By Bill Herrin
Just off Destin’s Main Street, lurks a little‑known gem of civic pride, green‑thumbery, and the result of a lot of hard work. What started as an overgrown back lot full of weeds, trees and smilax (one of the toughest and most prickly perennial vines in North America) behind the American Legion was slowly transformed into a first‑class raised‑bed community garden. The brainchild of Skip Overdier, this project got its start in 2013 and began as a volunteer project to clear, plan, and execute the overall layout of the garden site.
I met with Ron Sandstead at the site, and as he stepped off his golf cart, he began sharing more gardening information than I could fathom, and his love for the garden (and the people that participate in it) was obvious. A native of Illinois, Ron seemed to marvel at the ability of being able to garden here year‑round. Ron shared how, in 2014, the well was drilled, the power line was installed (for the pump, etc.) on the property, and the first six gardeners started working to create rich soil beds that would soon produce vibrant and healthy plants in this little slice of botanical heaven.
There was a lot to learn for the gardeners at first, especially since sandy soil doesn’t disseminate water in the same way that clay‑based soil does. “We did a great deal of research on what makes a healthy soil—and we were starting from scratch,” Ron says. Using mushroom compost, cow, rabbit and chicken manure, the gardeners found what worked best through trial and error. “We like to stick with organic methods because chemical fertilizer kills microbial activity. Our soil is primarily sand with no clay, so we make up the difference with organic materials…the results have been amazing.”
One great discovery was based on the techniques used by the American Indians. By keeping the roots of an existing plant in the ground, the active bacteria around that root help feed and water the new plants. By planting the new plants near the old ones, it builds the soil, stops erosion issues, and can increase the crop yield by 20 to 30 percent.
Ron shares another bonus to this technique—many times, the old root system will sprout a new plant from the existing roots. “We must not take the soil for granted,” he says. “That universe of plant and animal matter that lives below the surface contains as many living organisms in one tablespoon of soil as there are people (currently) on this earth.” Over 30 cubic yards of compost has been used to “build the soil” to date. I guess you could say it’s a hotbed of activity.
By 2015, much progress had been made, and the raised beds were added. The overall site—which now includes a well and irrigation system, a lot of wood chip mulch, and 18 raised garden beds—isn’t your typical garden. After starting six years ago, and actively gardening for about four years, the site is a year‑round garden that fosters community participation. Participants pay an annual fee of $100 for a raised bed space, along with access to the shared garden areas. Rules and liability waivers apply, and the fees cover the upkeep of the property, electricity, irrigation, etc.
Gardeners grow everything from flowers to hot peppers, and there is also a nice variety of trees, too. Ron says, “I think some of the best people in the world are gardeners. My experience is that they’re generous and helpful.” With 18 participating gardeners, he says that they’re always looking for more to join them—and you don’t necessarily have to be a Destin resident, either. “We have folks from DeFuniak Springs, Bluewater (Niceville), Destin, and more.”
With a brick patio/sitting area shaded by trees (patio portion was part of an Eagle Scout project by Ben Heisey), a pergola (donated by Lowe’s), a beautiful trellis at the garden entrance (with climbing roses) built by Ron, and an “art fence” that runs along Spring Lane, the main entrance to the garden is quaint and inviting.
Trees and bushes throughout the garden space include avocado, pear, peach, plum, loquat, lemon, pomegranate, blueberry, persimmon, and even red raspberry. The art fence has slats about six inches wide that are painted every way imaginable—some by the gardeners (each gardener can paint up to five pickets for free), and some by visitors as a fundraiser for the garden. They pay $5 to create a lasting image on the art fence, and the fence is a beautiful conglomeration of colors, patterns, sayings, and vivid inspiration.
As the spokesperson for the community garden, Ron shares with the community in many ways besides gardening—he keeps an eye on the place (and has caught his fair share of non‑gardeners helping themselves), and he gives talks every month on the fourth Monday of the month (at 5:30 PM in the American Legion dining room) in an open meeting that welcomes all to talk about gardening. They even have social media presence on Facebook—the page is called Destin Main Street Community Garden.
Ron names another huge proponent of the community garden—his self‑proclaimed “garden buddy” of several years, Carla Morgan. He says Carla was always there, working away, every step of the way in expanding and developing the garden into the beautiful space it has become. Carla tells me, “I came into this about two years after it started. I love to garden, and after getting involved, I closed down my garden at home and started gardening at the community garden instead.”
Carla’s comments about the garden are upbeat and complimentary. “It’s been so fun to watch it progress, grow, and become more manicured. It’s such a cool thing to be a part of. We have longtime residents of Destin, new transplants, retirees, young adults, a schoolteacher, a colonel, a Snowbird…even my granddaughter has a small plot here!”
And that, my friends, is how you take an idea, make it a reality, and grow fresh vegetables and fruit…oh, and friendships, too.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out the garden’s Facebook page or call Ron Sandstead at 850‑974‑9616.