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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Small ‘community orchards’ in three Tampa parks

TAMPA — Tanja and Jared Vidovic had out-of-town guests a while back who wondered aloud where all the fruit trees were, the ones for which Florida is famous.

The couple that transformed their half-acre yard near Busch Gardens into a food forest filled with some 300 edible plants, found inspiration in that conversation.

They had heard about public orchards and food forests, but not around here. They did recall riding the Pinellas Trail and seeing banana and orange trees along the way, with the fruit ripe for public picking.

After a year or so of proposing and planning and with help from dozens of fellow gardeners, city council members, Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful and Tampa’s parks staff, area visitors will soon literally enjoy the fruits of that inspiration. Some 60 to 90 volunteers headed out to three city parks over the weekend to plant fruit trees that the public can enjoy.

“We originally pitched it as getting fruit trees downtown, since the mayor is always looking for ways to draw more people there,” Jared Vidovic said. “There is a huge green community in Tampa and that would be one way to get them involved.”

“We thought it would be wonderful if people could drive the Green ARTery around the City of Tampa, see the sights and stop along the way to enjoy some fruit,” Tanja Vidovic said. The Green ARTery is a neighborhood-based effort in Central Tampa to connect the assets in 20 neighborhoods, the Hillsborough River, and green spaces with a bike trail.

While the city wasn’t ready to agree to a large-scale project, it did agree to allow some meager plantings at Rowlett, Al Lopez and Gadsden parks.

Fruits from the donated sunburst tangerine, Meyer lemon, star fruit, loquat and Chickasaw plum trees planted at the three parks will be available for public consumption. Volunteers will maintain them.

If the concept catches on, and Tanja Vidovic gets her way, it will expand. “The biggest thing for me, right now, is to get the word out so people know the trees are out there.”

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The concept of community orchards dates back to 1992 in England, when the community stepped forward to save an abandoned orchard. In that instance, it was an attempt to preserve green space, old varieties of fruit, local history and a beautiful landscape, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Service .

From that first effort, hundreds of community orchards popped up throughout England, then spread to other parts of Europe. They not only provide fresh, organic produce to the public, but also can be used as an educational tool and a way to share knowledge about local food growing efforts.

“In the face of climate change, the need to reduce food miles makes the provision of locally grown food ever more urgent,” according to the National Sustainable Agrigculture Service.

Seattle is planning what it calls the Beacon Food Forest, which will be a 7-acre edible garden open to the public. In Bloomington, Ill., there is a community orchard where teams select work days, conduct education programs and distribute fruits and nuts. And in Portland, there is the Fruit Tree Project where volunteers pitch in, harvest and distribute to those in need.

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One task the Vidovics hope to accomplish with this project is to bring more attention to the idea of growing edible plants and trees in every neighborhood. They never gardened until moving to their house with an overgrown lawn. They’ve learned it all over the past 41⁄2 years.

There are many days when the couple — she’s a firefighter and he’s a nurse — spend lunchtime munching on edible flowers, radish seed pods, asparagus, native Everglades tomatoes and spinach from their back yard.

Through the Facebook group, Tampa Gardening Swap, the couple offers seed and seedling swamps regularly and members meet to discuss what works and what doesn’t in the edible garden.

“Cities all over the world are doing this, so why not us?,” Tanja Vidovic said. She is hoping the concept will take off in Hillsborough County schools, so students can become more connected with where food comes from. Community orchards, she said, also provide habitat for wildlife and are considered carbon sinks, or a place that can absorb polluting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Jared Vidovic calls it “public produce or public fruit for public health.”

“I would love it,” Tanja Vidovic said, “if eventually there were a community orchard in every neighborhood.”

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