Within the garden that Haines City High algebra teacher Martina White helped to create near downtown Haines City, the tomatoes are blooming, the turnips are sprouting, and the bok choy is thriving.
But what’s growing the fastest — and what matters most to White — are the learning opportunities for her students.
“You can teach every subject in a garden, whether it’s math, art, sociology, biology, chemistry,” said White. “You can also teach communication, teamwork, perseverance and lessons like adapting to your surroundings — just like the plants.”
The Oakland Legacy Garden, located on Avenue C behind the Boys & Girls Club, is the result of many months of work and collaboration. Those involved include White, the City of Haines City, the surrounding neighborhood, students, and others who shared a vision of revitalizing the community while also promoting health, sustainability and education.
The first step in achieving that vision: removing and filling in a long-unused city pool. “It was a real safety issue for the neighborhood,” White said.
In 2019, the City of Haines City removed the old pool and filled in the land, making way for the garden.
“This community garden is one of seven I’ve been responsible for helping to grow,” said Jane Waters, Haines City Community Redevelopment Agency project manager.
“The neighborhood is perfect for it. A garden creates an amazing outdoor classroom experience, it engages the community and it teaches sustainable food resources and backyard gardening, which are great things for families.”
In the months after the pool was removed, sponsors including Publix and Lowe’s donated lumber for the raised beds, as well as mulch, soil and seeds.
All that was needed to make the garden come to life was labor — and White had plenty of volunteers. Students from HCHS (including the school’s Environmental Club), as well as Ridge Community High and Boone Middle all turned out for “Build Day” last November.
Together with members of the neighborhood, they spent hours moving dirt, building raised beds, spreading mulch and planting seeds. Working alongside them, White witnessed the garden teach its first lessons, as the students created an assembly line to get the work done more quickly.
“They were problem solving, communicating and collaborating,” she said — adding that Boone Middle agriculture teacher William Toney deserves special thanks for the work he and his students contributed to the garden.
For students like Aisha Garcia, a freshman at Ridge Community High, “Build Day” was also a chance to have some socially distanced, open-air social time, which she’s missed during months of quarantine and distance learning.
“I’ve never had any experience with a big project like this,” she said. “It’s been amazing to see what comes from just a seed.”
The garden has quickly become a centerpiece for the community. Members of the neighborhood stop by to check on its progress, ask when fruits and vegetables from the beds might be available, and to inquire about how they can get involved. Students are using it as a chance to earn community service hours.
The garden has also been adopted by Haines City’s Northeast Revitalization Group, a nonprofit that is involved in numerous initiatives in the area. Northeast Revitalization will manage the garden in partnership with the city moving forward.
Keva Harris, retired Haines City Police Department captain who now serves at secretary for Northeast Revitalization, said she’s especially excited by the garden’s potential as a community gathering space.
“I have always had great relationships with our elders. They taught me a lot about growing your own food,” she said. “I had a vision for over 20 years about a community garden. I believe the garden will bring generations together and provide healthy food items. I’m excited about all the positives that our garden can bring to the community: food, education and positive fellowship amongst everyone.”
Community member Ashley Holt, who’s been involved in creating the garden, said it’s been especially welcome amid the ongoing pandemic.
“It’s given people who haven’t seen each other in a very long time reason to come out of their houses and talk to one another,” she said. “It’s been joyful.”
White is planning to tutor students at the garden, integrating agricultural concepts into her lessons; she envisions teachers of all subject areas one day doing the same.
“The possibilities of this space are endless,” she said.