Virginia Food Forest takes root

Tomato plants grown in raised garden boxes next to Pine Mill Court in Virginia. Several small fruit trees have been added to the area as a future food forest.

VIRGINIA — On Wednesday morning, Kelsey Gantzer, manager of the Rutabaga Project, stood against the fence for the Pine Mill Court playground. She faced raised planters, newly planted trees and bushes. Volunteers stood on either side of her.

“My goal for today is to use the peat moss I just brought and finish mulching everything,” she said while motioning to the newly raised bed. “This was made by Youth Build and we can plant these donated plants in them.”

Six-year-old Lilly was already at work bringing one handful of dirt at a time from the large pile to the newest raised bed box.

“I guess we should help Lilly!” said one volunteer before they dispersed to work on various projects throughout the Food Forest.

The Food Forest is a project made possible by the Rutabaga Project, along with the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency and the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability. It is in the final stages of being planted.

“A food forest is a large perennial garden made up of edible plants, bushes and trees,” according to the inside of the coloring book distributed last fall to bring awareness to the Food Forest. “Perennials are plants that come back every year, so once a food forest is planted, it will continue to grow each year and bear more fruits, herbs, nuts, and berries.”

All plants part of the food forest will be appropriate to the region. The Iron Range is part of one of the coldest gardening zones: a USDA Zone 3. The plants chosen to create the Food Forest are those trees, shrubs, berries and herbs that will survive the winter and come back each spring.

“Perennials are not very exciting the first year,” admitted Gantzer while touring the site Wednesday. “We have planted some tomato plants that will produce this season. We also have a pumpkin and zucchini patch over there. We thought it would be really cute for the kids who live at Pine Mill Court to harvest a pumpkin to decorate this Halloween.”

The Food Forest will be located on city property, across the street from The Salvation Army, in front of the playground by Pine Mill Court.The Food Forest is meant to grow into a community space. Community members will be invited to help plant, tend and harvest. Most of the current volunteers live at Pine Mill Court, including Dana Mitchell.

“We used to live in the country where I had a big garden,” Mitchell said. “It was very fulfilling to produce good food for my family. Now, living in this apartment, it has been hard to find the same sort of fulfilment when I can’t have my own garden.”

She said she enjoys working with the Food Forest.

“This is a great place to learn and work with people who share my interest in gardening,” Mitchell added. “It is a great way to get involved in the community and it’s even better that it is right next to my place and my kids can help, too!”

Another family happy to work together on this project is Lilly and her mom, Kristy Johnson.

“I’ve been a part of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority and wanted them to do something like this for years,” Johnson said. “This is just so amazing. We have so much green space!”

Lilly has autism, which results in a communication disconnect. This doesn’t hold her back from helping with the hard work.

“To have a place like this to talk about gardening and teach Lilly is a huge tool for us.”

For the first two weeks, volunteers worked on preparing the land and planting the Food Forest everyday. Now that the workload has decreased, volunteers meet every Monday and Wednesday to work together.

The Food Forest has not experienced any theft or vandalism, something the group had worried about. “People walking by often tell us, ‘But kids are going to come and steal the berries from the bushes,’” said Gantzer with a smile. “That is the point!”

“The Food Forest is open to all,” she said. “This year we have planted a lot of trees and bushes. This will grow into an amazing resource for the community.”

Gantzer’s goal for this year is planting and tending to the Food Forest as plants get established. In coming years, each of the trees and bushes will begin to produce at their own pace. Some species will take longer than others to bear fruit and nuts.

She pointed to a small and slow growing Korean Pine. “Inside the pinecone will be a nut,” she gazes at them recognizing their unique growing speed (slow), fine for the long future ahead. “If you never plant the plant you will never have the fruit!”

The Food Forest is funded through a Community Services Block Grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Office of Economic Opportunity. The Rutabaga Project is creating the Food Forest as part of their effort to increase access to local, healthy food.

If you are interested in learning more about the Rutabaga Project or the Food Forest or volunteering contact Kelsey Gantzer, Rutabaga Project manager, at 218-404-8466 or Kelsey.Gantzer@AEOA.org.

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