“What you're seeing is the first succession in a six tier food forest,” garden manager Angela Goldsmith tells me as we walk over the pebbled paths in Fargo Forest Garden, one of several Food In The City projects sponsored by Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust (OSALT).
It's a sunny afternoon, and what I'm seeing is an abundance of wildflowers, birds and bees on a space that used to be nothing but pavement.
From Depaved Parking Lot to Vibrant Green Space
In 2008, Depave approached Goldsmith, the property owner, and asked her if she'd be interested in a partnership to turn the ill-used parking lot into a vibrant green space. She agreed on two conditions: Depave would help with the design process, and the space would feed the surrounding community.
As the opening event in that year's Carfree Cities Conference, 150 local and international volunteers depaved the former parking lot in five hours. Located along a bike boulevard in a densely urban part of the city, the site was perfect for attracting the kind of energy needed to break pavement and lay a new kind of foundation.
“I have visions of all this fruit,” says Goldsmith, as she points out the different tiers in the food forest.
Forest gardening replicates the dynamics of forest ecosystems in an agricultural framework. Fifteen fruit trees—including paw-paw (native to North America,) apricot, and cherry—make up the upper canopy. The lower canopy is home to wildflowers, berries, herbs and vegetables like kale and celery, all planted in micro-climates conducive to their respective growth requirements. Goldsmith and Depave volunteers created hills and basins, which provide a mix of sun and shade and allow for the interplay of breeze currents with the planted terrain.
It will take a while for the canopy to develop, providing shade and trellising for smaller plants, and an abundant harvest for the neighborhood. In forest gardening, patience is key.
“You have to understand that this is a fifty-year project,” Goldsmith says. “You can't hurry it. It takes time for the soil web to develop, for plants to get established.”
Innovation and City Planning: Another Long Process
It also takes time to move something innovative through the red tape of city planning. Fargo Forest Garden (FFG) was the first privately-held property in OSALT, and there was a lot of negotiation with the city through the Bureau of Environmental Services. Depave volunteers and Goldsmith went through a six-month process of submitting plans for approval, reworking and revising, and submitting again before they could even begin planting. This was particularly arduous in planning and designing the rain catchment system, which enables the garden to divert about 126,000 gallons of stormwater per year from city sewers.
"The most difficult part of the project was the permitting," says Ted Labbe, a Depave volunteer who was part of the core group working on FFG. "Not that many people are doing what we're doing, and the city doesn't know what to think of us."
There were mandates for certain kinds of reeds, though Goldsmith had hoped to use more edibles. The pathways had to be dug four feet below ground-level and lined with stones, to divert overflow from the rainwater catchment system in the event of a fifty year storm, in which case the water would flow to a dry well they installed beneath the garden. This year, with an additional grant from the Portland Development Commission, Goldsmith will be able to finance the final plumbing from the rain pipe and barrel system.
The cost of permitting is considerable: fifteen percent in the case of FFG, which was created on a shoestring budget of $10,000, with a grant, matching funds, and volunteer labor. Depave intends to make this issue more central to their advocacy work.
"So far we've been making it through all the hoops, but the cost is very challenging," says Labbe. "As a society we've said that we want projects like these, which don't fit into categories, but that hasn't trickled down to the city planning level. This work is exciting because it doesn't fit into any category.
Learning Opportunities Abound
The garden was officially opened in spring of 2009. That summer and the following year, kids from Portland Environmental Engagement Program (PEEPS) took part in learning-based workdays at the garden, helping divide and transplant strawberries, sow wildflower seeds and create dried flower bouquets.
“It's a great example of taking an urban space and changing it into a natural environment,” says PEEPs Program Coordinator Jess Hoylman, adding that its size makes it easier for kids to see the garden change with the seasons, over the course of several camp sessions.
Unfortunately, PEEPs’ partnership with the Northwest Service Academy recently ended and the future of the nonprofit is uncertain.Goldsmith hopes the program can continue in a new partnership, recounting a memorable teaching moment this spring, when the kids were fascinated by the appearance of hundreds of lady bug lions (larvae). In the spring, a PEEP camper even found the first-ever worm.
“I'm learning along with them,” Goldsmith says of her teaching experience. She also cites the two-volume Edible Forest Gardens as her 'bible.' But as she climbs up a knoll to check the growth of one of the paw-paws, and stands troubled before four identical pear and apple varieties wondering why two flourished this year and two struggled, it's clear that much of her learning comes directly from a deeply attentive, dynamic relationship with the garden itself.
We pass a line of seedy green stalks waving in the wind stirred up by the traffic. “I have no clue what these weeds are,” Goldsmith says, “but the bees love them, so I left them.”
Food Security for Birds, Bees and Humans Alike
Eventually, there will be enough food to go around—for birds, bees, and humans alike. She'd like to partner with a senior community, possibly through the Urban League, and offer the FFG as a site for garden therapy. She's working on a community harvest and donation concept, similar to the Urban Farm Collective's system of granting one 'slug,' or currency unit, for each hour of labor. Members can then trade slugs for food, art, and others' labor during weekly markets.
“The garden brought out a part of me that hadn't been addressed, the part of me that loved gardening but never felt like I had it in me,” Goldsmith says. She now spends one to two months every summer harvesting and canning for the rest of the year, and loves the challenge of trying to rely solely on local food sources.
She'd like to see more connections forged through OSALT, including additional undeeded properties and more loosely-organized collectives like the Urban Farming Collective. “This only works when the community around it gets involved.”