In Seattle, folks will pick crops from a 'food forest'

Briar Bates (left), Glenn Herlihy, and Jackie Cramer stand on the grassy site of the "food forest." ELAINE THOMPSON / Associated Press
Briar Bates (left), Glenn Herlihy, and Jackie Cramer stand on the grassy site of the "food forest." ELAINE THOMPSON / Associated Press (Briar Bates (left), Glenn Herlihy, and Jackie Cramer)
Posted: March 15, 2012

SEATTLE - A plot of grass sits in the middle of Seattle, within feet of a busy road and on a hill that overlooks the city's skyline. But it's no ordinary patch of green. Residents hope it will become one of the country's largest "food forests."

The park, which will start at two acres and grow to seven, will offer city dwellers a chance to pick apples, plums, and other crops right from the branch.

"I think it's a great opportunity for the people of Seattle to able to connect to the environment," said Maureen Erbe, who walked her two dogs next to the plot on a recent overcast day.

Would she pluck some fruits from the forest?

"Heck yes, I love a good blueberry. You're not from Seattle if you don't like a good blueberry," she said.

For health-conscious, locavoracious Seattle, the park is a new step into urban agriculture. Cities from Portland, Ore., to Syracuse, N.Y., already have their own versions.

Seattle, like Philadelphia, already is dotted with community gardens that various groups help maintain. Farmer's markets flourish in many neighborhoods, bringing in vendors from across the state to sell everything from tulips to farm-fresh duck eggs to pricey loaves of bread.

Residents raise chickens in backyards and plant their own vegetables. The more dedicated ones have goats, and even manage to forage around the city.

When a group of Seattle residents interested in sustainable gardening brought the idea of a food forest for the Beacon Hill neighborhood to city officials in 2010, the city-volunteer effort began. That year, city officials had declared it the "year of urban agriculture."

The plot is in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. Next to it is a sports park, a driving range, and a lawn bowling club. The food forest would be next to a heavily used road and near many apartment complexes.

"Seattle gets the big picture and so the focus on local food actions is a collaborative one," said Laura Raymond of the city's community garden program.

The department has allocated $100,000 for the first phase of the park, roughly a two-acre plot. The land is owned by the city's utility and through an inter-agency agreement will be developed at no land cost.

Raymond said the city hasn't verified it, but the forest might become the biggest one in the country. Glenn Herlihy, who helped create the park's initial designs, believes it can grow to that size.

Herlihy studies permaculture, a land management technique that aims to develop gardens modeled on natural ecosystems - that means natural fertilization that comes with decaying vegetation and a variety of plants in one plot. Unlike orchards, which have only one type of tree or shrub, a food forest has many types.

Developers use trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals with edible growth. Fruit and nut trees are on the upper level, while berry shrubs, edible perennials and annuals are on the lower levels. Plants to attract insects are also planted for natural pest management.

"All of these plants work together like a forest ecosystem, but they are edible," Herlihy said.

The park will have an area for the food forest and another area for smaller community gardens that can be used by families or community groups. One of the goals is to provide affordable healthy food at a time when such items can be too costly for low-income residents.

The first harvest from the community gardens will be in spring 2013. The fruit trees and shrubs will take a while to grow. Herlihy expects those harvests in about two years.

Ultimately, Herlihy envisions thick plots of nut trees, such as walnuts and hazelnuts, next to apple, pear, and plum trees. Underneath, there will be huckleberries, salmonberries, and salal, a native shrub. Rosemary and other herbs will be planted, and the group plans to install beehives to aid pollination.

Organizers say that they will use the honor system when it comes to how much food people can take.

"It's simply just good ethics," he said. "Help yourself, don't take it all, and save some for anybody else."

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