Ursinus Food Forest
“Here in a homemade forest, poets, writers, scientists, foresters, shovels, seeds, elk, and alder join the circle with Mother Cedar, dancing the old growth children into being . We’re all invited. Pick up a shovel and join the dance.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013: p. 292)
The Ursinus food forest may not have alder or cedar trees and it may seek to keep out the deer, but this forest IS certainly designed to embrace the spirit of the liberal arts while seeking to stand the test of time. Begun in 2019, the year of Ursinus’ sesquicentennial, phase I of the Ursinus Food Forest was an effort to begin planting the next 150 years (and beyond).
The fall 2019 planting (Phase I) began a commitment to a new form of sustainable land management, one that integrates lessons of urban agriculture, urban forestry, and agroforestry (see Clark & Nichols 2013), as food forests mark a commitment to building reciprocal relationships with the region’s many food producing native trees and shrubs as well as myriad other ecologically beneficial native and nonnative plant species. More than 250 trees and shrubs now covered nearly an acre of land. Pecans, pawpaws, and American hazel, among more than a dozen others, are at the center of creating a vibrant and multilayered forest full of nuts, fruits, berries, and more.
In Fall 2021, ENV capstone students and volunteers initiated phase II, planting an additional 250 trees and shrubs on another three-quarters of an acre of land. Besides adding new species, the planting extended the food forest along a perennial stream that borders the southeastern property line, helping to create a multifunctional buffer that will improve water quality in the watershed. Butternut, sumac, basswood, fig, and. pear joined the other species on site. At the same time, phase II also initiated a new commitment to social-ecological sustainability.
As part of the Welcome Home Project, the food forest offers a new space for intercultural engagement between Ursinus students and the Delaware Nation of Indians (or Lenape people). A December 2021 visit by Assistant Chief Jeremy Johnson to the site offered students the opportunity to introduce the site to a Lenape representative for the first time, and allowing them to begin learning the meaning of some species on the site for the original inhabitants of the region.
The food forest is formally integrated into the ENV curriculum as a main project feature of the ENV 454W Sustainability in the Suburbs capstone course, where each successive iteration of the class takes on a critical element of the programmatic and management complexities of the system. Phase I was planned and designed by the Fall 2017 class. In Fall 2019, a second iteration of the class led the planting, all while working to develop a community engagement plan to guide future work at the site. A third iteration of the capstone course undertook planting of phase II in Fall 2021, with student teams also working to develop more refined management activities across the site, including monitoring and habitat enhancement activities, expanding and refining stewardship interventions, further developing site orientation and signage efforts, and developing harvesting protocols for the site’s first producing species (i.e. elderberry, aronia).
The system is also a key field site for learning about the historical and contemporary aspects of ethnobotanical relationships to native species, social and economic dimensions of so-called nontimber forest products, and the practical aspects of forest stewardship in ENV 338 Forests & People, while supporting introductory stewardship activities for students enrolled in ENV 100 Introduction to Environmental Studies.
Beyond formal classes, the food forest provides practicum experience for students in the area of tree and land stewardship (see left), environmentally-oriented outreach activities, and also monitoring or data collection experience. Moreover, the food forest provides a model system for students in the Food Studies minor or Peace Corps Prep Program who are interested in developing technical knowledge and/or further developing their leadership experience.