By: Jen Russon
The Rotary Community Garden and Food Forest are so lush that one of its founders, cannot be seen through its vegetation and flowers when she arrives to give a tour.
Beginning with her own plot that is shaded by tall stalks of sunn hemp, Judith Gulko weaves through garden beds lit with butterflies, and makes her way into a forest so dense it calls for a machete.
The food forest, proposed in October of 2014, began taking shape about five years after the community garden. Gulko is the author of the forest’s mission statement, which says it is meant to do more than offer food and beauty to Coral Springs residents. The forest promotes regeneration of the soil and helps it sequester carbon.
An avid student of permaculture design, Gulko speaks like a master gardener and loves botany. “I’m picking up a new tree today: a Muntingia Calabura, also known as a strawberry cotton candy tree,” she said almost giddily.
Her willingness to try growing exotic things wasn’t always so. Gulko acknowledged that gardening humbles you – that learning this new skill can be overwhelming at first.
“You observe, observe and observe. Then you do,” she said, referring to her close study of weather patterns, insects and animals that affect growing conditions.
“I can’t believe that a Jewish girl from Montreal could envision a food forest and now it’s actually here.” When she gestures around, it’s a lot to take in.
There are robust circles of banana plants, papaya, jack fruit, giant clumps of Mexican sunflowers, lemon grass, and heart-shaped taro leaves framing coconut palms. The food forest has many fruits, vegetables and root systems that are hard to pronounce; hailing from places as far-flung as Asia, Hawaii and the Caribbean.
“One day I found a man in army fatigues standing in the food forest, just staring and staring at the trees,” Gulko reminisced, “he told me he’s from the Dominican Republic and loves to visit this place because it reminds him of home.”
Compliments like these are owed to an able-bodied (and sometimes sweaty) team of garden club members and volunteers. The city pays for watering and donated the bigger trees. A local landscaping company drops off its mulch, which helps gardeners make rich and nutrient soil. Normally, they’d have to pay to do that, but in the food forest, it’s a win-win.
Boy scouts, Eagle Scouts the Daisies, and a Girl Scout troop, have all been instrumental in making shade houses, benches and gravel paths for the garden.
Once, the Coral Springs Fire Department, performing a drill in the nearby lot, trained its hoses on the flower beds in good fun. Gulko said the garden is a great way to make the whole community feel more connected, boost morale.
“After Hurricane Irma, most of our trees were down, and I remember looking up at the universe and saying ‘I’m done’, and then out of nowhere the new rotary club president, Scott Jablon appeared and asked how he could help.
They soon rebounded with help from Jablon and garden club members.
Gulko, a mental health therapist, said studying the Earth’s natural systems has made her a better psychologist. She loves to offer visitors a cool drink, and, if you’re lucky, a shaving from a sugar cane plant. She’s learned a lot about growing both food and drink.
“I make my own teas from some of these trees,” she said, and added that while she is most interested in the botanical aspects of gardening, it’s different for everyone.
“There is a Coral Springs couple who come by bus, and leave with the food they’ve grown.” Gulko said, adding that for a lot of her fellow gardeners, it’s very much about growing and eating as much fresh fruits and vegetables as they can grow.
The garden, which started off as just a handful of Coral Springs residents caring for twenty plots, has grown to fifty-four individual and well-maintained garden beds. The dues to become a member are $40 per month, and if you don’t keep up your plot, your annual membership dies on the vine.
Gulko said the garden has a waiting list. “We’re not really concerned with scale or profits. The garden is here to empower and teach.”
Jen Russon is a freelance writer and English Language Arts teacher. She has published two novels to Amazon Kindle and lives in Coral Springs with her family.