What do you do when you’re on parental leave for several months? You put your skills to work designing a food forest in your church’s back yard.
At least, that is what Andrew Mathis did last winter. The PhD student in mechanical engineering used the time to come up with an ambitious plan to use the excess land behind St. Mary’s Anglican Church on Fredericton’s north side.
There has long been a community garden next to the church. So why not an orchard? And berries, nut trees, perennial vegetables and herbs as well?
His plan’s Phase One came together May 8 as about three dozen volunteers, half from St. Mary’s and half from partners and the community, put dozens of trees, berry bushes and other food-producing plants in the ground.
“The hope is it will mature into an amazing food forest for people to come and take whatever they need,” said Andrew. “Hopefully people will use it as a park and come and enjoy it.”
Andrew’s plan has some features that illustrate his commitment to more than just planting a few trees. Swales, small ditches next to the fruit trees, were dug to capture water.
“The water is held in the swales,” he said. “They’re just sinks in the land.”
There is no monoculture in this food forest. Diversity of plant life ensures a longer harvest period and variety for those using it. Phase one included more than one hundred plants in the ground: apple, plum, pear, cherry, mulberry, blackberry, buffaloberry, blueberry, three types of raspberries, serviceberry, gooseberry, currants, goji, grapes, haskap, sea buckthorn, heartnuts and more.
And once the orchard begins producing, there will be tours and workshops on storing, drying, and using the fruit.
There is also a well-crafted environmental plan in all this.
“Part of the design of a food forest is nitrogen-fixing plants,” said Andrew. “They have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the soil.”
Bacteria pulls nitrogen from the air into the soil, allowing themselves and surrounding plants to better thrive.
“We’ve staggered nitrogen-fixing plants throughout,” he said.
Some of the nitrogen-fixing plants include buffaloberry, goumi berry and sea buckthorn berry.
The project has two partners: the Permaculture Atlantic Network and the New Brunswick Community Harvest Gardens. It also has two sponsors: the Fredericton Community Foundation and Envirem Organics.
“This will be so much more in terms of food,” said Hannah Westner, a member of St. Mary’s and an original organizer of the adjacent community garden. “The 77 plots are almost all full every season.”
Before the community garden, and now before the food forest, the land around the church was just lawn to be mowed. Now it will serve the people who need it.
“We need to make our land a place for the community,” she said.
Archdeacon Kevin Stockall, rector of St. Mary’s, was among the volunteers onsite May 8. He spoke of the vision 75 years ago to eventually move the parish from Union Street to a large plot of land up the hill in what would become a large post-war neighbourhood.
“We’ve been blessed with this tremendous gift,” he said. “One way to use the land is to feed people. We know food insecurity is a significant problem in New Brunswick. And the amount of food we grow in the province is stunningly low.”
Though the food forest will produce some fruit this summer, Kevin’s hope, after about five years, is to see a thriving, deer-fenced forest where people are welcome to sit, enjoy the space, have a picnic, take what they require, and if they need it, guidance in how to use what they’ve picked.
Ryan Thornton, a member of St. Mary's congregation, shovels compost as one of about three dozen volunteers during planting day May 8.
A small army of volunteers from St. Mary's and sponsors were on hand to transform the acreage behind the church into a food forest for anyone who might need to use it.
Janice Stockall,right, hands out a specific plant to a volunteer.
Andrew Mathias put together the plan for the food forest. He is a member of St. Mary's and a PhD student in mechanicial engineering at UNB.