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Bay Blog: community

Jul
14
2017

A walk in the edible woods

Lincoln Smith, founder of Forested, a food forest in Bowie, Md., inspects a tree while giving a tour of his land on July 6. Over the five years that Smith has been renting the ten acres from a local church, he has transformed it into a multistory food forest that produces diverse crops and provides food for the community.

Imagine a forest garden, where the best of both farming and forestry combine to form an ecosystem that gives back to the land. Figs, pomegranates, pineapple guavas,  mulberries, leafy greens, mushrooms and raspberry brambles grow and are harvested in harmony with shady canopies and a wide array of other edible plants, and the environment benefits from the forested landscape. What you may not imagine is that you can find this forest agriculture paradise in a quiet, suburban cul-de-sac in Bowie, Maryland.

Just past the cheerful mailboxes and carefully trimmed lawns of its host neighborhood sits the forest garden, a ten-acre demonstration site founded in 2011 by Lincoln Smith through a grant from the District of Columbia Urban Forestry Administration and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Smith designs forest gardens and teaches courses on production ecosystems through his organization, Forested, LLC.

Goldenseal, a plant valued for its medicinal properties, grows in Smith’s forest farm.

Stepping inside the rustic gate, you are greeted to an array of edible plants, both of the standard and unexpected variety. Oak trees make up a portion of the canopy, providing all of the traditional benefits of trees such as improving air quality, retaining water and providing shade, however they also supply a surprising staple: starch. In terms of production and space, acorns produce as much as or more food per acre than wheat. It is this kind of information that Smith hopes will get people thinking differently about food. Helping him to do that in a delicious way is Michael Costa, head chef for the Washington, D.C., restaurant Zaytinya.

Food Forest Feasts are held twice a year at Forested and feature dishes created from the forest abundance. All over the forest garden, special emphasis is given to species that grow wild. A species of grapevine growing all over the garden is embraced as a food source and used by Chef Costa to create dolmas from the leaves. Fresh wine cap, shitake and oyster mushrooms feature in the meals. Spice bush is used to make a vinegar, sumac for a lemon spice.

Smith picks Wine Cap mushrooms of several maturity stages growing in a mulched patch of ground inside the forest. Due to their quick growth rate, Smith tries to check on the wine caps, or Stropharia Rugosoannulata, twice a day during harvest season.

Designed as a space for the community to be enriched, Forested’s forest garden is always open to the public. The land is owned by a local church, and the steps Smith had to take in order to rent it perfectly fit with his concept of urban forest agriculture. “I had to go to every home in the neighborhood,” he laughs, spreading his arms over the tops of kale and indicating the homes nearby.

Community members go to the garden to learn about edible forestry, paint the landscape, help with the harvest or just take their dogs on a leisurely stroll. “The longer we’re here,” says Smith with quiet pride, “the more the local community seems to understand and appreciate the project.”

A close up of perennial asparagus as it grows in a sunny vegetable patch of the forest garden. The delicate, fern-like foliage grows throughout the summer before dying back to make way for fresh, harvestable asparagus shoots the following spring.

If the forest garden is well-integrated with the human community, its relationship among the winged, crawling and rooted community is even more impressive. Take, for instance, the resident flock of ducks, whose grazing area rotates so they can forage throughout the garden. When harlequin bugs become a problem for the brassicas—crunchy vegetables like cabbages and radishes—the ducks are set loose to thin out the pests. Comfrey and dandelions are also a favorite snack of the ducks, who in turn spread nutrients as the comfrey and dandelions pass through their digestive systems.

Thanks to the biodiversity encouraged by a healthy ecosystem, pests like the invasive Japanese beetle meet some formidable foes at Forested. Scolia dubia, a native and beautiful blue-winged wasp, preys on the beetle. And wheel bugs are given a free pass to feast on the mulberry crop, in exchange for providing a valuable service in actively liquefying Japanese beetles. There are complex interactions to an ecosystem, which when working in harmony produce a beautiful, living landscape.

With the forest garden now in its sixth year, it is beginning to generate its own prizes outside, or ahead of, the man-made design. Jack-in-the-pulpit, sassafras and jewelweed now all grow unbidden. Will the herbalist begin creating jewelweed salves for bug bites and other irritations? Will they use that sassafras to create root beer? When the biosphere is diverse, it builds its own potential.

Smith tends a mulberry tree amidst his forest farm. The farm is maintained by him as well as neighbors, other volunteers and members of the forest’s Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, whose customers receive produce from the farm.

Food forests provide a wide variety of sustenance in a small space, and hit that double mark of community space and environmental improvement. Forested recently worked on a project to design a new food forest for the city of Hyattsville in Prince George’s County, and discussion is underway for additional gardens. Given all the intertwined benefits, it is no surprise that many are excited to implement forest gardens into urban settings.

Caitlyn Johnstone's avatar
About Caitlyn Johnstone - Caitlyn is the Outreach Coordinator at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She earned her Bachelor's in English and Behavioral Psychology at WVU Eberly Honors College, where she fed her interest in the relationship between human behavior and the natural world. Caitlyn continues that passion on her native Eastern Shore by seeking comprehensive strategies to human and environmental wellbeing.



Jul
03
2017

Learning from history to shape the future

An aerial view showcases the broken windows and the beauty of Petersburg, Va., a town of over 32,000 people located on the Appomattox River about 20 miles south of Richmond. (Photo by Tom Saunders/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license)

“Close your eyes,” commands Michelle Peters, Director of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Petersburg, Virginia. Her voice – buoyed by optimism – floats over the roomful of officials, government agents, nonprofits, businesses and Petersburg citizens gathered at the meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Program Diversity Workgroup. “It is the year 2030. It’s a great day in the city of Petersburg. Petersburg is an economically, environmentally, socially vibrant community… The spiritual, physical, emotional health of our community has been raised… It’s a great day in the city of Petersburg.”

When a speaker employs an envisioning exercise, most audiences listen politely and allow their gaze to wander –but this was in no way a typical meeting. The Chesapeake Bay Program Diversity Workgroup chose to hold their quarterly meeting in the city of Petersburg in a conscious effort to put into action those methods that spark real change: to listen, to engage with a community and to be present where change needs to happen. In the auditorium of Virginia State University on the thirteenth of June, faces across the room were tilted up, seeing this revitalized and thriving town. It is in a town like Petersburg that a time capsule jump carries weight—for, here, time behaves strangely.

Petersburg, Virginia has a long history as a market town and leading tobacco center. Twenty-four factories made chewing tobacco, and the manufacturer Brown & Williamson was king. The civil rights movement in the sixties was energized in the city of Petersburg, which is the home of the important Underground Railroad hub Pocahontas Island and two of the oldest black Baptist congregations in the nation. Demographics were relatively equal and the city was dynamic. As the city grew and needed to expand, it hit a roadblock of legal zoning. With annexation illegal, the size of Petersburg was set. The middle classes, both white and black, left Petersburg for the more desirable Chesterfield and other nearby areas. Brown & Williamson, the largest employer for the area and the driving force of Petersburg’s economy, pulled up stakes and left the town for Georgia in 1983. And then: time stopped.

“The saddest day in the city of Petersburg was when Brown & Williamson left Petersburg,” Reverend Betty Jackson proclaimed at the meeting. “We had poured so much into one industry and were codependent.”

Close to forty years have passed since the loss of the tobacco industry, but the feeling in Petersburg is that it might have been mere months since the departure. Marcus Comer, environmental research specialist and assistant professor of agriculture at Virginia State University, explained the phenomenon and its after-effects: “When different industries left, they took their earnings but left their pollution and toxins. Historically, Petersburg has been on the negative side for so long that it’s hard to overcome.”

Dr. Lucious Edwards speaks at the Diversity Workgroup meeting held June 13th at Virginia State University. Retired from decades as VSU archivist, Edwards is still active in the welfare of his community. (Photo by Reggie Parrish/EPA)

Stepping out of the past and embracing that envisioned future is exactly the hope of the day for all parties involved. Listening and understanding the starting place – historically and psychologically – is crucial to bringing about true change for the city, and realistic ideas for action grew from the protracted conversation rooted in that sense of place.

“’Oh, dear. Do you drink the water?’ When you tell someone you live in Petersburg, that is the first question you will be asked,” states Comer. According to him, “the perpetuation of negative perceptions has kept Petersburg down,” creating a learned helplessness.

“[At nearby military base] Fort Lee, [visitors] are told not to take a left turn towards Petersburg,” stated Annie Mickens, former mayor and longtime Petersburg resident. It is in discussing and realizing these limitations that residents found new strength and strategies. Through the course of the day, Petersburg citizens took ownership of their town and their own ability to improve conditions.

University of Virginia President Makola Abdullah put those ideals into action when he bought a home within the city of Petersburg and encouraged his staff to do the same, seeing investment in the city from within as the key to moving forward.

“Let’s change the way Petersburg views itself,” said Ronald Howell, special assistant to the Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, to general applause. “Let’s look not from the outside in, but from the inside out… These are the resources we have. We don’t have the optics to garner people from the outside… Let’s look at who is driving the economy in Petersburg right now, and let’s see if we can bring that back home. That’s where we start. There should be a network of farmers, internal training, certification and development. If no one wants to come from the outside, let’s build from the inside.”

Real-time change was apparent as attendees and speakers alike slipped in and out of the meeting throughout the day to vote in a general election. Community members were taking action on the words of former mayor Mickens: “We don’t speak for people who have no voice. They have a voice. We have to get those people to the table, to say, ‘I elected you. Accept my voice.’”

The South Side Depot in Petersburg, Va. Built in 1854 as the passenger depot for The Southside Railroad, this Petersburg landmark is the oldest railroad station in the state of Virginia. (Photo by Ron Cogswell/CC BY 2.0 license)

Dr. Lucious Edwards, archivist and historian, spoke on the historical tourism opportunities of Petersburg and its mark on the shaping of America. “[We need to] engage, to blend, to see the value of and interpret the African American experience,” said Edwards. “We should move away from the expectations of confederate history, slavery, plantations and towards others. Petersburg is a jewel for architecture and industry.” Planning departments and cultural affairs departments are merging in Petersburg, in line with a new plan to revitalize through the lens of historical identity.

Before adjourning to tour the Harding Street Urban Agriculture Center—one of the examples of internal Petersburg innovation—attendees settled on the takeaway action items for the Diversity Workgroup.  EJ Screen is an environmental justice knowledge tool that provides maps with overlapping layers of data, combining both environmental and demographic indicators that allow users to make informed decisions. Incorporating community input on the city’s role in health concerns, EPA is considering adding a new data layer to EJ Screen showing failing infrastructure lead lines in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The Diversity Workgroup will work to assist in Train the Trainer workshops and include lead remediation as a potential avenue for a green jobs workforce, while working more closely with local non-profit organizations and key community leaders on local issues.

By structuring meetings around the heart of communities and with an understanding of their history, as with this Diversity Workgroup meeting, it may truly be a great day in Petersburg and towns like it.

Learn more about the efforts of the Diversity Workgroup and the positive changes taking place throughout the partnership.

Caitlyn Johnstone's avatar
About Caitlyn Johnstone - Caitlyn is the Outreach Coordinator at the Chesapeake Bay Program. She earned her Bachelor's in English and Behavioral Psychology at WVU Eberly Honors College, where she fed her interest in the relationship between human behavior and the natural world. Caitlyn continues that passion on her native Eastern Shore by seeking comprehensive strategies to human and environmental wellbeing.



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