volunteers has stepped in to transform the butterfly garden and vegetable, fruit and herbs patch into a manicured community garden. The site also that covers an area 30 feet by 85 feet has become an inspiration for a larger community garden the adult volunteers plan at nearby Riverhills Park. Members of the Temple Terrace Community Garden group have won the support of Mayor Joe Affronti and the Temple Terrace City Council to create a large-scale garden in the park nestled next to the school. The volunteers hope to establish a system of individualized plots to give more people a chance to participate. City officials and organizers of the community garden initiative have been meeting recently to work out the details. "The focus has always been on breaking ground on a garden of about 100 feet next to the tennis courts at Riverhills Park," said Elizabeth Leib, president and communications director for the Temple Terrace Community Garden Initiative. She hopes the new garden will open within the next 30 to 60 days. Community gardening is not new to Temple Terrace. In addition to Riverhills Elementary, other area schools have had them, including Temple Terrace Elementary. They were run by school officials or relatively small groups of volunteers. The garden at Riverhills Elementary is different because of the groundswell of community involvement. Leib described the school garden as a good start, but the community garden group wanted a larger parcel with the potential to attract a lot of people, she said. "We never felt it would be large enough to handle the demands," Leib said. The idea for the school garden began about five years ago. It was originally a pet project for school volunteers and the Temple Terrace Garden Club. Mary Harkness, a garden club member and a Riverhills volunteer, said the garden club set out to add a dash of color to the scenic school campus overlooking the Hillsborough River and Riverhills Park. "We thought it would be real pretty," she said. Colorful flowers would attract butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbirds, and provide the students with something to enjoy, said Harkness, whose daughter, Chanda Harkness, teaches kindergarten at Riverhills. Chanda Harkness said a $1,000 grant she applied for and received helped provide seed money to get the program started. "It was strictly a butterfly garden, with Florida native self-sustaining plants," Chanda Harkness said. Creating an organic garden became a priority when Betty Baldwin was principal in 2010. Baldwin convinced landscape designer Cathy Givarz to map out a detailed layout plan and timeline for plantings. Chef Joy Rupe offered expertise about nutrition and healthy eating. The Beck Group contributed a storage shed, Wild Birds Unlimited donated birdfeeders, and the garden club chipped in $250 toward an irrigation system. Riverhills' new principal, Todd Connolly, and third-grade teacher Amy Shell were instrumental in expanding the garden's role. When the garden's upkeep began to slide a few months ago, Riverhills school officials reached out to the community garden group for advice and support. The group adopted the garden as its own. "We welcomed them with open arms," said Shell of the gardening group. "We were trying to get some momentum," Connolly added. Shell, who is the faculty adviser for the Dragonflies' student group, recently signed on to become the teacher liaison to the gardening group. She will work with residents to make sure they complete paperwork needed to serve as school volunteers. "The great thing is they have a place to grow [fruits and vegetables] before the larger garden is established," Shell said. The school garden is one of Amauri's favorite places to go. Amauri, who is in the after-school program, enjoys learning about plants and snacking on delicious produce. "The teacher lets us pick and eat some of the ripe vegetables and fruit – after we wash them, of course," he said.

kknight@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7413

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