Rochester food forest plans wither with the summer drought

ROCHESTER – Instead of pear trees and lush fruit, the summer heat and ongoing drought have shriveled volunteers’ once-blooming plans for a food forest here.

A large-scale effort to plant that food forest — think a souped-up community garden with multiple layers of vegetation — dried up once local growers realized the summer months wouldn’t bring as much rain this year. Now growers are eyeing the fall to make up the delay and plant food for next year.

“We’re not getting any help from Mother Nature,” said Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick, an Olmsted County master gardener through the University of Minnesota Extension program.

Kirkpatrick and other local naturalists have dreamed of a food forest in Rochester for the past few years. The concept has gained popularity among urban environmentalists who want sustainable, locally grown food in communities.

The idea involves planting multiple layers of vegetation — trees, shrubs, herbs and other plants — that mimic a forest ecosystem rather than the straight plane of a garden where everything grows out of the ground. There are no individual plots like a community garden; everyone can take whatever food they like.

Once it’s put in, the forest shouldn’t require much maintenance or watering beyond what plants get from rain or nearby waterways.

It’s unclear how many communities across the state have food forests, but the number is growing — food forests can be found in Minneapolis and Columbia Heights, Moorhead and Burnsville, among other places.

Kirkpatrick, who also serves on the Rochester City Council, put together a proposal for city officials last year to use the northeast corner of Slatterly Park near the downtown area.

The stretch of land, about a half-acre all told, includes 18 apple trees planted more than a decade ago by a former city forester. No one kept track of the trees, however, and neither city officials nor local growers know just how many varieties are there.

Almost 60 people pruned the apple trees in early March, with snow still on the ground, in preparation for planting the rest of the forest in the spring. Nearby residents wanted to grow plums, pears, peaches, hops, berries and grapes among other fruit.

It takes a lot of water to make sure plants take hold — new fruit trees require up to 10 to 20 gallons per week.

Rochester is among a number of communities under drought warning restrictions according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. And hooking up hoses to nearby fire hydrants for water defeats the purpose of a sustainable forest.

“It would require tons of time to maintain just the bare minimum of moisture for planting,” said Heidi Kass, an urban homestead expert who works with Kirkpatrick on planting projects.

Community gardens and food forests across the Midwest are facing similar struggles. Kim Rockman of the advocacy group Project Food Forest said plants at the advocacy group’s demonstration forest in Luverne, Minn., had a rough summer. Aside from deer and rabbits, drought conditions in the past few growing seasons have stressed the trees and perennial plants.

“It’s all having an effect,” Rockman said. “When you’ve got multiple dry years they can’t live forever, and they can’t produce as well forever as we’re seeing in other parts of the country.”

Rochester volunteers are using the extra time to gather topsoil, wood chips and other materials to boost next year’s planting season. Kirkpatrick and others plan to put in rhubarb, berry bushes, currant and fixings for vines once it gets cooler this fall, along with posts and wires for future vines.

If all goes well, the forest could provide food next year. Kirkpatrick envisions a kiosk near the forest for residents and a performance stage in the future so residents can hold events.

“The community buy-in has been really, really high,” she said. “That’s what I’m really excited about.”

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