Veterans Foundation breaks ground on new hydroponic garden

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A veterans group based in Cape Coral is sowing seed of community service in a blue collar Fort Myers neighborhood.

Invest in America’s Veterans Foundation broke ground last week to establish a hydroponic Veterans Garden on a vacant Ashwood Street lot. The decision to locate the garden in Fort Myers was made after the group found too many obstacles to set up the garden in Cape Coral, according to President Ralph Santillo. The foundation operates the Southwest Florida Military Museum and Library in Cape Coral.

“It’s going to be like an old time victory garden like we had during World War II,” Santillo said.

Neighborhood residents will be the caretakers of the garden. They will be able to pay lower prices for the produce in exchange for their work, Santillo said. They don’t have to be veterans to participate.

“We don’t only work with veterans,” Santillo said.  “We believe veterans have a responsibility to the community. We will help them.”

A section of the garden will be set aside for children. They’ll learn where food comes from by growing it, Santillo said.

The small, single-family lot should be able to produce as much as an eight-acre farm by using the hydroponic methods, said foundation executive vice president Don Graf. The food will be wholesome, and pesticide free, he said.

The veterans group was ready to establish the garden in Cape Coral, but ran into too many questions and requirements from the city, Santillo said. For example,  the group wanted to include a greenhouse, but the city wanted the greenhouse to meet certain hurricane standards, he said.

Santillo accepted the deed for the Fort Myers lot from Eddie Felton, director of the Home Owners Resource Center in Fort Myers. The non-profit center offers counseling and assistance to people who are trying to buy a home. The lot, which included a house from 1981 to 2010 and has a current market value of $2,300 according to the Lee County Property Appraiser’s Office, was donated to the resource center by Wells Fargo after a foreclosure action was completed.

Wells Fargo donated 1,100 properties in the United States last year, including about 100 in Florida, said Machelle Maner, community development coordinator for the bank.

“This is one of the more unique projects,” Maner said. “It’s a better use of the property to turn it into a community asset.”

The resource center hoped to help someone build a home, but it didn’t work out, Felton said.

Invest in America had a contact at Home Owners and the two groups began to talk about the garden project.

“They were trying to figure out what to do with our lot. They knew we wanted to a do a garden project,” Santillo said.

Growing can start after some preparation work is completed, Graf said.  The land needs to be prepared, a rain-barrel-based irrigation installed, and security worked out to protect the plants from roving animals or thieves.

Fort Myers City Councilman Tom Leonardo praised the garden idea.

“These things are incredible,” Leonardo said. “I believe we’re going to see it grow and prosper.”

The garden could become a neighborhood center for holiday activities such as Santa visits and Easter egg hunts, he said.

“We are veterans who want to give back to the community. This is a test run for us. We’d like it to be the first of many,” Santillo said.

Don Ruane has spent over 30 years as a journalist writing on various topics around Southwest Florida. He currently serves as Senior Correspondent for and writes a weekly article that publishes every Tuesday. Don can be reached by email at Follow him on Twitter #second reader or on Facebook also @second reader.