Blooming with success: Community garden in Ballard Park sees growth in first year

Ballard neighborhood’s ‘secret garden’

A community garden in Bradenton's Neal Park is home to 50 plots for people to grow whatever they wish.
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A community garden in Bradenton's Neal Park is home to 50 plots for people to grow whatever they wish.

Missing the flower and garden plot in the backyard of her old Massachusetts home, Freddie Wallace decided to dig into her gardening hobby again after retiring and moving to Bradenton.

“I just like digging in the ground and seeing things grow,” Wallace said. “They say if you have things on your mind and want to get rid of them, dig in the ground. It goes away when I’m there and gives me strength.”

After learning about a community garden in Ballard Park, 1801 Ninth Ave. W., Wallace said she ran to city hall to pay for a plot. She tends to her portion of the garden about three times a week since she started in August.

“I love the area, the park is so beautiful. It’s just peaceful,” Wallace said.

More than a year ago, the community garden at John and Rebecca Neal Park was itself like a seed; waiting to be watered and nurtured until it could blossom. Now it’s teeming with sunflowers, watermelon, basil and okra soaking up the hot Florida summer sun.

With all 50 plots occupied, there’s plenty of space for the plants, bugs, bees and butterflies that call the organic garden home, or just buzz by as visiting pollinators.

Mack Lessig, community gardens program assistant for the University of Florida IFAS Extension program in Manatee County, knows every plant, every bug and every plot caregiver in the garden, which he called a successful but little-known secret in the community of Ballard Park.

“Even though it’s on this road and people drive by it all the time, we don’t really have a way to advertise it. The garden itself is the biggest secret,” Lessig said.

He easily maneuvers between the constructed wooden plots, pointing out plant types and critters along the way. Inside the bright red shed that holds supplies, he posts gardening facts and educational information for those who drop by when he’s not around. A laminated booklet hanging from the board helps the more novice gardeners identify the bugs they may see on their crops, and how to control them.

“Communicating with people and getting to help them really, with something as silly as gardening, but it makes a big impact on them. I love that part of my job,” Lessig said.

Even with some summer weeds growing in the background, Lessig said the garden is a success.

Between September and March, the garden flourishes with as many as 15 people tending to their plots at a time. A turnout Lessig said is huge for a community garden of this size.

As with most places in Florida, there’s a lower attendance rate in the summer.

Most, Lessig said, visit early in the morning or in the evening as temperatures cool.

Dewan Raja, a professor at the LECOM dental school, goes in the evening after work. He cares for his onions, peppers and a type of basil called tulsi, which is used in Hindu culture and has medicinal and religious uses.

He came to the United States in 1997, but it wasn’t until recently he decided to start gardening as a way to rediscover his ancestral roots. Raja said his great-grandfather and grandfather were farmers.

“It became a hobby to me to grown my own vegetables as much as I can,” Raja said.

The most popular plant in the garden are tomatoes, according to Lessig.

Wallace grows some tomatoes, but mostly okra, some eggplant and collard greens. This year, she’s trying some cucumbers.

What Wallace and Raja can’t eat, they give away to their neighbors.

Lessig said community gardens are still a relatively new concept in the area, having only been operating in an official capacity for about five years.

The city maintains the official garden roster and collects the annual $20 per-year plot fee.

Plots closest to the road have been reserved and cared for by students at Ballard Elementary School just across the street. Lessig said students started tending to those plots in April, and he hopes to see them pick up again once classes resume this fall.

For those interested in developing a green thumb of their own, Lessig said just jump in.

“What’s the harm? If your plants die, they die,” Lessig said.

Bradenton City Councilman Patrick Roff spearheaded efforts for the land, park and garden.

Land for the park and garden were acquired by the city from Neal Communities in 2012 for $284,661, far below the $1.3 million value at the time. In exchange for the deal, the Neal family asked for the park to be named after the family.

The city had previously approached the Neals to buy the land owned by known slumlords and that had become havens for drugs and prostitution.

Neal Communities agreed but never went forward with the redevelopment. The properties were sold back to the city. The old homes were torn down in 2014.

Sara Nealeigh covers what’s happening in the cities of Bradenton and Palmetto, Florida for the Bradenton Herald. She previously covered breaking news for the Herald after moving to Florida from Ohio in 2016.