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Edible Public Forest Takes Root In Seattle

Over the past year, volunteers in Seattle have been clearing grass next to a city park and planting all manner of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and vegetables.

It's a social experiment, where the eventual bounty from this public "food forest " will be open for anyone to forage. But can respect and sharing triumph over hunger and greed in the edible arboretum?

Planting favorites

There's something so compelling about the idea that it attracts as many as 100 volunteers at a time to scheduled work parties.

Gustavo Martinez wields a pick axe to break sod. Like other volunteers, he's eager to see a favorite seedling mature.

"I like fig trees because they're big and broad and they make shade, and also because I love figs," he says. "I really can't wait to sit in the shade of a fig tree and read a book and eat some figs."

It'll be a little while yet before Martinez can realize his dream. The Beacon Food Forest will be developed in phases across a seven acre, terraced hillside. Groundbreaking happened less than a year ago. It's located in the ethnically diverse, Beacon Hill neighborhood - in view of Seattle's downtown skyline.

Project co-founder Jacqueline Cramer says the plan is to recreate in this urban environment the kind of diverse, productive forest that sustained ancestral civilizations.

Emulating the forest

The food forest Cramer envisions has many layers, starting with a canopy of tall nut trees. Planted beside them, shorter fruit trees -- now just saplings.

"We have pear trees in a pear guild, a variety of plums, apples," she explains. "Then we are starting to put in an understory to emulate the forest instead of being an orchard of rows of trees."

Cramer shows off blueberries, a gooseberry bush, currants, kale and lettuces. "The ground has strawberries as a ground cover," she says. "There were strawberries here. The schoolkids enjoyed them with us."

The city government in Seattle has chipped in more than $200,000 to cover expenses and keep the project moving forward.

Cramer says what makes this food forest different is that it's open to the public. Anyone can walk in and graze on whatever is ripe -- such as the heirloom broccoli right now. And it tastes a lot nicer than store-bought broccoli.

"The communal, open harvest piece is really uncommon," Cramer says. "That is probably why we're getting a lot of attention. It ruffles people's feathers. We'll learn as we go. We don't know how it will work."

"More nuts than anybody can eat"

Volunteers Peter Lang and Giovanni Dellino say they attended many meetings where the neighborhood discussed human nature and the likelihood for abuse.

"Sometimes with a garden you plant some plants to let the bugs eat," Lang says. "So we might have to do that, plant some trees just for people to eat. And hide some others somewhere or something!"

"We kind of hope for the best in people's nature and that there is respect and that people will not necessarily abuse that," Dellino says. "Somehow we hope for the abundance that when some people do sometimes, we'll be resilient and work through that."

Lang adds, "When we eventually -- in 50 years -- have huge nut trees, there will be more nuts than anybody can eat, I think."

Lang and Dellino say another reason they're confident comes from the respect shown at existing community gardens, which are common around the Northwest. Theft and vandalism happens, but generally stays at a low level.

On the Web:

Beacon Food Forest - official site 
Food Forest Schematic Site Plan - City of Seattle 
Video: 2,000-year-old food forest in Morocco - YouTube

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.