Reflections on a year of food foresting

Design by Torie Partridge

By Gabe Popkin

Photos by Food Forest Collective members

I can’t remember how it started, the idea of turning a small, underutilized park into a food forest full of edible plants that would be free to the public. I do know where I got the inspiration: from Lincoln Smith, a landscape designer in Bowie who has created Forested, the largest food forest in the DC area, if not the entire mid-Atlantic. But whom in Mount Rainier did I first mention the idea to; what lit the spark to make this happen here? It’s lost in the fog of memory.

At any rate, I know that a group of us began talking in 2019, and, on a hot summer morning, visited a food forest Lincoln had designed in Hyattsville. Luke Chesek, a visionary council member, figured out the necessary procedural steps for getting our own project in Mount Rainier off the ground — getting buy-in from neighbors, the city and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which technically owns the land. For this I’m very grateful, because I’m not good at dealing with bureaucracies.

We soon realized that planting trees and shrubs would be relatively cheap and easy, but unearthing the stream that once flowed through the property would be a much bigger undertaking. So we put that dream aside, while keeping our plantings away from the stream course so it can perhaps be daylighted in the future.

Barry Stahl, a retired horticulturalist, took the lead on designing the garden and researching and choosing plants. We settled on a design featuring six crescent-shaped elevated berms to capture rainwater. A team of volunteers planted several dozen species of edible trees, shrubs and understory plants in a dense, multi-layered design meant to mimic a forest ecosystem. When mature, the plants in the forest will provide nuts, fruits and more to both people and wildlife.

Swales designed to catch rainwater

We included a pawpaw patch, a meadow maze and a hopeful trio of pure American chestnuts that have been selected for blight resistance. Towering over our little saplings — protecting them, perhaps — are a group of elder white oak trees, some of which long predate the city. These oak are, in a sense, the original food forest here, because their acorns nourish squirrels and other animals, and hundreds of species of insects, spiders and birds may inhabit their canopies.

Steve McKindley-Ward organized a team of “water angels” to keep the young plants alive and figured out how to get water from a nearby hydrant, with help from Public Works. When two large oak trees on a nearby property had to be taken down, the Great Blue Company (co-owned by Steve and Mimi’s son David) volunteered to cut them into pieces, which were then arranged to create a picnic area and a play area. Someone created a meditation area near the back of the park. Perhaps most profoundly, a public easement that had long been overgrown was cleared, and a trail was clearly delineated to connect 31st Street to Rainier Avenue, offering a short nature walk in the middle of the city.

Cutting the log chairs

To enhance what we were doing in the park itself, Kathy Shollenberger created an informational website, and Torie Partridge has designed a beautiful educational sign (featured at the top of this post) that will soon be installed, highlighting the public, edible nature of the garden and the connections between plants and the larger ecosystem. Many others have contributed as well.

Of course, we did not plan that a global pandemic would hit just as we were getting going. After some discussion, we decided we could safely plant and maintain the food forest, but we would need to put on hold our plan to host larger gatherings and workshops.

What has been most gratifying to me is seeing people “discover” the park. Nearly every time I visit, someone is sitting in the picnic area. Kids are playing on the stumps; I overheard some of them call it the “stump park.” At least one outdoor concert has been held. The food forest wasn’t envisioned as a response to the pandemic, and yet, it seems to have been exactly what our community needed during this challenging time: a place to safely gather outdoors, to escape the monotony of screens and indoor life, to recreate and to restore ourselves, to remind ourselves that better days lie ahead.

To me, the spontaneous adoption of the park by city residents is also a demonstration of how closely intertwined we are with plants — how we are drawn to spend time with our botanical relatives. All we need is a welcoming, accessible place to do so.

I want to clearly acknowledge that cultivating edible plants is nothing new or brilliant on our parts; in fact, it’s a reversion to some of the world’s oldest foodways and land stewardship methods. Indigenous people who lived and still live on this land are the masters of managing land for food production, employing much more powerful and sophisticated techniques than we have, such as prescribed fire. We supposedly modern city dwellers have become so alienated from our landscapes, from our plant cousins — from food itself, which most of us procure from the grocery store or, these days, the internet — that obtaining food from the land itself has become a radical act. I mean “radical” in the literal sense: back to roots.

Our little food forest will not, by itself, feed the city of Mount Rainier. But if it can feed not just the body, but also the imagination and the spirit, then I think it can open our eyes to new possibilities that extend far beyond one city park. I hope it can inspire people to reconnect to the land and the sustenance it offers through their yards and perhaps in bigger ways. I hope it will serve as a continual reminder that the land offers sustenance outside the consumer economy.

My ultimate hope is that, just as we have no idea how the old white oaks got here, in 50, 75 or 100 years from now, people will enjoy the fruits of the trees we’ve planted — or more likely, their descendants — and have no idea where they came from either. Moreover, I hope the streetsides and yards of Mount Rainier and beyond will have become one vast food forest, with our garden as the hub and the seed and pollen source for a much larger ecological revolution in the urban space. If that happens, we will have truly succeeded.

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