Could Olympia become a mecca for edible forests?

Posted on February 18, 2012

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Seattle’s Beacon Hill is developing the nation’s largest “edible forest.” Crosscut writer Robert Mellinger explains how community members are turning seven acres of long-unused public utility district land into the “Beacon Food Forest.”

The public park, located at the corner of 15th Ave S. and S. Dakota Street, will include a variety of crops, a community gathering space, and a children’s area. Mellinger says that various trees will be “mixed with berry shrubs, climbing vines, herbaceous plants, and vegetables closer to the ground.”

The project design was finalized last September and work parties are being held with the goal of completing the project’s first phase in 2012 (see schematic). The project has been partially funded through a $20,000 “Small and Simple Neighborhood Matching Grant” from Seattle’s Dept. of Neighborhoods.

Mellinger says the idea emerged from a 2009 workshop held by Jenny Pell of Permaculture Now! The project may be down to down-to-earth but it is rooted in sustainability and permaculture transition theories of social change. Here’s background on edible forests.

Beacon Hill isn’t the only edible forest in western Washington. University Place has a 7.3-acre apple orchard park, which it bought in 1993 and turned it into a public space.

Okay, so what about Olympia?

This would seem to be a particularly ripe idea for Olympia. We have lots of public land in local and state hands, a cutting-edge college, a growing number of edible landscape consultants, and a mayor with background in sustainable food systems.

All true, but take a careful read of the Mellinger story. It primarily focuses on the many bureaucratic challenges that Beacon Hill citizen activists have had to overcome. And they possess advantages we don’t have in Olympia, such as a the City of Seattle’s greater support for neighborhood-level governance.

Of course, some obstacles are universal, such as the “modern” tendency to look at an edible landscape as a weird hippie fantasy. Somehow we’ve gotten into our heads the idea that food production should be completely distinct from our everyday urban or suburban reality. One result: Local and state government spend a meaningful amount of acreage and money on maintaining ornamental landscapes that could be edible.

How much local interest might there be on this issue? The Olympian ran a story on edible landscapes only last week — but that was a syndicated piece from Ohio. Fertile Ground has planted an edible forest at its site,  and the Cooper Point Neighborhood Association has helped develop one on a resident’s yard. Meanwhile, the Evergreen State College is adding more edible landscaping around campus. However, if something bigger is cooking, I haven’t come across it yet on the intertubes.

What do you know, dear readers? Did ideas revolving around edible forests on public lands gain traction at the recent food summit?

UPDATE: The Olympian posted a story about a Roy low-income housing complex that includes an apple orchard. Cool idea.

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