How We Started an Urban Food Tree Project
Ever since we first moved to our suburb 18 months ago, I had my eye on the rather sad looking patch of land at the corner of the street. Despite the weeds and bare nothingness (excluding the few surviving melaleuca trees around the edge), all I could see was the epic potential.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could turn this barren, weedy patch of land into a thriving community orchard?
My neighbours, and one in particular, shared my enthusiasm and vision. Almost as soon as we moved in, the conversation began. At the start of this year, the actual work began, to turn the conversation into reality.
The Initial Idea: Creating a Food Tree Project
Rather than planting an orchard where the goal is to maximise production, we wanted a balance. Growing fruit trees alongside natives and groundcovers creates a more aesthetically pleasing, biodiverse and dynamic ecosystem that will be more interesting to walk through, creates more learning opportunities and is more resilient to pests.
The name “Food Tree Project” rather than an “Urban Orchard” reflects that our goals were broader than simply planting fruit-bearing trees and producing food. The permaculture concept of “Food Forest” didn’t really fit either, because although I followed permaculture principles in the designing, there are too many human inputs to be a true permaculture food forest.
Food Tree Project felt best.
Community: to provide a space for collaboration, learning, volunteering and sharing; to encourage residents to learn more about growing food and have access to locally grown fruit; and create an attractive and sheltered resting spot close to the train station.
Environment: to increase tree coverage, canopy cover and greenery; to improve the streetscape close to the train station; and to increase biodiversity and provide habitat for birds.
The plan was to plant around 40 fruit trees of varying species on the unused space on the corner of two streets in our suburb, with wide pathways between the trees to allow and encourage public access for community members to see the trees and learn about them.
We also planned to plant native species on the border to encourage biodiversity, and interplant nitrogen-fixing acacias and other ground covers to create a green space between the trees.
The property next to the block has a bore, we are extending the reticulation so that the site will have water access in summer (this is essential in Perth – no water means no trees).
Goals of the Food Tree Project:
There are a number of goals we hope to achieve with this project.
- Create a welcoming and shady community space by planting trees, and to provide access for residents to locally grown fruit.
- Provide learning opportunities for interested residents on growing their own food and looking after fruit trees, and to provide volunteering opportunities.
- To provide a demonstration project and framework that other volunteer groups can take to their local council to plant more trees on underutilised spaces in their urban environment.
The First Step: Getting Council Approval
The scariest step is probably asking for permission. Have you ever heard the expression “ask for forgiveness, not permission?” If we asked the council for permission and they said no, it would be hard to go ahead and do it anyway.
Should we ask for permission, or just do it and hope they didn’t mind?
However, we want this project to be an example of what can be done, a demonstration project to encourage others to approach their councils to plant on underutilized spaces. That meant going through the official channels. So we put together our vision and arranged to meet a council member on the site to discuss our plans.
We met on the site and talked through our ideas. We asked what restrictions they had (for example, banned or unwanted species) and were willing to listen to any needs that they had. I’d recommend meeting in person rather than chatting via email. It’s so much easier to connect with someone when you are face-to-face.
We agreed to put together a plan of the site detailing the trees to formalise the project. I took a screenshot of the Google arial view of the block, then pasted that into Powerpoint. I drew lines over the roads, paths and boundaries, and put cloud shapes over the trees, then deleted the photograph to keep the outline.
On one hand, we were lucky that the council were so supportive. But on the other hand, it wasn’t really luck. My co-conspirator neighbour had been working with the council on a community sump revegetation project for a couple of years prior to this, and had been able to build the relationship with the people there. He had demonstrated his ability to listen, to work together with them to resolve disputes, and show responsibility.
Although it felt like we got approval very quickly, my neighbour joked that the work actually began in 2012. In truth, it probably did.
Step 2: Formalising The Project
As well as submitting a plan for the tree planting, we also had to submit a pest control plan detailing how we would manage the site and deal with pest issues. For this, I referred to the council website and Department of Agriculture website to find out current recommended procedures.
Initially, the plan was to lease the site from the council. This would have required insurance, which we were planning to get through the local community garden (of which both my neighbour and I are members). There would have been a small annual cost for this.
In the end, the plans changed and there is no lease: the land remains under responsibility of the council. Whilst this may seem less secure, there are advantages. The site actually had a road running through it prior to 1990 before the road layouts were changed, and there was road base right through the land. The council came with a bobcat to dig out the road base, which might not have happened had there been a lease in place.
Needing funds to purchase the trees and the reticulation, we approached the local football team (the West Coast Eagles). They have just moved to our suburb and are constructing a new training ground and stadium, and in the process angered the community greatly by chopping down 100 mature native trees.
As they emphasize their commitment to community in their media releases we thought it might be a project they would like to support.
Initially they seemed keen to sponsor our trees, but over time it became apparent that they had ulterior motives. The council had stipulated that all trees removed whilst building the training grounds must be replaced and maintained, and the Eagles were hoping that they could fund our trees as a cost cutting measure. (Funding a few $30 fruit trees would have saved them the cost of sourcing, planting and maintaining mature native trees.)
Without going into details, the Eagles were not transparent with us about this. When we realised (several months later) that, rather than supporting our project because they saw the value in investing in community, they were trying to get out of their responsibilities (clearly a small citrus tree is no replacement for a large gum tree), we decided not to pursue this further.
All the messing around meant time was ticking. It was now the start of winter and we urgently needed to plant the trees if they were to survive the summer.
Preparing the Site, Tree Purchasing and Getting the Community On Board
In short, we didn’t receive funding, and decided we would have to buy the trees, reticulation and soil amendments ourselves. We’d decided that the upcoming weekend would be perfect tree planting weather, and we began sourcing trees. My neighbour purchased seven citrus trees and I purchased another six trees, and we began setting the foundations for the project.
We planted the first few trees ourselves to get an idea of time and how best to do it all.
Next we put it out on the Buy Nothing Group that we were beginning a Food Tree Project in the area, and would anyone like to come and help us weed and plant?
And something wonderful happened.
People said yes, but many also asked us if they could donate a tree, or provide funding to purchase a tree. We hadn’t asked for money, but it was so humbling (and immensely appreciated) that our neighbours wanted to contribute financially.
One tree is not expensive (the costs varied from $20 to $70 depending on the species) but 40 trees adds up. Not to mention the reticulation costs, which my neighbour funded himself. When there’s a whole community on board, that changes things considerably. After our initial tree purchases, the others were paid for by the community.
It also showed us that people valued what we were doing, and wanted to be a part of it. (Thanks to Jayne, Deb, Miranda, Kath, Marisa, Lindi, Kate, Lana and Toni for your contributions.)
Just as importantly, people came to our busy bees. We weeded the rest of the site, dug holes, spread clay and compost and planted trees. Then we installed reticulation, and mulched the entire site. What could have taken us months was finished in a three weekends.
We now have most of the trees planted.
(If you’d like to know more about the project, I recorded a 20 minute video with some details of how we got the project going, and also a walk through of the site and the different trees that we have planted. You’ll find it on my Patreon page.)
What’s Next for the Urban Food Tree Project
Our biggest job is to ensure that the trees survive their first year in the hot Perth summer. With the reticulation in place, this shouldn’t be a big job, but it is a job nonetheless.
One thing we are doing now is establishing a community composting bank. We’ve put two huge compost bins on the site and plan to add to this as we find more suitable bins on Gumtree. If we can get all of our neighbours dropping good scraps off, we will have a rich supply of compost to feed the trees with. Plus it is another way to involve our neighbours with the project.
When autumn comes round I’m keen to work on the shrub layer and groundcover. Having sunk a lot into the project this year, we didn’t have the funds or the time to do this before now, and summer is not the time to start. We are keen to plant herbs and natives, and as the canopy layer grows these plants will have more chance of success.
At the moment the site looks a little barren, but by next year it should be completely transformed.
Now I’d love to hear from you! There’s so much more I could share about the project, so do you have any questions? Is there anything you’d like me to explain in more detail? Do you have any tips or suggestions for me, or experience with projects of your own? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below :)