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.
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A bean plant grows on Beacon Hill.

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

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.  

The food forest is expected to be fantastic eventually, providing local bounty for the many in Seattle who would otherwise go without in a city that’s increasingly off limits to anyone but high-end earners. But at the moment the yield is primarily people. Which brings us back to the “Boulevard of Beans” on Beacon Avenue.

Christina Olson, another gardener who kept the food forest vision steady through years of meetings and bureaucracy, wanted more immediate results while the food forest took root. With support from the Beacon Garden Club and ROCKIT Community Arts, she came up with a project she calls, “Beacon: A Hill of Beans,” a seasonal project to introduce the wide world of beans to the neighborhood.

Cross to the other side of the park from the food forest — past the ball fields — and you’ll see what looks like an edible apparition in the distance. Olson calls it "Bean Henge." “It’s actually like a bean tepee”, she says, “but we like the name ‘Bean Henge’ better.”  Scarlet runner beans, Italian Firetongue and the beautiful YinYang and Calypso varieties climb trellises attached to a bike spoke, which is balanced horizontally on top of a metal pole.

“We sort of aligned the opening of ‘Bean Henge’ to the setting sun over there.” Olson points to the Olympic Mountains in the distance and starts to talk about the meaning of the word “henge.” Stonehenge in Cornwall, England is a famous circle of stones shaped in astronomical alignment, she says, trailing off.

A teenage crew has arrived to water the beans. With PR savvy, Olson convinced the community center, the teens, merchants along the Avenue, and El Centro de la Raza, Center for the People to join the project and grow the beans. The city’s famous Borrachini Bakery donated recycled food buckets to plant the beans if the crew would grow Romano beans for the bakery’s 80- year-old patriarch, Remo. “No problem,” said Olson.

For a culturally diverse neighborhood, growing beans in their infinite variety seemed a perfect choice, she says. While food forest gardeners haul wheelbarrows of wood chips to cover grass, these gardeners haul water in carts and little red wagons down Beacon Avenue every day to make sure the beans thrive. “Now that they’re climbing the fence to vine up we have to train them over to get a hold on the other side,” says volunteer crew leader Betty Jean Williamson, who checks beans growing on a metal fence at Dragon Repair Auto. 

The idea of growing food for all to harvest has spread to the street — a Boulevard of Beans in an emerging urban food forest.

Enjoyed this story? You might also like:

"Nation's largest public food forest takes shape on Beacon Hill" by Robert Mellinger.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.