St. Petersburg could soon be home to a community food forest – more than a garden – allowing for hungry residents to pick fresh and nutritious fruits and vegetables as needed.
At Thursday’s city council meeting, councilmembers received a presentation by Garrick Rowe on St. Petersburg College’s (SPC) Food Forest Garden. Rowe is a student at SPC and working towards his bachelor’s degree in public policy and administration. The garden, based out of the Gibbs campus, is Rowe’s capstone project.
In 2016, SPC began a permaculture club. A self-sustaining permaculture garden was soon constructed from recycled materials obtained by local brush recycling centers, along with materials donated to the program by community partners. Rowe told councilmembers that the garden has since evolved into a thriving food forest with exotic trees, fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs and medicines.
“All of these are available at no cost to students, faculty and the community,” said Rowe.
Rowe explained that what makes a garden a food forest is the layers of trees and plants. He said there are canopy trees above the garden, a dwarf tree layer, a shrub layer, an herbaceous layer and vines covering the ground that grows up the trees and plants. There are even root crops growing underneath it all.
“Instead of a two-dimensional garden plot,” said Rowe. “A food forest is three-dimensional – and we waste no space.”
He said all waste produced, such as leaves and sticks, is chopped and put back into the garden.
Rowe said the Gibbs campus partnered with Home Depot, which provided the tools needed to clear a plot of land for the garden. Students created the beds to maximize space while still leaving room to walk between and harvest the fruits of their labor. Logs from local brush recycling centers became borders for the beds, and cardboard from the school’s recycling bins was repurposed to keep weeds from sprouting, and to hold the soil.
“We even went so far as to clean the ink printing off the cardboard because we didn’t want that on our base layer,” said Rowe.
The next stop was for (donated) horse manure to use as fertilizer. The students then partnered with Carol’s Building Materials, which Rowe refers to as a “magical place.” Carol’s sells earth materials and compost and donated an entire truckload of its “black gold” compost to the project.
Rowe said they ordered 10,000 red earthworms, which were mailed overnight from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm in Pennsylvania, and the group “was off to the races.”
There are now bananas sprinkled throughout the food forest, along with papayas and both sweet and regular potatoes. Rowe said they planted an entire bed of sunflowers one year, and they grew to almost 10 feet tall. He added that maintenance is minimal besides for the occasional trimming to keep someone from getting poked in the eye, and everything that is swept up is put back into the garden.
“They are organic trash compactors,” said Rowe. “Everything we put in gets broken down within a couple of months.”
Rowe concluded his presentation by proposing that the City of St. Petersburg collaborate with SPC and various community partners to create a similar food forest on a much larger scale. That garden could help address food insecurity issues that plague certain areas of the city.
Rowe conducted surveys to gauge the public’s response to a community garden such as this one and said people were overwhelmingly in support of the idea. Tomatoes were the most requested item, followed by lettuce and bananas.
A Food Forest Council was established and began pooling its resources of contacts, research, data and people.
“It creates a powerful collaboration that supports me and my work,” said Rowe. “And in turn, my work supports them. Together, our work supports the overall goals of the city council and our community as a whole.”
Councilmember Gina Driscoll said she would coordinate with the city’s real estate department to identify where there is suitable space for a community food forest following SPC’s model. She will bring those finding back to the city council at a later date.
“You did so much with a small area – that’s one reason I’m so impressed with this project,” said Driscoll. “It shows you don’t need a ton of space; you don’t need acreage to do significant work.”
“I look forward to growing together with you.”