Local Food Forestry
KITCHENER — A tiny urban forest quietly grows in a patch of grass behind the Forest Heights Community Centre on Queens Boulevard
It took 40 volunteers to transform the forlorn corner of green space into a food forest last summer. The urban forest isn’t a thicket of shady fruit-bearing trees yet, but with patience and care it will be.
Nicola Thomas points out lush purple plums on one of the fruit trees at the Forest Heights Food Forest that she helps look after.
The food forest is her brainchild. The idea came to her after she opened up a tiny container of organic raspberries for her three children. “They didn’t last,” she said, lamenting the high cost of organic fruit. So why not grow some for herself and everyone else in her neighbourhood? “Food is a concern for everyone,” Thomas said. “And for me, it’s access to locally grown, organic food.”
Forest gardening is a sustainable form of planting that uses perennial plants like fruit trees, bushes and can also include nut trees. Thomas thinks everyone should be able to pick and enjoy locally grown organic fruit from little urban forests scattered throughout the city.
She took her idea to the community centre and the staff offered up their unused green space to her, wedged between a trail, basketball court and playground. “People have asked me what if someone takes all the fruit. I just say, ‘Then we will have to grow some more.’ ”
A small idea grew into a thriving food forest with apple and cherry trees, herbs, flowers and a dozen different berry varieties. Thomas believes it’s the first one in Kitchener.
Butterflies flutter in squat bushes and elegant herb plants as young saplings stud a slope of earth overlooking a community garden in central Kitchener.
Erica Tickle thought the community garden in Weber Park could use some fruit trees.
“The idea is that folks came come through, collect and participate,” she said.
Tickle took her thoughts to the neighbourhood’s gardening committee. After getting permission from the city to expand the existing community garden, they set to work.
“We didn’t even know what an edible garden was,” laughed Barbara Hankins, a resident and member of the gardening committee.
Called the Mansion Greens Edible Garden, the fledgling urban food forest has over a two dozen fruit trees and bushes dotted with elderberries, Saskatoon berries (Hankins’ favourite), blueberries and more.
The meticulously planted fruit trees are surrounded by carefully selected plants, flowers and bushes to help the trees grow and attract the right pollinators.
Tickle designed Mansion Greens after a young woodland forest to create a canopy and encourage some sunlight to come through the trees when they mature.
“Over time, it will become less and less work,” she said.
“It’s great to be able to work with nature and then also have some items to harvest.”
The fruit trees, from peaches to plums and pears, will take a few years to bear fruit.
But a massive elderberry bush has exceeded many expectations. It stands on the garden’s ridge with glistening batches of the dark berries lightly swaying in the summer breeze.
“I’ve never seen an elderberry bush get that huge,” Tickle said. “It’s epic.”
Thomas used a method known as companion planting.
Each fruit tree sits in what’s called a guild. It’s a circular shape where the tree is surrounded by beneficial plants to help it grow.
“It mimics nature,” Thomas said. “They are all benefiting one another in some form.”
By planting onions and garlic in both gardens, nature fends off unwanted animals and insects, while the planting the right herbs and flowers attract pollinators.
Roadblocks weren’t an issue for these ambitious residents. They rallied volunteers, researched growing methods and applied for grants.
“The community made this happen it wasn’t brought forward by the government,” Tickle said.
She applied to Tree Canada for a grant to buy the trees and bushes. The city helped out by fixing the drainage near the garden.
Thomas got grants, trees and bushes from different organizations including the City of Kitchener.
This year the city pitched in at Forest Heights with a donated shed, water cistern and mulch.
She hopes to add benches in the future to transform the underused green space into a gathering spot for the community.
Tickle and Thomas want to see other communities work together to transform underused green spaces in the city into tiny food forests.
“It takes a number of years before you can see something come together,” Thomas said.
“But people love the idea of doing something, even if it’s small.”
Anam Latif is a reporter with the Waterloo Region Record.