Through a community garden, one man hopes to grow the next generation of gardeners.
Through his nonprofit organization, Florida Urban Agriculture, Judson Giddens is transforming land once owned by his grandparents into a community garden where locals can harvest their own food and become self-reliant. The 1.4-acre property is located off State Road 33 near Mascotte.
The garden will not only promote sustainability and healthy eating, but also stimulate interest in gardening and provide agricultural education.
“People who come here will receive hands-on learning and take that knowledge home with them so they can start their own garden,” Judson says. “YouTube isn’t always the best source for gardening information because you cannot ask questions. There’s no substitute for hands-on learning.”
He invites everyone to try their hand at gardening—whether they’re experienced or novices, whether they’re looking to swap tips for growing the perfect peppers, or whether they’ve longed to take up gardening and simply need a venue. When people watch vegetables they planted as seedlings pop up through the earth, their enjoyment of gardening also begins blossoming.
“We’re filling a niche by creating access to fresh produce,” he says. “It’s one thing to talk about nutrition, but it’s another thing to show how nutritious food is grown.”
For Judson, the dream of a community garden was born after hearing about the high incidence of diabetes in Lake County. Lake’s diabetes death rate in 2016 exceeded neighboring Orange, Seminole, and Sumter counties, according to the website flhealthcharts.com. The disease often triggers other health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, blindness, and neuropathy.
“My grandfather died 10 years ago, and since that time nobody had been keeping up with the property,” he says. “I asked my family to let me take over the property so I could start a community garden. I wanted to do my part in helping others implement a healthy diet.”
His dream received momentum last May when the California-based retailer Seeds of Change awarded a $30,000 grant to Florida Urban Agriculture. More than 600 nonprofits throughout the country competed for the same donation dollars.
“I feel blessed to have won,” he says.
While the garden is still in its infancy, Judson said he will start with 30 raised beds of varying styles and sizes and grow Napa Valley cabbage, broccoli, bell peppers, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Three beds will be handicap-accessible for those who would like to garden but cannot stand or bend. Food will be grown through a process called vermiposting, which uses worms to produce high-quality compost soil.
“Worms dig tunnels in the soil, allowing air to get to the roots of plants,” he says.
Judson is particularly excited about showing people how to maximize small spaces to grow vegetable gardens near their apartments or homes. On one section of his property is a gutter garden, where cranberry hibiscus, chaya, June plum, peaches, double mahoi bananas, and Persian lime grow in close proximity.
“Having a gutter garden will give me the opportunity to teach a concept known as urban farming, which allows people with small yards to grow numerous fruits and vegetables,” he says. “Even if you have a home in the city, it can be done in the corner of your backyard. And we’ll show them how to do that by using the least amount of water.”
In addition to the community garden, he has also built an aquaponics garden to farm tilapia and create a self-sustaining system of food, as well as a hydroponic garden, which grows plants without soil.
“The great thing is that anyone can have an aquaponics system at home,” he says. “It allows you to grow more food in half the time.”
Judson has already secured local partnerships to leverage resources and gain access to needed materials, funding, and volunteers. One partner is the Faith Neighborhood Center, a Groveland-based charity that provides free food, clothing, financial assistance, and medical support to needy South Lake County residents.
Judson will deliver food to the organization and allow its clients to work in the community garden. Sondra Green, coordinator of the Faith Neighborhood Center, is enthusiastic about bringing single mothers and their children to the garden.
“You’d be surprised how many people don’t know where fruits and vegetables come from or never heard of eggplant, zucchini, or butternut squash,” she says. “It will be a great opportunity to watch moms and their kids participate in a project together and learn the basics of gardening. By coming here and learning, they’ll be able to grow and eat their own unprocessed foods.”
Ace Hardware in Groveland assisted by supplying Judson with tools, rakes, and shovels to help him clear the land.
“To see this taking place is phenomenal,” says Casey Bunton, manager of Ace Hardware. “Ideally, I want to get my associates out here so they can get involved with the community garden. Whatever knowledge they gain can be passed on to our customers at the store. It’s truly a win-win situation for everybody involved.”
Judson will promote the garden by selling his produce at a farmer’s market held every Friday night at Lake Catherine Blueberries, 5849 Lake Catherine Road in Groveland.
“Judson has worked extremely hard to get his garden going, and I’m excited about having him at our farmer’s market because he’s going to grow high-quality produce,” says Dustin Lowe, owner of Lake Catherine Blueberries. “In return, I’ll donate blueberries and honey to him so he can sell them and put money back into the community garden. He promotes us, and we promote him.”
Both Judson and Dustin firmly believe that food grown and shared locally is healthier, less costly, and more environmentally friendly because it cuts down on required transportation.
Food travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to consumer, according to research conducted at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. Food from faraway states is older and sits in distribution centers for days before being shipped to stores. Conversely, with locally grown food, crops are picked at their peak of ripeness and retain more nutrient value.
“If people realized how much healthier they ate and how much money they save by growing food themselves, it would open a lot of eyes,” Judson says.
That’s precisely why he has planted the seeds for a more educated and healthy Lake County.