Florida International University

Only a year after its launch, a community vegetable garden in Liberty City is being revived after the original failed to take root and turned into a debris-scattered wasteland.

The Harvest of Love Garden at the Liberty Square Housing Project is intended to provide jobs and encourage residents to eat fresh fruits and vegetables as a measure to fight rising health problems affecting minorities, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and colon cancer.
But the community failed to support the project, and a year later, the area had been coined ‘the graveyard’ by residents.

Organizers hope to gain more support this time by building a playground residents say they want and by paying workers to help maintain the garden, supplemented by volunteers from Liberty Square.

“We have 32 trainees and the goal is to have full employment by September,” said Juanita Shanks, executive director of Keep Miami Beautiful, which is coordinating the project.

The renewed effort comes courtesy of a $450,000 federal grant awarded this year to the Legacy Green Empowerment Program, a job training and placement partnership between the South Florida Regional Planning Council and the Urban Empowerment.

Legacy Green is a project of the locally-based organization Legacy Communities Initiative. The program trains and employs residents from Liberty City, Overtown, Coconut Grove and Opa-Locka to work in harvest of love and three other gardens. Workers receive $150 a month during training and $7.25 an hour when they start work.

Under the grant, the project also plans to open two healthy food cafes and to provide classes in nutrition and healthy cooking.

Workers have already begun clearing away debris, weeds and overturned cinder blocks that made the area a barren waste.

Keep Miami Beautiful is a partner of Legacy Green, and Shanks spearheads the effort to make sure this garden doesn’t meet the same fate as its predecessor. One way she hopes to accomplish this is by getting the residents more involved.

“We’re actually getting some community input because initially they were not happy with the fact that there was so much space taken by the layout of the garden,” she said of the space that some residents say should be used to construct a playground area for the kids of Liberty Square.

Selena Smith, whose home overlooks the garden, says she's fine with the garden as long as there’s an area where kids can play. It’s a sharp contrast from her view of the garden a year ago.

“The first time it got started I thought it was a waste of time and eventually it looked like a cemetery,” she said. “No one liked it.”

Smith says she’ll help more in the garden this time, a sentiment echoed by other residents, like Joanie Martin.

“We’ve fallen in love with this program. We’re dedicated and we’re all committed,” she said.

Once completed, Shanks said, the garden will produce such favorites as sweet potatoes, collard greens and yams.

“We’re going to grow the crops that are of the season,” she says.

Approval for the original Harvest of Love garden came from the Liberty City Residents Council, a panel of five which represents the more than 7,000 residents of Liberty Square.  Shanks, however, said only two council members were present and involved in the decision making.

The success of the new vegetable garden may depend on whether the new layout incorporates the residents’ desire to build a playground, but that isn’t the only obstacle.

Brenda Kent has lived in Liberty Square for 10 years and worked on the original garden. She says people picked the watermelon and collards prematurely and recalls seeing adults picking the vegetables at three in the morning.

This time around, Legacy workers will oversee the garden. That approach has helped at the Roots in the City vegetable garden in Overtown, now in its second year, which relies on paid workers instead of volunteers.

Liberty Square resident Courtney Wilson worked on Roots in the City and brings 16 years of experience in the construction industry to the new Harvest of Love. He’ll be responsible for building some of the new features that are part of the new design, such as overhead irrigation and seating near the vegetable beds. He’s confident the new strategy will work just as well as Roots has in Overtown.

“We’ve got a plan in place now that’s 90 percent sure to work,” he said.

A resident meeting will be held at Liberty Square to unveil the new plans organizers hope will combat old problems. Included on the agenda are proposals to raise the beds, making them harder to access, to increase police surveillance over the garden, and to determine where to place the playground.

The project is expected to be completed by May or June.

Shanks understands that it will take the entire community to embrace the garden in order for it to succeed.

“Will they stick to it?” she wonders. “That’s our goal.”