Arlo Simonds’ passion is visible as he shows visitors around the Pine Manor Community Center Garden in Fort Myers.
Along rows of Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, kale, bok choy, Thai basil, nasturtium, fennel and collards, and through the perennial mini food forest, Simonds discusses cultivation, nutrition and recipes. The former FGCU environmental studies student sings the praises of permaculture – managed, highly productive swaths of plant groupings – and it many benefits for the environment and humans. It’s second-nature to Simonds following four intensive years as service-learning coordinator and registered organization president for FGCU’s Food Forest.
For two years, Simonds, 25, has been the garden operations manager and permaculture designer at the Pine Manor Community Center, an outgrowth of the Pine Manor Improvement Association. This neighborhood, where more than 40 percent of the 4,300 residents live below poverty level, battles a reputation for crime and a very real “food desert,” a place in which fresh fruits and vegetables are not accessible to residents with limited transportation options. The nonprofit association works aggressively to defeat unemployment and crime, and Simonds is on the frontlines. Programs such as the food bank, computer lab and culinary arts training center, which uses garden ingredients, are changing the culture. More than two dozen culinary graduates now work in local restaurants.
A 25-plot community garden invites residents to tend and harvest their own 4 x 8 gardens they typically sow with varieties inherent to their heritage; more than 70 percent of the residents are Latino. Two hundred feet are dedicated to production for the culinary school and to sell at the Lee County Alliance for the Arts Green Market each Saturday, to raise awareness and funds for the cooking curriculum. “It’s a way to change the image of the community and get our faces out there in a positive light,” Simonds said.
Since arriving, he designed and planted the food forest in a small unused area. “It’s a highly productive corner of the property,” he said, noting there are 15 fruiting species, perennial, medicinals, herbs, natives and rotating vegetables. Next on his agenda: turning a newly acquired and cleared vacant lot, once trashed and overgrown, into a bigger food forest that will act as a pedestrian connector between the community and the popular Hunter Park.
Simonds helped launch and design FGCU’s Food Forest in 2011. He arrived at a “magical moment” when senior students’ collaboration came into fruition, and a half-acre of land slated for development was turned over with a generous budget. Ever since, he’s been sowing and reaping the rewards of practicing and teaching sustainable eco-agriculture. “The work I’m doing here means a lot to me,” he said. “My education was absolutely critical to what I’m doing today.”
Start a community garden
The best strategy for starting a community garden is dependent on the specific situation and environment you intend on starting the garden space, says Arlo Simonds. He offers some tips on starting a community garden based on the evolution of the Pine Manor Community Center’s garden.
- Locate a piece of marginal land that may be owned by the city, county, a development or nonprofit in your area.
- Partner with an existing nonprofit organization (501 (c) 3) to build a rationale for starting the garden.
- Working with the nonprofit board members, garner support from local stakeholders, including volunteers, residents, partner agencies, potential business sponsors and donors. Build connections and mutually beneficial partnerships with local schools or institutions, law enforcement agencies, churches and other organizations.
- Develop a plan for the layout, cost projections and necessary equipment.
- Seek out and write grants.
- One-tenth of an acre for a food forest is capable of supplying a bounty. A community garden’s size depends on how many traditional plots will be offered to residents to tend and the size of the plots.