School 'food forests' turn empty land into edible landscapes
A student's English project becomes a forest of fruit trees and berries in Port Elgin
It's part of an English project gone wild, according to Marco Onichino. The former Grade 8 student at Port Elgin Regional School was asked to come up with an idea that would help the environment.
The result? A perennial garden bigger than most classrooms, full of fruit trees, berries and herbs that is designed to thrive for years to come.
Marco's original plan was to plant some trees, "which was a good idea," he said. But principal Christoph Becker proposed taking it further.
"He introduced us to the food forest plan," Marco said.
According to Becker, of the school's 170 students, 38 received a hot lunch every day.
When COVID restrictions closed schools in New Brunswick, Becker, began delivering food to the doors of those families.
"It made me more aware because when you drive to their houses, I think it's hard for families to go to a food bank and that's very humbling," said Becker.
The village of Port Elgin has a food bank but no grocery store, and Becker started thinking about how to make sure everyone in the area has access to food they can afford. Then Breanna Macleod of EOS Eco Energy called him about installing a food forest.
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"This fit seamlessly into the plan for my school, along with a greenhouse and a kitchen that's being (built)," said Becker.
Macleod, a summer intern at EOS Eco-Energy, an environmental organization based in Sackville, got funding to install three food forests across the Tantramar region last spring. She approached Port Elgin, Dorchester Consolidated School and Tantramar Regional High School and all said yes.
Macleod is studying environmental sciences at Mount Allison University and has spent her summers working on climate-change projects.
"I kind of noticed then that food security was really something that was on a lot of people's minds, and there's just so much potential," she said.
"There's so much different space and different community groups who I think could really benefit from food from projects like these."
Surveying the work the group has done in Port Elgin, Macleod said, "this is definitely our biggest food forest project but I think it turned out really, really amazing."
Working with nature, not against it
Becker cleared the previously unused land of trees and brush, and the kids provided the rest of the labour.
But food forests take some planning. That's where Estelle Drisdelle, owner of Understory Farm and Design, a farm and landscape design company, came in.
Drisdelle plans and designs food forests and helped with these ones. It takes knowledge about root depth, plant height and many other factors to make sure everything works together in a mutually beneficial way.
"There is some work in the beginning and you do have to maintain it as it grows but slowly as we work with nature versus against it, we start to see that we have to do less work to maintain the ecosystem, just like a natural forest," said Drisdelle.
For the Port Elgin food forest, Drisdell chose marshmallow root, milkweed, hyssop, bee balm, apples and pears trees and different types of berries.
Drisdelle is hearing from more people interested in building their own food forests.
"A lot of people want to know how they can have a beautiful yard that also works with nature and works with ecology," said Drisdelle.
"They don't just want a highly maintained mowed landscape, they want something that's a little more diverse and gives a little more back to the natural ecosystem."
Food forest legacy
Marco has fond memories of managing the project including weeding, lugging wheelbarrows full of dirt to the site, moving logs and laying cardboard.
But he's off to high school in nearby Sackville next year.
"I won't be here next year, which is kind of sad, but I do want to come back in a couple of years and see how things are doing.