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