Beacon Hill: The city's new urban gardening hub?

As the nation's largest public food forest takes shape on Beacon Hill, beans thrive on a busy commercial street.
Beans along Beacon Avenue

Beans along Beacon Avenue

The Beacon Food Forest

The Beacon Food Forest Photo: Beacon Food Forest Facebook page

A work party makes progress on the Beacon Food Forest.

A work party makes progress on the Beacon Food Forest. Courtesy of Beacon Food Forest

A bean plant grows on Beacon Hill.

A bean plant grows on Beacon Hill. Photo: Nick Mocha

Come to Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood and you’ll see not only what has been called the nation’s largest food forest, but also on a busy adjacent thoroughfare, Beacon Avenue, beans of all varieties — snap beans and those with fancy names like Calypso and YinYang— climbing fences and trellises at coffee and auto repair shops. Renamed for the harvest, the avenue is a “Boulevard of Beans.”

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While the beans grab for attention, the food forest in Beacon Hill’s Jefferson Park, is taking root. After years of meetings between the city and those committed to expand the locally grown urban food supply; groundwork is in high gear. At a Saturday work party, some 100 volunteers show up, eager to turn dry grassland into something it probably never was: a living ecosystem of food and trees. A cluster of young plum and walnut trees shows what’s in store for seven acres of park land. Red clover, planted at the trees base, will fix nitrogen in the soil.

Nearby, a patch of strawberries ripens in the sun. Pumpkins transition from green to mottled orange. And on a terraced bed uphill, lavender and sunflowers beckon pollinators.

Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of wood chips and cardboard are hauled to cover the  urban food grower’s common enemy, grass. Raised beds are framed meticulously in “urbanite” or re-used concrete for family and community plots. “We want to use every bit of space we can for edible, medicinal, herbal or crafting guilds,” explains Glenn Herlihy, a permaculture gardener and sculptor, and one of the forces behind this inner city transformation of land. “We’ll have a certain number of 10 by 10 family plots for the family to raise food for their table."

"Where we’re stretching the bounds," Herlihy says, "is we're creating a food forest that will also be a public gleaning area.” Fruit and nut trees, blackberries and goumi berries, the medium sized shrubs from Asia gaining popularity in western gardeners for their medicinal and sweet taste, will be free to harvest, he explains. People will be trusted to harvest ethically and only take what they need. “This is what we’re promoting and this is what we’re challenging humanity with,” Herlihy says.

What’s being nurtured here is a model of permaculture that combines the best of edible landscaping with natural landscaping. The goal of permaculture is to create an ecosystem that can sustain itself and at the same time nourish the bellies and spirits of those who garden.

The wood chips and cardboard used to cover grass will be watered with a mushroom culture called micro-risey to bring out the soil’s microbial life, says Jackie Kramer. Kramer is another of the tenacious gardeners who’ve stuck with the project since its germination in 2010. She points to a lower level of sloped land, close to another busy thoroughfare. Here the forest will rise up to mute noise, clear the air and absorb polluted run-off before it enters waterways.

The top canopy will be nut trees, says Kramer. “The next layer down will be a large fruit tree and then maybe a small plum and then shrubs and ground covers.” She wipes beads of sweat from her brow and looks out at the field of volunteers bringing this food forest to life. “Now it’s a bunch of young saplings, but as it grows we’ll see those trees getting bigger and more shade being cast. Once the understory of ground cover is established and shade created to retain moisture, the food forest will take off.”

Mid-morning. More volunteers arrive, along with drummers who keep a steady beat.  Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith drops by for a tour and chat. "If the food forest goes according to plan," he says, "it will be a new model not just for Seattle but for the country. a model of a place where you can take public property and put it to good use in an area that really needs sustainable food.” The food forest  has a partnership with the Department of Neighborhoods P-Patch program, and leases the land from Seattle Public Utilities, which owns property on one side of the park. “If this helps more folks in the south end have access to healthy food and also demonstrate a new way of gardening, that’s fantastic,” Smith says.  

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Posted Mon, Aug 26, 10:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Good luck to Jackie Kramer and her colleagues, but they may find a multistory/multi-canopy food forest a challenging project. I've seen attempts fail here and in super-sunny Northeast Brazil. Our fruit trees and other crops have been bred to grow in full sun, for maximum production. They may not appreciate the shade.
On the other hand, native understory fruiters--salmonberry, thimbleberry, hucklelberries, currants, serviceberries--are more photo-versatile. Many hikers find them tasty.

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