Food forests are unique in that they are specifically designed to produce food in a sustainable way while mimicking the balanced, diverse layered structure and diverse species composition of a forest.
Patrick Hurley, associate professor and chair of environmental studies, and many of his students and Ursinus colleagues have been working towards creating an Ursinus food forest for several years. Saturday, October 26, 2019, marked a major milestone in fulfilling that vision.
Members of the Ursinus community participated in the planting of more than 170 food-bearing trees and shrubs representing 17 distinct species at WERS just a few blocks west of campus, laying the foundation for a flourishing food forest in the future.
“It was a tremendous sense of accomplishment, recognizing that we were able to realize the vision of many students, staff, and alumni as well as a new conceptual approach to food production that supports local ecology in new and innovative ways.” Hurley said, noting that while the event was a success, there is still much to be done.
“Given that we planted a few species of trees that could live for over 100 years, I like to point out that ‘we’re planting the next 150 years’,” he added, alluding to the college’s ongoing sesquicentennial celebration. Pecan trees planted as part of the event have the potential to generate harvests for decades to come.
While the project itself has been in the works for more than five years, Hurley and Ursinus environmental studies students began working on design, site transformation, planning and fundraising in fall 2017.
“The food forest commits the college to a new form of sustainable land management, albeit focused on food production and wildlife enhancement, through the management of native nut, berry and fruit-producing trees and shrubs,” Hurley said.
The project was made possible by the hard work of dozens of participants. Steve Gehringer, director of facilities, oversaw the installation of a well and pump in order to provide water to the project, while Neil Tyson, the head of campus grounds, worked with other facilities staff to install fencing and other infrastructure. Ursinus alumni working at the Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy participated with quality control of the planting and other alumni joined in the event.
The food forest is an ongoing effort made possible by an $18,000 grant awarded to the environmental studies department by the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The grant which is supported by the Montgomery County Conservation District builds on previous support from Donald Whittaker ’77, recent graduates Allie Cook ’18 and Heath Hidlay ’18, and college supporter Judy Hoak, whose contributions were critical to making this massive effort successful.
Looking forward, spring 2020 will see the addition of numerous herbaceous plants, including species to support butterfly diversity, and in fall 2020 the forest will be expanded with the addition of more trees and shrubs.
As these many species begin to produce food, including distinctive local fruits like the pawpaw, students and community members will be able to benefit for years to come. – By Mary Lobo ’15