From empty space to “food forest” – new project alters face of USM Portland commons

Posted on September 02, 2013 in Community, News
By Kirsten Sylvain

If you’re walking between the Luther Bonney and Payson Smith Halls at Portland’s USM campus this fall, you may notice that something is different about the once-empty, long stretch of grass.

This summer, USM teamed up with local permaculture designer and USM graduate David Homa to construct an edible landscape ­­– the project fittingly called USM’s “Food Forest Garden.”

Tyler Kidder, assistant director for sustainable programs at USM, led the effort to bring Homa to campus for the project. Mid-June, the two planned a permaculture workshop, teaching students, staff, alumni and locals the basics of permaculture and sustainable gardening.

Homa explained that one of the essential design principles behind permaculture is “bio-mimicry” – or mimicking forest eco-systems to produce healthy, self-sustaining and self-managing systems that don’t rely upon costly upkeep and chemical pesticides. These systems can also sustainably produce food, medicine and other material.

In creating the garden, Homa used materials like cardboard, ground sea shells, coffee ground and newspaper to help enhance the nutritional value of the soil and help guard against weed growth

“The biggest part of the project was to understand these niches,” Homa said. He explained that permaculture relies on understanding the type of environment in which a plant thrives and catering to its particular needs. “[In a forest] every tree has a group of plants around it to support it,” he said.

The garden was planted around several trees that were already growing in those areas, but now each tree is surrounded by a variety of plants that cater to its particular needs. The garden is meant to provide not only resources, but a place of respite for students and the community. Students and locals can already be seen walking through the garden’s winding paths, enjoying the shade.

As Homa sees it, in many ways, what he’s done on campus is vastly different from USM’s current landscaping. In his opinion, there isn’t a strong culture of wanting to be part of the landscape at USM, and he hopes that his project will help to create an outdoor space where students will be able to connect with nature in the middle of Portland.

“This is a great opportunity for this campus to learn to grow food and build a habitat even in an urban environment,” he said.

When asked about future maintenance of the garden, Homa responded that in the short-term, the garden may need a little care, but that after a couple of years, it will be almost completely self-managing.

Kidder elaborated, “As far as day-to-day care, the USM grounds crew will keep an eye on the garden, but it should need little attention.”

Kidder, who is responsible for the Waste Management and Sustainability budget, was able to fund the project with money saved from last year through source separation and other creative waste minimization initiatives like a campus-wide recycling initiative.

She explained that in the future she plans to work with Homa on building a living fence around the community garden in Portland as well, and she hopes that she can continue to bring more projects like this to USM.

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