Arboreal Agriculture- The Beacon Food Forest

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tree planting

the planning and planting of the Beacon Food Forest

STORY AND PHOTOS BY TARA AUSTEN WEAVER

On a sunny September day the community gathered, bringing with them shovels, wheelbarrows, children, drums, and gardening gloves. As cars drove by on busy 15th Avenue South, they loosened dirt, shoveled woodchips, prepared the soil and planted trees. These trees will grow into the Beacon Food Forest, the largest perennial food forest in the country on public land. It’s a community project years in the making.

The seeds for the Beacon Food Forest were planted in 2009, in a Permaculture class led by Jenny Pell and Marisha Auerbach. As a final project, student groups planned installations using all they had learned about designing for sustainability. One project focused on the wide embankment that borders the Beacon Hill Reservoir in Jefferson Park. Security measures taken after September 11th led Seattle Public Utilities to cap all reservoirs, which opened up the perimeter space for redevelopment.

The space in question—a long and narrow seven-acre parcel with a significant slope—provided an almost unheard of opportunity: a large plot in the middle of an urban area. The design team wanted to plant a perennial food forest, which mimics a natural forest structure to create a highly productive, low maintenance food system. Common in Permaculture, food forests have been used in traditional cultures for thousands of years.

“We knew this plot was opening up,” said Glenn Herlihy, member of the original design team and longtime Beacon Hill resident who had been involved in redevelopment projects in Jefferson Park. “The area was slated to become an arboretum, so the idea of an edible arboretum fit in with the master plan.” Though most class projects remain on the drawing board, here was an opportunity to take one to fruition.

What wasn’t yet in place was support for the project, so starting in 2010 the group hosted a series of community meetings, set up information tables at neighborhood events, and gathered more than 400 signatures and letters of support, They applied for a Small and Simple Projects grant from the Department of Neighborhoods to hire a site designer and mailed 6,000 informational postcards (written in five languages) to surrounding neighborhoods. Support was immediate and strong.

 

“Every time we’ve had a community meeting we’ve had an upward of 80 people who have said ‘I want to get started,'” explains steering committee member Melanie Coerver, who got involved herself after attending an outreach meeting. The goal was to create a broad-based project where site structure, function, and even plant selection would reflect the needs of the community. The team hired translators to help with outreach in Spanish, Vietnamese, Somali, and Chinese.

Moving forward, however, required more than just community enthusiasm. The land in question falls under the jurisdiction of the Seattle Public Utilities, but had been maintained by the parks department. “SPU isn’t used to dealing with community groups,” explains Jackie Cramer, member of the steering committee and original design team. A series of meetings helped work through concerns on both sides. “There are a lot of restrictions on how the land is to be used,” explains Coerver, “but they’ve been wonderfully supportive.”

What came out of these meetings was a framework for moving forward. The food forest would be administered by the Seattle Department of Neighborhood’s via their P-Patch Community Gardens program. As such, the project became eligible for $100,000 in funding, one of twenty projects receiving money from the Parks and Green Spaces Levy approved by voters in 2008. Use of the land was facilitated through an interdepartmental agreement between SPU and the Department of Neighborhoods.

“We were looking to support community garden projects,” says Laura Raymond, project coordinator for Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. “To make new connections in the neighborhoods and build stronger communities.” The food forest is larger in scope than other P-patch sites, but there are parallels.

“It’s great the city has allowed this to happen,” says Herlihy, “they’re putting trust in the community. Because we have a P-patch program, they know things like this are possible.”

The possibilities were exciting. Using feedback from the community, plans had been drawn up that featured a forest system of large nut trees in a canopy, apples, mulberries and other fruit trees in the understory, berries, herbs, and bulbs in the ground and root layer. Based on Permaculture principles, the system would be perennial and self-sustaining.

The ethnic diversity of the neighborhood influenced choice of trees and plants—persimmons, chestnuts, Asian pears, yuzu and Chinese haws. There would be P-patch plots for gardeners, open space, a children’s garden with thornless berry varieties, an edible arboretum, and areas for community gatherings and education.

The potential of the project attracted attention. In February 2012, local journalist Robert Mellinger wrote an article on the food forest plans for online news site Crosscut. This set off an avalanche of publicity that took everyone by surprise. NPR wrote about the story on their website, and Grist, Treehugger and Utne Reader followed. Pell was interviewed for Living on Earth, but not all media came from liberal or environmental corners.

Forbes covered the project, as well as Martha Stewart Living magazine and celebrity gossip site Gawker. The international media picked it up. Suddenly Herlihy and the food forest team were fielding interview requests from around the world. “I’ve never witnessed something go viral in the media like that,” says Raymond. “It really captured the imagination.”

“There’s this incredible synergy with this project,” says Cramer. “You just say food forest and people get excited. The name is very descriptive and imagination-inspiring.”

The name has not been without controversy. The idea of a public food forest—by the people, for the people—raises questions of who can pick the food. Will it all be free for the taking?

“The volunteers have first say in how the food is distributed,” says Herlihy. “But this garden has the ability to produce a large amount of food.” There is talk of designating certain areas as “thieves’ gardens,” free for the foraging. The P-patch plots will function as other city community gardens, leased on an annual basis to participants.

Discussions and accommodations have been part of the project. “It has been a lot of process,” said Coerver. “People get excited and want to start digging now, but we’ve had to be thoughtful and let everyone have their say.” There have been discussions on how to work with the topography of the site to minimize irrigation, how to design for crime prevention, making sure the underbrush isn’t too thick, how to accommodate community groups and special populations that will use the site. It’s been three years of volunteer effort, patience and persistence.

This is why that September day felt like a celebration. More than a hundred community members participated—some volunteers from the beginning of the planning process, others getting dirty with pitchforks and wheelbarrows for the first time. As local musicians played, ground was broken, layers of cardboard and woodchips spread to begin the transition from lawn to forest floor, and the first small trees and bushes planted. After three years of effort, planting was finally underway.

The first phase of the project covers 1.75-acres. Depending on progress, additional space will be made available, with potential for the entire seven-acre plot to be developed.

“This is a hopeful way we can take public land and do something positive with it, says Cramer. “Especially in times that might seem hard, people are so excited to be involved.” The steering committee welcomes community involvement. Current needs include donations of building materials, edible and perennial trees and shrubs, website development, grant writing and outreach. There are monthly work parties for those who want to get dirty.

“We’re being looked at as a pilot project,” says Herlihy, “a food forest on public land. So many people are watching from all over the world, we really want to show that this can be done and it can be a valuable asset to the community.”

***The Beacon Food Forest is completely volunteer run. To make a donation, check the event calendar or volunteer your time, visit beaconfoodforest.weebly.com.

Tara Austen Weaver writes about food, travel, culture, and agriculture. She is author of The Butcher & The Vegetarian, Tales from High Mountain, and writes the award-winning blog site Tea & Cookies.

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