Tampa, FL

At Joe’s Gardens, children plant seeds for a sustainable future

Justin Garcia

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Joe's daughter Elaina tends to a plantJoe Couture

The children at Joe’s Gardens are weaving between each other with an organized chaos, harvesting vegetables to bring home to their families.

A kid takes a bite out of a small tomato, screams, “I don’t like it!”, and tosses the rest over the fence. Another picks a raw onion out of the ground and shares a bite with a friend. One of them shouts, “Why does it taste like that?!” and they both spit out the remains on the ground. Another eats a hot pepper as his friend stares in wide eyed disbelief, then wages a dare to eat another one.

The slapstick antics of some children are balanced by others who are quietly foraging, some filling up buckets of tomatoes that weigh 10 plus pounds, others dutifully examining a patch of overgrowth for the green beans hidden inside. The kids planted the seeds of their harvest, and watched the plants grow week-by-week. Through hands on activities, they learn about vermiculture, hydroponics, composting and mushroom cultivation.

Joe’s 10-year-old daughter Elaina is helping some of her friends identify certain flowers which grow between the 100 banana trees that stretch across the garden. She’s been learning from her dad since she was young.

“Alright everyone, we have to harvest the rest of the onions before we go, can you all find them?” Joe Couture asks the crowd. Even the wild ones stand at attention and shout, “Yes Mr. Joe!”

The 18 children scatter around the garden, pulling them up with ease, asking how to properly eat and prepare them. They pile up the vegetables to figure out how to split everything up between all of them.

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The student's harvest haul at Joe's GardensJustin Garcia

After their harvest is fully collected, the kids are led away by Jackson Springs Parks and Recreation employees. One of the children walks off with his arms wrapped around an overloaded bucket.

“I can barely carry this!” he says with a grin.

Throughout the week, around 50 children visit Joe’s Garden after school, to help grow vegetables and take healthy food home to their families.

The garden, which sits nestled against Jackson Springs’ skatepark in Town 'n' Country, comes from a dream of Joe’s: to foster a place where young people learn how to feed one another and care for nature.

On an average week, Joe spends 30-40 hours taking care of the garden. Since the summer of 2016, he’s dedicated his life to it. Joe, 36, says that his commitment to free and accessible gardening has impacted his financial situation and romantic relationships, but he doesn’t subscribe to the pressure of turning fruits of the earth into profit.

“I understand that money does matter for my daughter’s future,” says Joe. “But for her to have a real sustainable life, more people need to know how to do this, how to grow food and take care of each other.”

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Joe and Elaina between a giant sunflower and banana treeJustin Garcia

Joe’s passion for growing began when he was 16 and joined Future Farmers of America (FFA). He had a teacher he’ll never forget, Mrs. Chestnut, a “hardass who was dedicated”. He stayed in FFA for the rest of his time in school.

He never stopped growing food at home and his mother’s house. Now, he’s working on his alternative medicine at Everglades University, and tending to the garden full time.

The garden was flourishing until COVID-19 hit last year, when Jackson Springs Park was shut down for months due to safety precautions. Joe had to watch most of his plants die and start all over. But just in the past few months, he’s been able to revive the life there, and so much is growing.

Currently, there are 100 plus banana trees in the garden, one mango tree, two passion fruit, one fig tree, nine papayas, a grape plant, 16 tomatoes and two pineapples. 115 vegetables are growing of seven different species. Two rosemary bushes, 10 cilantro, three Caribbean thyme, and 119 flowers of six different species grow. Tuber plants currently growing include eight yucca, eight taro and five sweet potato plants.

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Wide shot of Joe's gardens showing rows of banana trees and other plants in distanceJustin Garcia

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Bananas growing on banana treeJustin Garcia

The upcoming summer weather will bring the planting of okra, watermelon, cantaloupe, radish, zucchini, sweet corn, basil, oregano and an herb tea garden.

Some of the plants support local wildlife. For example, the endangered monarch butterfly feed on the milkweed plants in the garden.

The garden is funded and supplied by Joe’s side jobs, as well as donations he receives from people who appreciate his work.

Joe’s hope is to expand his efforts to other parks, and to interact with the school system to further his role as a youth educator through having more gardens in and near schools. Parents are requesting his teachings as well, and he has an educational YouTube channel up and running. He wants to get established as a 501c3, but he admits that it’s out of his scope of expertise. The feedback from parents, neighbors and others in the community has been so positive that Joe is reaching out to people, asking who might be able to help him move on to the next step of his dream.

He wants to show more people that gardens can glow with possibilites.

“It’s just so important for the children, and anyone, really, to see this world,” Joe says. “You get to witness the circle of life here.”

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I write stories about Florida politics, environmental issues, interesting people and music. I strive to shine a light on issues that are still in the dark, as well as help to give voice to the voiceless.

Tampa, FL
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