Secret Gardens: Gray Mockingbird cultivates a community

Edible greens (from left) rouge grenobloise, arugula and tatsoi are among the plants

growing at Gray Mockingbird Community Garden.

Photos by Kurtis Boggs/The Coastal Star


Director Brian Kirsch poses with recently picked papayas

at the Gray Mockingbird Community Garden in Lake Worth.

By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley

    A hand-painted sign marks the Gray Mockingbird Community Garden. Organized about four years ago, it is a work in progress.

    “It’s a place to learn the value of being nurtured by nature,” said Patricia Oliphant of Lake Worth, who uses the garden as a meeting spot for tutoring sessions with children. “The garden welcomes everyone.”

    It sits on about an acre of land in Lake Worth that was made available through the Scottish Rite of Free Masonry. If you visit, don’t expect carefully weeded paths, well-organized beds or pristine pots. Instead, people who give their time to work here grow food that they share with others. 

    “Growing your own food is one of the most powerful things you can do,” said director Brian Kirsch, who is here most days. “And with it we want to grow a sense of community.” Kirsch is joined by a core group of 15 volunteers who help keep the garden going.

    Enter through the vine-covered arch to find a crazy quilt of porter weed, milkweed, green Cuban oregano and other flowers, weeds and fruit trees that attract dragonflies, caterpillars, moths, monarch and zebra long wing butterflies. 

    Head toward the back of the property and you’ll pass more than 50 papaya trees, many of which were grown from seed. There’s also red bananas, peach trees and, if you wind back through the underbrush, even a miracle fruit tree.

    The garden features six 4-by-10-foot raised beds that can be rented for $80 a year by people who want to grow their own food but don’t have a place to do it. The cinderblock-lined beds come filled with compost and soil so they are ready to plant. 

    One brims with broccoli spears jutting from blue-green leaves. From another, a squash vine snakes out onto the black plastic that keeps weeds from growing between the boxes. 

    These beds are harvested by those who plant and tend them. But volunteers also garden as a group. They are experimenting with aeroponics, for which parsley, eggplant, tomatoes and arugula are rooted in pockets of air instead of soil.

    A Boy Scout troop helped build a hydroponic system using blocks of foam floating in water. Today red stemmed Swiss chard pokes out of the water into the light.

    Elsewhere rocks and cement chunks from the demolished Palm Beach Mall were recycled to make a keyhole garden that’s named for its shape. Other plants grow in three-gallon containers and blue grow bags. Wooden planks set on cinder blocks hold trays of tiny seedlings. 

    Nearby, there are 100-foot-long rows dug into the earth where you’ll find tiny green arugula leaves, Japanese mizuna, tatsoi, baby bok choy and the most peppery Italian arugula you can imagine. This exotic harvest is the work of volunteer Michael Heckart, who teaches English at Royal Palm Beach High School.

    “I got a late start planting this year but I hope to make up for it,” said Heckart, who sometimes brings 15 or more student volunteers to help him weed and plant the heirloom seeds he searches out on the Internet.

    These specialty crops along with other of the group-grown veggies and fruits are sold to local restaurants. The money is used to buy garden supplies and equipment. Garden volunteers also contribute food and herbs to local shelters such as the Family Promise in Delray Beach.

    “This garden gives me a reason to get up in the morning,” Kirsch says.

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley is a certified master gardener who can be reached at when she’s not in her garden.

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