SEATTLE — A plot of grass sits in the middle of Seattle, feet from a busy road and on a hill that overlooks the city's skyline. But it's no ordinary patch of green. Residents hope it will become one of the country's largest "food forests."
The park, which will start at 2 acres and grow to 7, will offer city dwellers a chance to pick apples, plums and other crops right from the branch.
"I think it's a great opportunity for the people of Seattle to able to connect to the environment," said Maureen Erbe, who walked her two dogs next to the plot on a recent overcast day.
Would she pluck some fruits from the forest?
"Heck yes, I love a good blueberry. You're not from Seattle if you don't like a good blueberry," she said.
For health-conscious and locally-grown-food-loving Seattle, the park is a new step into urban agriculture. Cities from Portland, Ore., to Syracuse, N.Y., already have their own versions. In Syracuse, for example, vacant lots were turned into vegetable gardens to be tended by local teens.
Seattle already is dotted with community gardens that the city helps maintain. Farmers markets also flourish in many neighborhoods, bringing in vendors from around the state to sell everything from tulips to farm-fresh duck eggs to pricey loaves of bread.
Residents raise chickens in backyards and plant their own vegetables. The more dedicated ones have goats, and forage around the city – one woman even eats neighborhood squirrels.
When a group of people interested in sustainable gardening brought the idea of a food forest for the Beacon Hill neighborhood to city officials in 2010, the city-volunteer effort began. That year, city officials had declared it the "year of urban agriculture."
The plot is in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. Next to it is a sports park, a driving range and a lawn bowling club. The food forest would be next to a heavily used road and near many apartment complexes.
"Seattle gets the big picture and so the focus on local food actions is a collaborative one," said Laura Raymond of the city's community garden program.
The department has allocated $100,000 for the first phase of the park, roughly a 2-acre plot. The land is owned by the city's utility and through an inter-agency agreement will be developed at no land cost.
Raymond said the city hasn't verified it, but the forest might become the biggest one in the country. Glenn Herlihy, who helped create the park's initial designs, believes it can grow to that size.
Herlihy studies permaculture, a land management technique that aims to develop gardens modeled on natural ecosystems – that means natural fertilization that comes with decaying vegetation and a variety of plants in one plot. Unlike orchards, which only have one type of tree or shrub, a food forest has many types.
Developers use edible trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. Fruit and nut trees are on the upper level, while berry shrubs, edible perennials and annuals are on the lower levels. Plants to attract insects are also planted for natural pest management.
"All of these plants work together like a forest ecosystem, but they are edible," Herlihy said.
In Pittsburgh, a food forest a quarter of an acre big is in its second year of existence. So far, only a berry bush and a pear tree have yielded fruits.
"We tell people it's not a food forest, it's aspiring to be a food forest," said organizer Juliette Jones. "I really do believe the longer that we're there, once you start to see the trees producing and see the site develop more, it will attract people to get involved."
In Seattle, the park will have an area for the food forest, and another area for the smaller community gardens that can be used by families or community groups. One of the goals is to provide affordable healthy food at a time when such items can be too costly for low-income residents.
The first harvest from the community gardens will happen in spring 2013. The fruit trees and shrubs will take a while to grow. Herlihy expects those harvests to come in about two years.
Ultimately, Herlihy envisions thick plots of nut trees, such as walnuts and hazelnuts, next to apple, pears and plum trees. Underneath, there will be huckleberries, salmon berries and even salal, a native shrub. Herbs like rosemary will also be planted. The group plans to install beehives to aid with pollination.
Organizers say that they will use the honor system when it comes to how much food people can take.
"It's simply just good ethics," he said. "Help yourself, don't take it all and save some for anybody else."
Manuel Valdes can be reached at https://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes