There's no question that the Asheville area is fertile ground for gardening. No less than 23 women's garden clubs meet each month. And the substantial membership of the Men's Garden Club represents an enormous reservoir of knowledge.
As for organic farms, WNC has more of them than the rest of the state put together. We boast both an arboretum and a botanical garden -- no mean feat for a town the size of Asheville. Earthaven -- perhaps the premier permaculture community in America -- is located just down the road. Local schools have gardening programs integrated into the curriculum. There are about a dozen farmers' markets, as well as an active mushroom club. And a strong contingent of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association meets every six weeks or so for a killer pot luck and a gardening workshop presented by one or more members.
And as if that weren't enough local gardening expertise, the Cooperative Extension Service's Master Gardener Program is continually graduating new master gardeners, some of whom volunteer to work the phones each day at the Cooperative Extension office, answering questions from the public.
All this, of course, represents only the visible tip of the grassroots agricultural iceberg in WNC, the bulk of which consists of a broad range of folks who quietly go about the business of tending their home gardens, both organic and conventional.
But even in an area so rich in diverse gardening activity, one local project stands out. In partnership with the city of Asheville, the nonprofit City Seeds creates "edible parks" on vacant city property, making organic fruits and herbs are available to anyone who wants to come pick them. Radical gardening partnered with city government? It sounds like an oxymoron!
It all began about four years ago, when some idealistic permaculture enthusiasts came together to figure out a way to apply their passion for cutting-edge gardening methodologies to the challenge of growing food in an urban setting. The city gave the group an acre or so of land on the east side of Charlotte Street to work with. Today, Asheville's first edible park boasts a meandering boardwalk that winds amid hundreds of trees, shrubs and perennial plants that produce food or seasonings.
I recently called up Jeremy French, the "steward" of the organization (a title he prefers to "director"), having heard rumors of a work day planned to get the park tuned up for the year (see below). I'd first seen this kudzu-covered hillside four years ago; I was curious to know what it looked like now. "The site boasts the worst invasives in WNC -- Japanese knotweed, multiflora rose, locust, wild cherry and, of course, kudzu," says Jeremy. On top of that, the fledgling plantings had to suffer through three years of drought. These are challenges even in a well-tended garden. So what happens when hundreds of common and uncommon plants are left to fend for themselves?
When the plants were installed in 1998, 2 feet of organic matter (in the form of compost from the municipal leaf dump) was added to the soil. Parks and Recreation staffers come in and mow part of the park. But as it turns out, the water-retaining capacity of all that organic matter was the key that enabled the new plants to become established. And curiously enough, the areas carefully mowed by Parks & Rec have suffered the most, because they haven't had the benefit of all those invasives, which serve as a kind of "living mulch."
This living mulch, however, is definitely a two-edged sword, because its relentless spread still threatens to overrun the park. "Right now is the critical time", says French, "to drive back the kudzu to allow the plants to fill in. The plants were installed in layers -- canopy plants, shrubs and low-growing perennials, in good permaculture fashion -- and once they get a couple more years of growth, they will be able to hold their own against the bulk of those that are invading." To that end, a work day has been scheduled to cut back the invasive plants and prune the edibles.
A public park where people can harvest free food sounds too good to be true, but it is. The park also gives folks a chance to see what both common and uncommon edibles might look like in their home landscape. Kevin Ward of South East Ecological Design and local permaculture consultant Chuck Marsh are teaching a course in ecological landscaping right now at A-B Tech. Their class has already visited the site, observing the various plants, their growth habits, and how they perform when water isn't plentiful. There are samples of various "weeping" varieties and plants whose interesting shapes or bark textures will appeal to home landscapers. What's more, all these specimens are edible.
The park's plant list is impressive. There are two or three varieties of each of the better-known edibles -- apple, peach, apricot, pear, cherry and blueberry. But there are also many other less-common trees and shrubs that are doing very well: pecan, jujube (a Chinese date with a flavor reminiscent of a sweet apple), elderberry, date, persimmon, mulberry, walnut, cornelian cherry, edible dogwood, medlar, maypop, currant, Russian olive (and the list goes on).
The work day -- Saturday March 30, starting at 10 a.m. -- is an opportunity for the community to join in a good cause and to see demonstrations of proper pruning. It's also a chance to get out in our terrific spring weather and enjoy the beauty of the blooming trees in one of Asheville's newest and most unusual horticultural treasures, the Edible Park.
The park is at the end of the pedestrian bridge across Charlotte Street, opposite the City Building. To learn more about the work day, call Jeremy French at 776-0213.