Picture a dead-end street in a quiet neighborhood. Flowering pear trees line the sidewalk for the length of the street, which is one city block, but after that, things turn ugly. At the foot of this street is a lot that used to hold a house. It doesn’t look wide enough to have ever held a house, at least one of modern proportions, squeezed between two others. But that’s irrelevant now, as instead of a house there’s just hard clay. Tire tracks show where people pull into the lot and park, or turn around and go back out the way they came in. On the far side of the lot is a forlorn chain-link fence, more vegetation than aluminum now, and past that is one of the city’s busiest arteries, sending the noise of rush-hour traffic in all directions. And on the other side of that highway, is a run-down commercial complex that spits neon light down the quiet street after dark.
If you’re not good at imagining, this little piece of land looks like this:
Now imagine that lot a little differently.
At the foot of the dead-end street, imagine a pergola connecting two wide planters overflowing with rosemary, mint, Italian parsley, oregano. Through the pergola, in the corners of the lot, are medium-sized fruit trees, like pears. In front of that chain link fence is a row of blueberry bushes, tall enough to screen out the sights and sounds of that busy highway. On the side of the land, rather than a fence between the lot and the neighbor’s house, picture a trellised row of blackberries or muscadines. And in the center of the space is the hero of our story: a tallish persimmon tree.
I don’t have a picture of this. Yet. But it will hopefully look something like this:
And it’s happening, and soon, thanks to a perfect storm of events:
- The lot’s owner doesn’t really want the land. There’s no direct egress from that busy highway, and it’s zoned residential in a depressed neighborhood, so there’s not much incentive to build another house.
- There’s an agency in town willing to take ownership of the land and hold it as common space.
- There’s a neighborhood association who really wants to see this happen.
- There’s a state organization that wants to put food in impoverished areas where folks don’t have easy access to good food — and were willing to stake a $1,500 grant.
Oh, and also:
- There’s a couple we all know who have a certain passion for creatively using tiny spaces, and farming them, and feeding people, and making things pretty.
Jenn and I have actually had this idea for this lot, in our Bibb City neighborhood, for years, but we didn’t think the owner was interested in parting with it. A house we’re renovating is nearby, and as we work on that house (way too occasionally work on that house), we saw lots of untoward things happening with that clay lot. Since I’m listing things, let’s name some of the things that have called this lot home:
- A burning barrel.
- Hobos around the burning barrel.
- Broken-down cars.
- Broken-down trucks.
- A camper.
- Feral creatures (excluding hobos).
For about a year, Jenn and I have been attending local meetings of Georgia Organics’ Food Oasis, which is addressing the community’s “food deserts” — which are, simply, urban areas without easy access to healthy, fresh food. I’m the guy at the meeting who’s always talking about trying to use more of the city’s common land for low-maintenance fruit- and vegetable-bearing plants and trees. I must have said something to that effect to our neighborhood association president, too, because right as Georgia Organics started soliciting ideas for micro-grant projects around town, the neighborhood president told me he’d made inquiries about the property and found the owners interested.
And, being just slightly less than a complete imbecile, I connected the dots in time to make a pitch.
“You had me when you said ‘urban orchard,'” said Suzanne Girdner, Community Outreach Coordinator for Georgia Organics. We were awarded a grant.
We don’t have a lot of money, but we don’t need a lot of money for what we want to do, which is (another list):
- Cut back overhanging hackberry trees from the neighboring lot.
- Fill in a few low spots on the land.
- Plant about 5 medium-sized fruit trees — that will top out at, say, 30 feet.
- Plant a hedge of blueberries along that busy street to screen the noise and light pollution.
- Plant a soft border of blackberries, serviceberries or muscadines between the park and a neighboring house.
- Build two big planters at the foot of the dead-end street — to plant with perennial herbs and to keep cars and campers from running over our trees.
Eventually, if things shape up nicely, we may make a push for a second phase of improvements to add a big sign along that busy street, a gravel path through the park, some sod, and a park bench or two. Here’s the birds-eye view of the dream plan:
Fruits of our labor
So, who gets to harvest the fruit that will grow there?
That’s the great news: Anyone can. It will be free, and the park will be open space. We plan to post a few simple rules. Which means, yay, another list:
- Take only the fruit that you need.
- Don’t sell anything you take.
- Leave something for the next person.
Many folks in the neighborhood are excited at the prospect, so we’re hoping to have lots of volunteers for cleaning the lot and planting the trees. We’ll also try to cash in a few favors from nurseries, landscaping places, and hardware stores for some of the supplies, to try to stretch out the grant money.
I’ve got a good feeling about how far we can make it go. When we talked, at the last meeting, about getting some bids on trimming back those hackberry trees, a former Georgia Power tree trimmer gave me his number and promised he could give me a great price. Indeed, he undercut my low bidder by about 30 percent — and did the work a day after looking at the lot. He volunteered to help with the planting, too.
We’ll keep you posted of the progress here on The Dew. The goal is to get trees in the ground no later than early December, so they have the dormant season to establish strong roots in that Georgia clay. And soon we’ll have a wonderful, new little parp.