PLANT A REVOLUTION: CREATING AN URBAN FOOD FOREST
by Craig Hepworth
Tired of corporate control of the food supply? Fed up with eating food that was grown thousands of miles away with huge amounts of fossil fuel in its production and transport? In Gainesville, Florida, we’ve formed a group that’s creating positive alternatives by promoting edible landscaping and local, sustainable food production.The creation of the group was inspired by seeing how easy it is to propagate many fruit trees that grow and produce very well here. Some can be started easily from cuttings, others come fairly true from planting seed. In many cases, within a year from starting new fruit trees, they can be grown enough to be ready to plant in the ground.We realized that it would not take a great deal of effort for us to start a nursery in which we could produce large quantities of fruit and nut trees of excellent varieties that are locally adapted. And by doing the project on a volunteer basis, we could charge just enough money for the trees to cover our costs, making them very affordable for people. The idea was that there are many people who’d like to learn about plant propagation but haven’t had the opportunity to learn, and there are many people who would like to plant food-producing plants, but haven’t had a source of plant material. By pairing the two, we could teach people valuable skills of plant propagation while in the process producing large quantities of food plants.
In The Beginning
To get our “seed money” for the project, we started with a weekend of dumpster-diving (amazing what good stuff gets thrown out at the local college at the end of the semester), followed by a big yard sale of the loot we’d collected, which netted a few hundred dollars. We used this money to get a truckload of potting soil delivered from a nursery supplier, plus some pots and irrigation supplies.Then we began the really fun stuff, starting fruit trees. Some of our favorites are mulberries, pomegranates, and figs, which grow and fruit really well around here and start easily from cuttings. Wherever we located a mulberry or fig tree around town loaded with tasty fruit, we took cuttings and rooted them in the nursery to start new plants. Some fruit trees, like loquats, start well from seeds, so when eating fruit from the best loquat trees around, we’d save the seeds for planting. Always the basic idea was the same: find those fruit trees around town that do really well here, making huge quantities of tasty fruit, and start new trees from those, using whatever method works best for that species.Most of the work of the project happens at regular work parties, where we tend the plants in the nursery, start cuttings, plant seeds, up-pot seedlings, and weed. The whole project is run on a volunteer basis: people donate their time at the nursery or at the market, learning how to start and grow food trees, and in the process producing lots of fruit and nut trees for distribution. Our main method of distribution so far has been by having a booth at the local farmers market, selling fruit trees mostly for two and three dollars a tree.
The goal of the project is not to make money, however, it’s to distribute the trees, so we’re always happy to give away plants to folks without funds for purchase. So far we’ve been able to sell everything we’ve been able to produce just by bringing it to the market. We’re looking into ramping up our production in order to be able to really supply quantities of plants, especially to the poorer areas of town.The long-term goal is to have food-producing trees all around town, in yards, street corners, and public places, so that every month of the year is marked by different fruit trees ripening. Tree crops need to be planted only once, and they bear for decades, a freely-given abundance produced locally that keeps us from having to support intensive agribusiness.Beyond spreading plant material, we also want to spread information about how best to use these varieties. When a prime fig or mulberry or loquat tree around town is at its peak of production, it’s sad to see how many people walk right on past, blind to the bounty before their eyes, their minds trained to think that food comes only from the store. By spreading the word about what people are missing out on, we can make sure that not only do fruit trees get planted, but that the fruit gets used. Recipes and processing techniques can make sure the bounty is well utilized (for example, dehydrated mulberries taste like mulberry-flavored raisins). We’ve been experimenting a bit with solar dehydrators for a really sustainable complete food system—not only would the fruit be grown with solar energy, it would be preserved with the sun’s rays too, for a year-round supply of tasty dried fruit.
We have experimented with various techniques of plant propagation. Our most successful technique for starting new plants is by taking cuttings, a procedure that is very simple, and reliably produces large quantities of plants. A brief description of the technique is in order, for people who’d like to try this. We simply cut trimmings of the branches into four to eight inch long sections, trim off all but one or two leaves from each cutting, and trim the remaining leaves to less than half of their original area. During winter, deciduous plants can be cut into leafless twigs. We then stick a whole bunch of these cuttings a couple of inches deep into a pot of soil on about a one inch spacing; twenty or thirty cuttings can easily be fit into a ten or twelve inch diameter pot. The soil is then watered generously.Since these cuttings do not yet have root systems to draw water up from the soil, they are very prone to drying out until they have rooted. There are two basic ways of dealing with this. One is to have misters that turn on every ten to thirty minutes, spraying the foliage with water, much like the produce misters in the grocery store. The other, more low-tech method is simply to put a clear plastic bag over the pot and set it someplace where it gets filtered sunlight.Within six weeks of taking cuttings, many varieties have started to make roots, and by three months many are well-rooted enough to be carefully separated out and planted in individual pots.
We have had tremendous success using this method with mulberries, figs, and pomegranates, and have had at least a few “takes” of plum, blueberry, pear, muscadine grape, avocado, and peach.One of the most exciting things about our project is realizing how much potential there is for it to be replicated, in one form or another, around the country. Plant propagation is easy! Although we have chosen to go a group-based, not-for-profit route, there are many possible models. A single person could produce, in a smallish suburban yard, hundreds of food plants for distribution every year. Done as a for-profit project, this could become a nice small business for someone. Or for someone with land, this could be an inexpensive way to produce plants to start to develop the property as a commercial tree crops farm. On a smaller scale, even just a couple of pots of cuttings a year could produce quite a number of plants for distribution. Every fruit or nut tree started could be producing bounteously for decades—a tremendous return on a small amount of effort. No matter what climate zone you are in, there are tree crops adapted to your area.
One of our plant propagation and breeding projects that seems to have tremendous potential is with avocado. Avocadoes grow and fruit in abundance in south Florida, but here in north Florida our winter lows in the upper teens to low twenties (°F) rapidly turn avocado varieties from south Florida or California into crispy critters. In the wild, the most cold-tolerant avocadoes are native to Mexico. A few trees of these Mexican varieties, planted years ago in our area, produce regular crops of fruit and handle most winters with little problem. Additionally, in Texas many excellent varieties have been selected from Mexican avocado parentage. We have been working on propagating avocadoes from both of these sources.
The really neat thing about making available this cold-hardy avocado material is what’s likely to happen if we get enough trees of numerous cold-hardy varieties planted around town. Once the trees are big enough to flower and set fruit, they will cross-pollinate, becoming a true breeding population, mixing and matching their genes for a variety of characteristics, from cold-hardiness to fruit size and flavor. The seeds will find their way to favorable locations, with the aid of human accomplices, many of whom may never have heard of our project—who can resist planting an avocado pit? Already in Gainesville, almost every street has one or two houses with an avocado plant grown from a supermarket fruit – these plants freeze to the ground every winter, and never set any fruit.As every new seed of the cold-hardy stock gets planted, the gene pool is expanded. The occasional colder winter will knock out of production the less cold-hardy individuals, and trees that reliably produce the largest, tastiest avocadoes are the ones whose fruit is most likely to get distributed to friends and neighbors (or swiped by neighborhood food foragers!). Every avocado fruit eaten has at least a fair chance of its seed being planted. The result would be a vast breeding project, involving many people over many years, more or less unknowingly selecting for cold-hardiness, fruit quality, and general adaptation for local conditions. A Gainesville-based center of cold-hardy avocado germplasm would supply material that could be grown all around the Gulf Coast, and up through coastal Georgia and South Carolina.Some people have a keen interest in planting only native plants, based on concerns for maintaining the ecological integrity of their bioregions and not wanting to be responsible for introducing the next kudzu. There is a lot of justification for this position, and certainly there are many native fruit and nut species to work with in North America: pecan, chestnut, pawpaw, persimmon, and species of blueberry, grape, and blackberry. In our project we have taken the position that we will propagate both natives and nonnatives, as long as the non-natives do not aggressively spread into natural ecosystems. We base this decision on the grounds that whatever food can be produced for people by trees planted as part of the “human-scape” is food that doesn’t have to be produced someplace else, likely displacing native species there.
The Seed Bank
Although the main focus of the group is on propagating tree crops and other perennials, we’ve also begun a seed bank of locally-adapted, open-pollinated vegetable varieties as another way to promote local food production. By letting nonhybrid vegetables in our gardens go to seed, we are able to save tremendous quantities of seed for distribution. This has been one of our most popular items at the farmers market—packets of seed for which we charge a dollar are less than half what commercial seeds usually sell for, and these are varieties that are guaranteed to do well here without needing intensive chemical fertilizer or pesticides. Also, we are able to bring to the market seeds at the right time for planting them – Florida gardening goes year-round, but most vegetable varieties need to be planted at the appropriate season to do well.Our most exciting seed distribution so far has been of a tropical lettuce variety, Indian lettuce (Lactuca indica). Ordinary lettuce does well over the winter months here, but fades out in the heat, making locally-grown salad lettuce a near-impossibility from May through September. Indian lettuce is a tropical species that thrives on the heat and humidity of Florida summers, and makes quality greens for salads. Currently, there is no commercial source of Indian lettuce seed in the United States. Our first distributions of Indian lettuce seed were to seed companies, and to vegetable growers who sell at the farmers market. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing greens of this variety being sold at the market all summer. Both by itself, and as a raw material for breeding work, Indian lettuce seems to have the capability of making the Southeast independent of California lettuce during the warmer half of the year.
Another, more long-term vegetable project is breeding perennial leaf chicories for this area. Many varieties of chicory (Cichorium intybus) make excellent salad greens, and they handle our summer heat and winter frosts equally well. There are many varieties of leaf chicories, some of which are reported to have some degree of a perennial growth habit. The perennial trait seems to vary from individual to individual – within a planting of a single variety, some plants flower and immediately die, while others flower and keep growing. The good part of this is that after the first year’s flowering, you are left with only perennial individuals. By planting a number of varieties, we hope to keep selecting for perennialism and good quality salad greens.
You hear a lot of talk about ‘edible landscaping,’ but it’s amazing how rarely the idea is actually put into practice. How much food could we produce as part of the human-scape if the trees were chestnut, mulberry, and persimmon, the shrubs blueberry bushes, all of these select, high-yielding varieties? How much could we reduce our ecological footprint with every fruit and nut tree we plant? It’s difficult to find food for purchase that is really low-impact (although there certainly are developing examples of sustainable, organic food production). Most of the food eaten in the United States comes from the Midwest and California, produced with huge amounts of fossil-fuel energy, irrigated with water from fast-depleting aquifers and rivers, and grown with petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides on soils that are rapidly eroding. Much more energy is used processing this food, and transporting it across the country to its place of consumption. Every dollar spent on this food supports the system that produces it.
By planting fruit and nut trees and vegetable gardens where people live and work, we can declare our independence from this system. Perhaps the greatest potential for moving our society toward sustainability is for tree crops and other perennials to be developed and used for commercial agriculture, but having these plants as part of urban landscaping can improve people’s lives tremendously in numerous ways. Instead of consuming depleted, highly-processed food that contributes to rampant health problems, people could be eating fresh, wholesome fruits, nuts, and vegetables, harvested at the peak of ripeness. Rather than consuming food produced with massive fossil fuel usage in its production and transport, people could be eating food locally grown with little environmental impact or fossil fuel consumption (especially if the trees are irrigated with graywater or rainwater catchment).Rather than food being a packaged, processed commodity, trucked in and purchased at the store, food would once again be something that connects people with nature, with the seasonal cycles of life. Anyone who has ever stood under a tree loaded with fruit, gorging themselves on the crop, can appreciate the freely-given abundance. Once people realize how easy it is to grow food, there will be many opportunities for giving and sharing this abundance.