Seeding a forest for eating in Clifton Park

A forest full of edible plants is growing in Clifton Park.

Once it was a garden, then a bramble-choked thicket of invasive trees.

And soon, Eric Kelly hopes, this plot in Clifton Park will become a forest full of edible plants — fruit trees, vegetables and tubers, berries and herbs.

The project, known as the Baltimore Food Forest, is believed to be the first of its kind in the Baltimore area. When the plot is fully mature in about five years, visitors will be free to pluck peaches, apples, greens and medicinal plants.

"There will be more food coming out of here than we'll know what to do with," said Kelly, who is a naturalist, master gardener and expert in permaculture — the science of creating sustainable agriculture modeled after nature.

Kelly, 34, hurried through the plot yesterday, directing volunteers, shoveling mulch and handing out tools and pots of plants.

Pawpaws and Chickasaw plums, bush cherries and gooseberries, walking onions and asparagus, ramps, groundnuts, passion flowers. Volunteers planted four dozen species — many native to Maryland — in the clearing.

"This helps bring people closer to nature," said Kelly Wixted, 31, as she dug in the soil. "Growing up in Baltimore, I never had anything like this."

Wixted, a natural resources biologist for the state, was planting Jerusalem artichokes, small, knobby tubers with a pleasantly nutty flavor and a texture like water chestnuts. She explained to 8-year-old Calleigh Hoffman, and her mother, Donna, how to pack dirt around some newly planted herbs.

Kelly rushed over and waved a wintergreen scented twig under each person's nose. It was from a black birch tree, which was used by Native Americans to make a sweet syrup.

Most of the plants were not the sort of thing one normally finds in the produce aisle of the grocery store.

Ben Howard, program director of the Baltimore Orchard Project, raved about the fruit of the native persimmon tree, which, he said, doesn't hold up well in a grocery store. It's sweet and spicy, with a sort of richness, he said.

"It's like explaining a color to someone who has never seen it," he said of his attempts to describe the taste.

Howard's group, which aims to increase the number of fruit-bearing trees in the area, provided the trees for Saturday's planting.

Kelly, a muscular man with an unruly red beard, said he and other volunteers had spent months preparing the site. They had hacked away weeds, chopped down invasive trees, and spread mulch to choke new growth.

He had built trellises and benches on the lot from branches of cut trees, using traditional building techniques that do not require hardware.

Each portion of the food forest was carefully designed and will require little maintenance, Kelly said. He inoculated the stumps of invasive trees with oyster mushroom spores. As the flavorful mushrooms grow, they will cause the stump to rot.

Flowering herbs were planted under fruit trees to draw bees. Other plants were intended to draw insects, birds and bats that would eat insect pests, he said.

"This is beyond organic," he said. "This is holistic management."

Kelly believes the food forest will be hardy enough that rabbits and deer will not have a detrimental effect. And the location — tucked away in a wooded area out of sight of the golf course — should prevent vandals from tampering with it.

The site was once the garden of a now-derelict home. The house is cordoned off by a metal fence. A beard of ivy tumbles from what was once the door. The plot is still bounded by boxwoods planted by a long-ago resident.

Volunteer Theresa Worrell, 54, a state auditor, banged frozen pots of horsetails on a brick walkway.

"I see this as a great educational tool to let people know there are other ways to grow food besides industrial agriculture," she said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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