About 100 volunteers gathered a week ago Saturday in southwest Davenport to plant 90 pawpaw, American persimmon, chestnut and pecan tree saplings — trees they hope will someday provide public produce, or food, for anyone who wants to pick it.
Called the Quad-Cities Community Food Forest, the planting on city-owned land in a park in the Garden Addition is a volunteer project spearheaded by Chris Rice of Rock Island.
It also is part of a nationwide movement promoting "edible landscapes" — an idea whose time has come, Rice believes.
That is, instead of planting trees only for their ornamental, shade or windbreak value, cities and nonprofit groups should plant trees that produce fruits and nuts that are edible, and plant them on public properties where they can provide public produce, Rice said.
While apples, cherries and other common fruits come to mind as such options first, nut trees also produce food, as do lesser-known fruit trees such as pawpaw and persimmon. Rice chose to plant those particular fruits because they are native to Iowa.
Greeting the volunteers and helping turn the first ceremonial shovels of soil were Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba, Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, Carla Jaquet, the executive director of the Quad-Cities Food Hub and Alderman Rick Dunn, in whose 1st Ward the park is located.
"This is the first such effort in the Quad-Cities and the beginning of something that I hope will grow throughout our community in the years ahead," Gluba said.
How the idea began
Rice, a 46-year-old carpenter, has long been interested in growing his own food, but he was inspired to take the lead in creating an edible forest in the Quad-Cities by former Davenport city designer Darrin Nordahl, who gave a presentation on the subject several years ago at the Moline Public Library.
Before he returned to his native California two years ago, Nordahl wrote a book called "Public Produce: The New Urban Agriculture" in which he argues that public lands within our cities, including parks and boulevards, should be planted with food-producing plants to provide food for people living in the community.
Reasons include food security in a climate-changing world and providing access to fresh, inexpensive product in what might otherwise be "food deserts."
Rice said he found it ironic that, as he entered the library for Nordahl's presentation, he walked right past a healthy stand of juneberries that were planted as ornamentals but whose fruit is edible. Yet no one stopped to pick any, including Nordahl.
"I gave him his first taste of juneberries," Rice said. "His knowledge is academic. Mine is more hands-on."
Rice believes governmental policy encourages monocultures and he holds a certain anti-government bias, but Nordahl suggested he try to work with government, at least on the local level.
"He said, 'Maybe we should do this as a community. Maybe we should work with government, work with the private sector,'" Rice said.
"He said, 'On a local level, you can do this.' I have met some good people who work with the city who already are interested in this."
How Rice found the planting location
Nordahl suggested Rice talk to Davenport arborist Johnson about possible planting locations. Blackhawk Garden Park was chosen because, being just off West River Drive, it is both accessible and easy to find.
In addition, the area already had a community food focus, thanks largely to the efforts of now-Alderman Dunn and his wife Robbin, who spearheaded efforts to make something attractive out of land left vacant when flood-prone homes were bought out and demolished.
Where 35 modest homes once stood, the Dunns and other volunteers created several years ago a park that includes apple, peach and cherry trees, and raised beds for community gardens.
"Rick and I felt this (the edible forest) would be a complementary use to the community gardens," Robbin Dunn said. "He (Rice) is taking that dream we had originally — access to food and growing your own — and making it happen."
Another reason Blackhawk Garden is a good fit is that "within walking distance, there are a variety of people to pull from to engage in the experience," Robin Dunn said. That includes folks who use the Roosevelt Community Center, including a Boy Scout troop and students at Hayes Elementary School.
Blackhawk Garden — named for Blackhawk Creek and the Garden Addition — can still flood, but standing water of short duration will not hurt the trees, Johnson said.
The Quad-Cities Food Hub, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is representing the food forest by signing a letter of agreement with the city in regards to the planting.
"I believe the community food forest will be a superb educational and recreational asset to the community, and the work of its volunteers will be a wonderful gift for generations to come," Jaquet said.
The forest also will foster education, Rice said. People in general have moved so far away from the land that they no longer know how to produce their own food, much less recognize some of the lesser-knowns such as juneberry.
"I want this (planting edibles) to spread through the community," he said. I want Blackhawk Garden to be a place where people can be introduced to this."
Similar efforts have been undertaken in Monmouth, Ill., Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.
A key aspect of these perennial plants is that they be somewhat low-maintenance, without the yearly planting, weeding, watering, and fertilizer and pesticide applications required of a vegetable garden.
Rice began his work by founding a group on Facebook called Quad-Cities Edible Landscape, and it is through the social media vehicle that they communicate and share ideas.
"I tend to be a localist," Rice said. "And there's nothing more local than having food right outside your door."