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Urban orchards taking root

Edible forest movement grows in Corridor

Harding Middle School students assist in planting a fruit tree on Arbor Day April 24 at Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids.
Harding Middle School students assist in planting a fruit tree on Arbor Day April 24 at Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids.
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In a few years, visitors to Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids, Lowe Park in Marion and Wetherby Park in Iowa City will be able to pick an apple or a pear to snack on, free of charge.

Local groups are planting the fruit trees to create “edible forests.” The trees are saplings now, but in years to come they’ll provide food to anyone walking by.

Urban food forests are growing in popularity nationwide, part of a wider focus on eating food grown close to home, orchard organizers say.

“I think as a society right now people are paying really close attention to the mileage of the food they’re eating,” says Dustin Hinrich, field coordinator for Marion-based Trees Forever. “People recognize the fact buying apples from Chile is foolish when we grow very good apples here in Iowa.”

Trees Forever, a non-profit that promotes tree planting, is a partner in the Noelridge Park orchard planted April 24, and the Lowe Park trees planted April 21. It also helped plant an urban orchard at Matthew 25 in 2012.

Growing fruit in parks also is about education and engaging the public in the process, Hinrich says.

“One of the original forces that started driving us in this direction would be the Blue Zones movement, the idea we need to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables our youth are eating,” he says. “Providing places for kids to interact with where their food is coming from is an important part of it.”

BIG School students in Cedar Rapids are doing just that.

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The BIG School, with which The Gazette Company is a partner, offers students a chance to do in-depth projects for school credit. Seven students planned the Noelridge Park orchard working with the Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Department, Blue Zones Project in Cedar Rapids, Iowa State University Extension, Trees Forever and Hughes Nursery.

Cedar Rapids city arborist Todd Fagan says the effort will use a previously empty section of the park, adjacent to Golf Street.

“We want to help the environment and make Cedar Rapids more beautiful,” Jefferson High School junior Will Kremenak says. “I hope it helps people get out and about.”

The high school students led a group of middle school students in planting 24 apple, pear, plum and cherry trees on Arbor Day. This is just phase one. Phase two calls for walkways, hand-washing stations, benches and other details. Future partnerships with organizations like Feed Iowa First to harvest the fruit for local food banks are possible.

Cedar Rapids Washington junior Myles Hebets, 17, says he likes that the trees will make a long-term impact.

“The idea of seeing this 20 years down the road is kind of huge, kind of invigorating,” he says.

In Lowe Park, 12 fruit trees were planted during the week of Earth Day in a partnership between Trees Forever, Transamerica, the City of Marion, Linn County Master Gardeners, and the Blue Zones Project in Marion. The orchard will be expanded in future years.

Hinrich says the location is perfect for community involvement because it is near the Linn County Master Gardner greenhouse where public classes are held, as well as near community garden plots and a senior dining site.

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Trees Forever is looking for volunteers to join its Fruit Tree Keepers, a group of residents trained on how to plant and care for fruit trees. They will work with Marion city employees to maintain the park’s trees.

In Iowa City, volunteers are helping an edible forest in Wetherby Park take shape.

Iowa City-based environmental education non-profit Backyard Abundance organized volunteers to plant the trees last year and this year with a grant from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. The orchard is an expansion of an edible maze planted in 2001 in the park.

When complete, the landscape will feature trees alongside shrubs like hazelnut and aronia berry plus strawberries and herbs.

Backyard Abundance director Fred Meyer says urban food forests make fresh, local produce accessible to all, regardless of income levels.

“This idea of growing food in ways that can be shared with everyone and benefit the environment — those two ideas are paradigm shift for our current food system,” he says.

Backyard Abundance helped design edible landscapes at Iowa City’s Chauncey Swan Park, the Iowa City Recreation Center and the front lawn of New Pioneer Co-Op’s administration building. Growing the food is just the first step, Meyers says. Convincing people it is OK to pick and eat produce in public places is just as big a challenge.

“My biggest fear is people will see it but not get out there to harvest food,” he says. “All the other critters on the planet do — they just run around, seeing the world as a big buffet.”

Get involved

Both Trees Forever and Backyard Abundance are looking for volunteers to help maintain urban orchards.

Trees Forever: (319) 373-0650; treesforever.org

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Backyard Abundance: (319) 325-6810; backyardabundance.org

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