Learning How to Design Community in a Food Forest

“Community food forests can reach beyond their physical boundaries in support of civic well-being.” ~The Community Food Forest Handbook

A year ago, I took to planning; educating myself in business and accounting; and taking action to launch my non-profit, Pineapple Acres (which made it’s official debut in April). Here I have had the unexpected experience of interacting with public spaces to install educational food forests. What began as a passionate gardening hobby has transformed into multiple community projects.

My first project was with my girls’ school. It began in February and has been loosely organized and built with a lot of uncertainties. Yet, it has created a low-risk business model for me. I’ve done some things right. Some things have not gone according to plan. And other things have turned out to be far better than expected.

In the middle of this project, I disappeared for two weeks to learn about permaculture design. Here I learned how to observe a natural space and then take those observations and put them into place for a self-sustaining garden. I believe there is a part in this process that does not include soil types, plant selection or sun vs. shade. Yet, it may be the most changeable and possibly the piece that can make or break a project. It’s the human factor. It’s much more difficult to observe the human systems in a public project because they are so complex and often overlap.

At the moment I have three projects taking place on public property. These are projects that fall into multiple phases and move in collaboration with many players. It’s complicated and requires focus and organization. It moves fast at moments for reasons that are completely out of my control. I may be lead on the design and manage the plants, but often I don’t organize the funding or volunteers. I don’t always set dates for work days. You see, when I’m brought in, I’m considered the expert in plants. I don’t usually have the final say in the project. This typically goes to someone who is in charge of the space and, many times, considers themselves a brown thumb or, in some cases, a black thumb. The main governance is controlled by others. And opinions can be many.

To help navigate this process, I’ve been studying the book, The Community Food Forest Handbook by Catherine Bukowski and John Munsel. This book is excellent. And to my surprise, already in chapter 2 they address the human piece and the effect it can have on the success of a project.

For example, for my initial school project we have moved through four stages. Each stage encompassed different volunteers. I have never worked with the same group. I’m the only stagnate piece (and my children at times). And sometimes I’m the ONLY piece. I spend many Sunday evenings checking in on the gardens, weeding, mulching and watering. We are currently in Stage 5, which I qualify as ‘maintenance’. This is the area where, if I did everything right, I should simply be the guide and no longer the lead or the most engaged in the plant part of a project. If I were to leave the gardens unattended others would move in to help. I believe, I could completely walk away and the gardens would survive. That feels good.

Yesterday, I initiated a work day. Teachers have claimed their gardens; science projects are lined near the butterfly gardens; and someone else located mulch. A few weeks ago I almost fell over when I found two dump truck loads of mulch. Others in this school community are choosing to continue with the gardens on their own. And I didn’t have to do a thing!

You can prep soil; install drip irrigation; and plant native plants all to help ensure a low-maintenance gardening experience, but there comes a time when other people will need to be present. What happens if the weeds break free from inches of weed-barriers you laid down (oh, and they will)? What happens if a landscaper decides to mow over the trees you just planted? Or a person doesn’t recognize a pineapple plant and hack it down with the neighboring grass? Someone takes your hoses and locks them in a locker that you do not have access to. Someone takes your pitch fork promising to mulch, and you haven’t seen it in sevens months. These things can happen. Believe me. Everything I’ve just listed has happened.

In permaculture design, we learned to observe things and then interact with the flow. I’ve learned how to move with the flow – even when it’s a bit choppy.

What I learned:

  • Talking with public maintenance or landscaping crews that are already in place is key.

One evening I was heavily scolded for watering plants. I didn’t blame the maintenance staff. They had no idea who I was or what I was doing. I may have had permission and a key, but clear communication is vital to ALL involved in the public space. I’ve also experienced the above examples of having trees, ferns, bromeliads, and pineapples mowed over. I know not every plant survives, but this was gardening murder. I cannot be at the school gardens 24/7. It’s impossible. But it’s possible to have a conversation and hope others using the space can work with you. Even if they don’t know plants, most often people are respectful of your work.

  • Organizing volunteers is important. Find groups that will commit. If you can’t organize the groups, many times the leader within the public space can.

With my girls’ school garden I have worked with university volunteers, church volunteers, PTA volunteers and family volunteers. All volunteers are welcomed, but not all volunteers are created equally. Many of my volunteers know absolutely NOTHING about plants. Still, if you guide them well, they can haul mulch, weed, plant and actually have fun. Even on days where no one should be outside. This is also a key moment to keep volunteers engaged. Providing water, work gloves and then talking about what the gardens mean to me has been enough to find support.

  • Funding is important! And complicated.

Grants are available for many school or community gardens. This is also an opportunity to bring outsiders into the project. You can do fundraisers; ask for community sponsorship; or donate yourself. Funding is an opportunity to bring in local involvement. Be strategic about this process.

  • Free stuff is good. Real good.

In my first project we reached budget (which was provided by me) at Stage 2 of 4. So we became creative about locating free stuff. Examples: propagating plants; contact tree companies for free mulch; ask volunteers for free plants. From my experience, the more people you share your project with, the more likely they will be willing to help. I had wonderful contributions from a local gardening club.

  • Community engagement is necessary for the long-term.

I’m impressed at how much community can be embraced around a garden. Not everyone can identify the plants or even know how to keep them alive, but a garden may be appreciated for the color of the wildflowers; the shade of the live oak; or the butterflies and bees busy moving in the sun. A garden provides a meditative space or an opportunity to sweat out your stress. There is something for everyone in a public gardening space. You just have to observe those within this space and move with it.

I believe in community projects, I have represented a gardening Yoda guiding others to understanding. In the end, it takes a village to make a community gardening space succeed.

“Many hands make light work.” ~ John Heywood

 

Regenerative Gardening Program

This month we are focusing on bees and Florida pollinating plants. Below are the schedules ’til the end of the year. The classes are free! Please consider joining me to learn more about the world we live in and for some fun hands-on activities.pumpkinsmindfulness-1holiday-1

Community Food Forest: Stage 1

I’m happy to announce that Pineapple Acres kicked off National Clean-up Day by digging in at a community garden offered as an outdoor educational space. This project is one of those opportunities that I never anticipated and has grown into a wonderful collaboration with a local park. We plan to install a permaculture-based mini food forest with native Florida plants. This space will be used for our Mommy and Me Garden Club and our most recent program: Regenerative Gardening. It’s a space meant to integrate community members at all ages.

Today young volunteers from the park’s after-school project helped initiate our first phase, which was sweaty, hard work. We cleaned up our space; pruned overgrown trees, which we transformed into green manure; and laid down cardboard and organic materials, including: cow manure as a natural fertilizer and oak leaves. Once we finish clean up, we will set our design and begin installing plants – the fun part!

“Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination.”

~ Mrs. C.W. Earle

Florida Gardening in July

July Gardening:

In July the monsoon season is in full swing. This is a blessing for many gardeners after the dry winter and spring months. It’s consistently HOT and very humid. I spend very little time in the garden and only in the mornings. I walk my gardens daily to check for weeds, pest problems and standing water.

It is peak mosquito season. Be sure to dump standing water after each rainfall. This helps prevent mosquito hatching. Mosquitoes will hatch in any stagnate water. You can also try planting a mosquito garden to help deter this pesky insect.

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Zinnia Profusion Double White

What’s growing in my vegetable garden:

Not much! My raised beds look pretty pathetic. It’s too hot for most veggies. I have a few pepper plants, everglade tomatoes, squash, and a dill plant trying it’s hardest in this heat.

What’s flowering:

My butterfly gardens are doing wonderful.  My lantana, zinnias, and milkweed have thrived in this humidity. The butterflies visit late each morning and lazily flutter to all the colorful flowers. My periwinkle has been flowering for several months and the heat hasn’t hinder the blooms. My bromeliads are flowering, which is new and exciting.

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Periwinkle or vinca (Catharanthus)

I recently purchased a few more orchids and tend to them weekly. I repotted a few and make sure to fertilize and water them weekly. The orchids love this humidity and flourish well outside in Florida.

I weeded out my snap dragons that couldn’t take the heat and replaced them with vinca or periwinkle, which are the same thing (something I just learned minutes ago!). This may be confusing to anyone from the north since vinca is also a shade-loving ground cover. I also added some Pentas lanceolata, commonly known as Egyptian Starcluster.

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Egyptian Starcluster (Pentas lanceolata)

Fruit trees:

My fruit trees have tried to flower, but I’ve had some difficulty with my pomegranate in particular. I’m not too concerned because the tree is small and needs to concentrate on growing roots and branches. Every time a bloom pops out (which has happened five times), the bloom breaks off. My Jamaican cherry trees has a few blooms, but are also small trees. I’m not too optimistic on much of a yield. Otherwise, my fruit trees are growing and growing. I fertilize monthly to help promote growth.

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Jamaican cherry (Muntingia calabura)

Other landscape:

My biggest concern has been scales and now I’ve noticed white flies. The scales I was able to remedy with rubbing alcohol and some patience; it’s tedious work. The white flies don’t seem to be causing any evident damage, but can weaken the plant and make it susceptible to disease. The white flies can be conquered naturally with neem oil.

*NOTE: I prefer natural remedies for my garden. If you are interested in other chemicals, please be cautious what you use and talk with a professional. Some chemicals may quickly kill a pest, but it may also kill beneficial insects or be poisonous to children and pets.

Bring the garden into the kitchen:

My Jamacian cherry tree is fully stocked. I have picked the fruit daily and either throw the cherries in smoothies or freeze them for later. These ‘cherries’ taste like cotton candy. I had so many and decided to attempt a jam. I just replace sour cherries with my Jamacian cherries. It’s super sweet and excellent on pancakes or waffles with some whipped topping. Enjoy!

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Moringa (Moringa oleifera)

July is a time to find some shade, sip lemonade and enjoy the luscious green surrounding the gardens. When I’m not sitting in my garden, you can find me at the beach. Live fully and enjoy your season of life!

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. ~Marcus Tullius Cicero