A Tree Grows in Fonticello

Published on October 31st, 2019 by Molly Brind'Amour

On a hot Sunday afternoon in September, with the sun beating down full-force on the grass, Carter Jones Park doesn’t feel very much like a forest. In fact, the two-acre Fonticello Food Forest plot is mostly open land, dotted with trees too young to produce much shade yet. Luckily, the folks supporting Fonticello are good at seeing the forest through the trees. 

Today’s volunteers are here to plant gardens of medicinal and edible herbs: peppermint, anise, echinacea, even raspberries. The planting project is part of a Cities of Service Love Your Block grant that the Food Forest won, which helped fund planting the herbs in triangular plots, as well as in the tree sites themselves — the herbs and the trees develop a symbiotic relationship. 

Laney waters a tree bed during the herb installation at the Food Forest.

The Forest Takes Root

Fonticello Food Forest sprang up in 2016, a brainchild of local residents Laney Sullivan and Jameson Price, who live across the street from Carter Jones (formerly Fonticello) Park. In addition to performing as a folk band, Laney and Jameson organize as members of EarthFolk Collective, which brings together artists, activists, healers, friends and neighbors to put on nature-based community events.

This same sense of community is what inspires the food forest’s co-founders. The dozen or so collaborators, organized as Fonticello Food Forest, envision the plot full of flourishing trees and abundant herbs and flowers, a place where neighborhood residents can pick fresh fruits and medicinal herbs. 

Persimmon is one type of fruit tree that makes its home in the Food Forest.

Nature’s Abundance

The founders hope community visitors can learn more about the process of growing food and identifying edible plants already existing in the landscape. So far, the food forest has established apples, persimmons, pears, peaches, plums, elderberries, asparagus, sunchokes, blackberries and mulberries. 

In Swansboro, where Fonticello Food Forest is located, this kind of resiliency and independence takes on a new importance. Carter Jones Park is located in a USDA-denoted food desert, classified as a low-income census tract where a significant number of residents are more than a mile from the nearest supermarket. 

A poster for Markiya Dickson hangs on a sign for Carter Jones Park, formerly known as Fonticello Park.

A productive neighborhood greenspace containing edible plants could bring fresh, local food to nearby families who otherwise would have trouble accessing it, as well as offer learning opportunities for nature education. 

The founders of the food forest acknowledge that it is not realistic for Fonticello to “provide an adequate amount of food to supplement the neighborhood’s need for a grocery store.” Instead, Laney and Jameson’s goal is to “demonstrate how edible food is abundant in places that we may not perceive as a ‘garden.’”  

“Plants like violet, dandelion, blackberries, mulberries, black locust blossoms, red bud blossoms…. These plants arrive abundantly at different seasons and are found in greenspaces across the city,” Laney explained. “As we deepen our understanding of ourselves as humans as part of nature and part of a greater ecosystem, we can also begin to see food that the earth is providing all around us.” 

Wild food education is not the only focus of the Fonticello Food Forest, which sees itself as still very much a work-in-progress. They also cultivate a wide variety of fruit trees, perennial herbs and native flowers for pollinators. 

A volunteer tends to some of the medicinal and edible herbs that were planted in the Food Forest in September.

Slow and Steady

Fonticello Food Forest started with one year old saplings in January 2016. While the original trees are now almost four, it will still be another year or two before they are “abundantly fruiting.”

A few of the trees in the Fonticello Food Forest plot soak in the sun on the day of the garden installation.

As Jameson points out, adding to the forest is a slow growth method.  The trees themselves were planted via individual donations, rather than any one large grant. According to its founders, the project is “100% volunteer and ebbs and flows with the seasons, along with grant and planting cycles.”

Unconventional methods speak to the uniqueness of the food forest idea itself. Fonticello Food Forest sees itself as a Friends group, not necessarily as a community garden. In many community gardens, residents pay to rent a space to garden and tend their own plots of land. 

But, as envisioned at Fonticello, the garden won’t hold any individual plots. All the forest’s bounty will be free to the public. Fruits and herbs free for the gleaning means fewer barriers to residents of the area being able to pick and eat the food that is grown in the space.  

The founders also hope to develop a portion of the land into a more traditional garden, growing annual vegetables and potentially organizing a neighborhood distribution program or CSA. 

Herbs for the Love Your Block grant wait to be planted in tree wells and triangular plots in the Food Forest.

Planting Seeds

It was through traveling to places like Chile, Colombia and Argentina that founders Laney and Jameson began to learn about the idea of going “back to the land.” The pair spent a few years WWOOF-ing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), where they were able to develop their farming and structural skills on intentional communities around the world.

Combined, Laney and Jameson have a formal educational background covering comparative religion, Spanish, world studies and business accounting. But with a project as unique as the Food Forest, there’s a lot of learning on the fly.

Laney and Jameson learned from a local “old-timer” that there used to be fruit trees everywhere. According to the pair, many cities cut down fruit trees, destroying the “edible landscaping.” Fruiting trees require care, and can be susceptible to disease. Now, cities tend to plant male trees, which don’t fruit and lead to more pollen. 

“Luckily, the urban gardening movement in Richmond has been a catalyst for returning to planting fruit trees in public space,” Laney explained.

The herb installation requires some heavy equipment and willing volunteers.

Future of the Forest

The project’s community has big plans for their urban forest. They envision a lot of natural landscaping, like meadow and marsh plantings. With enough pathways, Jameson explains, the city wouldn’t actually have to cut the grass anymore. Brush and other natural barriers would provide a place for animals to live in. 

“There’s kind of a world that people don’t see in bramble,” Laney explained, spotting a chrysalis hanging on a plant. 

A caterpillar crawls through goldenrod in Carter Jones Park.

Jameson pointed out the idea of developing a nature immersion education program that could partner with local schools and the nearby Boys and Girls Club. 

Between the Food Forest and the newly formed Enrichmond Partner, Friends of Fonticello Park, the park’s advocates also dream of a pavilion built with the Boys and Girls Club, a roof for the Fonticello spring, regular water testing with the aquifer running, and a stage or monument of some kind to Markiya Dickson, the 9-year-old girl who was killed in a park shooting last May

Ideally, Fonticello will use signage and educational events to ensure fruits are picked properly, minimizing damage to the plant and ensuring the fruit isn’t over- or underripe. Jameson envisions a harvest festival of fruits, like apples or peaches, to spread the feeling of community celebration and connection with the seasons.

“Know that this is for community gleaning, this is public food,” Jameson explained. 

A volunteer stands by a pallet of herbs waiting to be planted.

Growing Pains

But a project as ambitious as this comes with its challenges, like when a maintenance worker with a weedwacker fatally nicked the bottom of a persimmon tree, despite its protective frame. 

The biggest issues for Fonticello? 

“Humans and not having water,” Laney said.

According to Laney, people would drive their cars through the Food Forest plot, hoping to avoid one-way streets. Through Amy Robins, the 5th district liaison, and the City of Richmond, boulders were placed along the perimeter of the park to keep people from driving through.  

According to the group’s founders, humans have been the cause of other issues from trash dumping and graffiti to physical damage to plants. 

This fairy house at Fonticello Food Forest has been targeted by vandalism in the past.

Being able to tackle these problems as they come speaks to a sort of resiliency needed to take on such a vast, long-term community project. That’s a characteristic the founders hope the plants take on, too. 

One day, Fonticello would like to have around 50 fruit trees. While the trees may look lonely now, the 15-25 foot space between the trees will keep them healthy as they grow even bigger. With the help of Richmond Tree Stewards, Fonticello Food Forest will plant a dozen more trees later this month, including serviceberries and one weeping willow. 

Through a partnership with Enrichmond Foundation, Fonticello Food Forest has a 501(c)(3) status to use when applying for grants.

“We are so grateful to be working with the Enrichmond,” Laney explained. 

“Using them as our fiscal agent has enabled us to apply for grants, like the Love your Block grant, which has really helped move the project forward. We plan to apply for more grants in the future,” she added. 

Dirt waits to be used to fill the herbs’ new homes.

The Local Way

New possibilities for grants may bring more attention and visitors to Fonticello Food Forest. But as tempting as this fruit forest may be to Richmonders from all over, it’s important to the founders that the project stay “local.” 

After all, it was created for the people in this neighborhood. The Fonticello Food Forest project advises interested parties to look into what it would take to create a food forest in their own neighborhoods, starting with checking the city’s community gardens map. 

“Respect what is currently living there,” Laney explained, including plants, animals and insects. 

“But also, respect the humans in the neighborhood,” she added.

A sign marks Fonticello as a participant in the Richmond Grows Gardens program.

Anyone seeking to take on a similar endeavor should know it’s a long haul, where the (literal) fruits of their labor might not be visible for years. 

But here at Fonticello, by the end of the afternoon’s hard work, the Food Forest’s triangular plots and tree mounds are filled with new herbs. The plants will establish roots, “sleep” all winter, and by the time spring comes to Richmond, Fonticello’s neighbors will have plenty to harvest — a bounty for the community and a victory for urban farming.

After a long day of work, the herbs are settled into their new homes in the Food Forest.

Learn More

Fonticello Food Forest is located in Carter Jones Park, 2813 Bainbridge Street.

Fonticello Food Forest’s next event is a tree planting with the Richmond Tree Stewards via the Community Roots Grant, on Oct. 27th, 2019 at 11 a.m.

To learn more about working with Fonticello Food Forest, you can reach out on Facebook or Instagram, or by emailing [email protected].

To learn more about starting your own food forest or community garden, contact Vicky Campbell at [email protected]

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