Montana's first edible forest to grow in Helena's 6th Ward Park

Montana’s first edible forest to grow in Helena’s 6th Ward Park  Read more:

HELENA — From gravelly, gnarly patches of grass to a glorious “garden of eatin’” forest.

That’s the new vision for the 6th Ward Park.

And this coming week, it takes one huge step toward becoming reality.

Helena will be the first city in Montana to design an edible forest garden. And starting this week Dave Jacke, a national leader in this type of garden design, will teach a Helena workshop of 33 professionals from across the country who will help design the new park.

Jacke gives a public talk on edible forest gardens from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, July 9, at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. The cost is $10 in advance, $12 at the door. To register go to

Instead of a barren grassy parking plot, think of an edible park with pear and plum trees, raspberries, currants and gooseberries, said Jessica Peterson, a social economist whose dream for this park is about to take root and bloom.

From groundcovers, to shrubs, to trees, the park will offer an array of tantalizing edible plants that also rebuild the soil and attract beneficial insects like bees.

The 6th Ward Park will also be the new home for 22 Helena Food Share community garden plots that need to be relocated to make room for that facility’s expansion.

The future garden park might also offer such amenities as playground equipment and benches.

On Tuesday night, Jacke will introduce the vision of forest gardening to Helena, sharing scientific background and successful examples of such gardens blooming across the country. You’ll also get to sample some perennial edibles suited to growing in Helena’s backyards and gardens.

This past Tuesday morning beneath a blazing sun, the 6th Ward Park behind the HATS Transit Station was looking more than a little bit woebegone. Except for grass and gravel, it offers a lilac hedge, a couple of ash trees and a crabapple tree.

Its only visitors were two young foraging bucks and a cluster of folks there to discuss their shared vision for the park.

“It’s been a public park since 1915,” said Caroline Wallace, a landscape architect and partner in Inside Edge Design, which has taken a lead role in organizing the garden. “This place began as a community effort. This neighborhood was being developed as a business center when the train still ran. The park was very much a community effort.”

Trade organizations and a plumbing trade group pitched in to build the community park, which once was home to a baseball field and wading pool, she said. “It’s been underutilized for decades.”

Wallace and Jessica Peterson, a social economist with Inside Edge Design, have been joined by a host of parties including Helena City Parks and Recreation, Helena Community Gardens and Helena Food Share, as well as the 6th Ward Neighborhood Association, P.A.L. and Central School students.

A host of other groups from Youth Connections to Lewis and Clark County Extension Office are joining in the conversation, and the list keeps growing.

It is this type of community support that’s needed to not only create and plant the garden, but to ensure it flourishes over the years, said Peterson.

According to Jacke, author of “Edible Forest Gardens,” the idea of an edible perennial landscape has been around thousands of years. It was used by native peoples in America and across the globe.

“It’s a forest garden that is designed by humans to mimic the forest ecosystem,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Montague, Mass.

Its many benefits include growing food, fuel, fodder, medicinal plants and building healthy soil.

“In Helena, which gets 11 to 12 inches of precipitation, we have challenges mimicking a forest ecosystem,” he said. But there are natural, sustainable plant communities he intends to explore — sagebrush steppes, aspen forests and ponderosa pine openings are just a few.

“A forest garden is a metaphor,” he added. While a forest might work on the East Coast, which gets a lot more moisture than here, an edible meadow or “eddow” could be part of a 6th Ward Park design.

So far, a list of some 300 plant species that thrive in the Helena area has been pulled together, according to Peterson.

A few potential plant mixes could include saskatoon, a native plant for dry prairies that produces seven tons of fruit per acre, said Jacke. There’s also currants, elderberries, burr oak, sunflowers, prairie turnips and such plants as buffaloberry that may not be all that edible but fix nitrogen into the soil.

While Jacke will lay out the design process at this week’s five-day workshop, the 33 attendees will help design the park, keeping in mind the needs of the three main stakeholders — Food Share, the Community Gardens and the city parks department. There’s also been input from the neighborhood association. By Friday night, July 12, the group will unveil its design.

“What’s for dinner is a design question,” said Jacke. “All human beings are designers.”

He helps train people around the country, so they can take the knowledge he shares and adapt it to their local landscapes and growing conditions.

Edible forest gardens are taking seed from coast to coast — from Wesleyan University’s two-acre forest to a seven-acre one being planted in Seattle. And Maine lawmakers just directed officials there to plant edible landscaping of fruit trees and shrubs around the Statehouse.

Jacke sees this type of gardening as a way to not only feed more people, but also to heal the planet. Some researchers say current agriculture is responsible for some of the most destructive practices on the planet, he said.

Ann Waickman, executive director of Helena Food Share, is excited and grateful that they are part of the 6th Ward Park redevelopment.

Fifteen percent of the population in Helena turns to Food Share for assistance and it is particularly concerned about losing the current community garden plots on its property when it expands its building in the future.

“I’m excited to not only increase access to fresh food,” she said, “but to build community through this park.”

And both she and Cara Orban, who manages the HFS Community Gardens, see the new garden as having great educational potential for kids and adults.

“Helena Farmers Market reaches an audience that already knows about nutritious local foods,” said Orban. “This garden will put it front and center for a whole new audience.”

“I see this as another chapter of how to re-use this park,” said Amy Teegarden, director of Helena Parks and Recreation Department. “It will be a new focus for the neighborhood and reconnect the neighborhood. It’s just been waiting for this to happen.”

Ever since the wading pools were removed in 2007-2008, few people even knows this patch of land is a park, she said. The parks department has been waiting for the transit station to be completed before taking any action on the adjoining park land.

“I always think it’s meant to happen,” she said, “when the partners appear.”

One of the things that will make it a good neighborhood park, Teegarden said, is the transit station, which provides buses for the neighborhood and people from across the community.

There are challenges ahead, they all admit. Not only does the park have at least four different soil types, but some of the soil may have been contaminated by industrial use and will need to be removed and replaced. Funding partners are also needed. The city put forward an initial $13,000 for an irrigation system to be installed, she said.

This money needs to be supplemented with grants and other funding.

“What the city brings to this is the space and long term support,” said Teegarden. “The partnerships are what will make it successful. I’m just excited for this new chapter in the 6th Ward’s history.”

Longtime 6th Ward resident Rose Casey, who’s lived in the neighborhood since 1977, said the neighborhood supports the plan.

“It was a popular park back in 1977,” she said, when kids used the pool. The new edible forest garden “is probably a good use of the land,” she added. While the neighborhood’s first wish had been for new tennis courts, the cost of building and maintaining these didn’t prove feasible. “So this came along and it really seemed like a good idea.”

The 6th Ward neighborhood has never given up on the idea of recreating itself as a center for homes and community businesses. “What happened in the Great Northern Center could happen here,” she said. “The 6th Ward Neighborhood Association has given a big approval for this park ... it fits into our vision.

“We appreciate good ideas that bring back the character of the neighborhood,” Casey said. Young families are beginning to move back into the neighborhood. Often, the young parents grew up in the 6th Ward. “It’s not just a decaying neighborhood, it’s found new life.”

Casey, who’s raised five children in the 6th Ward and has 19 grandchildren, said “we are very invested in the neighborhood.

“I know what it takes to turn an idea into reality,” she said of those who’ve led this effort. “I admire their spirit of cooperation with the neighborhood and their tenacity. They’re doing it the right way and I appreciate that.”

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