Community gardens help Gainesville residents eat locally, healthfully

Laura Coffey's from-scratch ground-to-table Grilled Beet Burger.

Courtesy of Laura Coffey
Published: Friday, April 25, 2014 at 7:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 25, 2014 at 7:45 p.m.

Two years ago, Laura Coffey was feeling tired and rundown. Her stomach would sometimes hurt, and her energy levels were constantly low as she ran around after her twin daughters. That is, until the ground-to-table movement entered her life.


Community gardens

If you are looking to get involved with a garden in your area, there are plenty of options.

The volunteer site coordinators can be reached through Operations Supervisor John Weber at 393-8186.

Here's a list of area gardens:
- Dreamers Garden (The Grove Street Neighborhood Community Garden), corner of Northwest Fourth Street and 10th Avenue
- Green Acres Park Community Garden, 700 Block of Southwest 40th Street (within Green Acres Park)
- McRorie Community Garden, corner of Southeast Fourth Avenue and Sixth Terrace
- Northeast 31st Avenue Community Garden (Not currently active, but plots available if desired), 1700 NE 31st Ave. (within Northeast 31st Avenue Park)
- Southwest 40th Place and Southwest 30th Terrace Community Garden, 2947 SW 40th Place
- Parking Lot 2 Community Garden, Northwest Second Avenue
- Porters Neighborhood, 911 NW Fifth Ave.
- Thelma Bolton Center Community Garden, 516 NE Second Ave.
- City Hall (Edible Garden), 200 E. University Ave.

"I had trouble sleeping and had anxiety," the Gainesville mom said, "and I was just like, 'I need to change.' "

She started small, shopping for local produce at the farmers markets around town. That grew into a love of organic, home-grown food. She is not alone.

The trend of eating seasonal, locally produced food is sweeping the country, and Gainesville is no exception. Many Gainesville residents have embraced growing their own food. And they can do it for free.

Gainesville has nine community gardens with multiple plots available to residents.

People who are interested can call the Gainesville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department, which puts them in contact with a site coordinator.

"We provide the land, the irrigation system, and the maintenance to the grounds," said John Weber, operations supervisor for the gardens. "It's not one of those programs that needs a lot of management. The volunteers have the gardens and public in mind in every decision they make, and the city can trust that."

Maura Brady is the site coordinator for Gainesville's oldest community garden. McRorie Garden has been around for 18 years, and it's almost always full.

"There are actually a few slots open right now," Brady said, "which is rare for the spring season. Usually we have a waiting list, but people seem to be getting a later start this year, maybe because of the rain."

Still, Brady said there are quite a few vegetables people can grow from starter plants for a late spring harvest, including tomato, basil, eggplant and pepper. She recommends various string bean varieties for those who want to start from seeds this month.

Sizes for the plots vary. The largest plots are 14 feet by 13 feet, and those can be cut into halves and thirds, depending on the gardener's needs. Beginners can start small, and expand later, when they're more comfortable with the land. That is, if there is room. The Gainesville community is awash with would-be gardeners, according to Weber.

"These are all community-requested and community-backed projects," he said, "and we love to see people taking part in their community."

Coffey said she has never felt better, and can't imagine going back to store-bought vegetables.

"Within two weeks I lost 17 pounds, and it was the best food I'd tasted in my life," she said. "I have more energy, and the meals are delicious. The food is more colorful, and the kids don't mind the change, either."

Brady has been gardening since 1985, and agreed it's been the best change she ever made.

"For me, it's about sustainability and being local. I want to grow my own food and purchase the rest at the farmers market because it's coming from within a 25-mile radius," she said. "I also do it for health reasons. I grew my own veggies for my son so he would have the very best food."

In terms of cost, Coffey said her family's new diet is actually saving them money, even when factoring in farmers market prices.

"The packaged stuff you get at the store is cheap, sure, but when 100 percent of your food comes from local sources, you buy only what you need. Plus, the organic food at the markets is much cheaper than buying organic from the grocery store. It's better quality, too."

If getting to a garden plot is too much effort, Brady said she's seen an increase in at-home gardening, too, which is what Coffey does.

"Anywhere you have enough flat land to put some manure on, you can grow a fantastic garden here," Brady said. "It's all year-round."

Come the fall, Brady said the best vegetables to grow are lettuces, greens, broccoli, brussels sprouts, carrots, beets and parsley. Coffey is going to try sweet potato and spaghetti squash, too.

"The sky is the limit," Brady said. "Plant whatever vegetables you like to eat."

"These projects are a cocktail for success," Weber said. "Folks want to eat healthy and be in touch with nature. We've got beautiful weather, and it's a great way to be part of your community. It's very appealing to all levels, from university students to retirees."

Grilled Beet Burger

Laura Coffey's from-scratch ground-to-table recipe


3 cups grated raw beetroots

1 cups rolled oats

1 small onion

2 cloves garlic

3 organic eggs

2 Tbsp. cold-pressed organic olive oil

Burger toppings

7 ounces sheep's feta cheese or goat cheese

1-2 avocados, sliced, as needed


Organic Ranch dressing


Peel and grate beets, onion and garlic on a box grater or use a food processor with the grating blades attached.

Place the grated vegetables in a large mixing bowl.

Add olive oil, eggs and rolled oats, and mix everything well.

Set aside for about 30 minutes, so the oats can soak up the liquid and the mixture sets (this step is important for the patties to hold together).

Form 6-8 patties with your hands. Grill, or pan fry, the beetroot burgers a couple of minutes on each side, until dark red on both sides.

Serve on a bun with organic ranch dressing and toppings.

Serves 6-8.

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