ST. ALBANS — It’s a hot summer day for a Vermont woman walking home from work. Her afternoon passed by in a flash, and it’s finally time to unwind with the kids after a long week. She starts brainstorming about what to fix for dinner, thinking hard about what remains in her fridge. She know there’s leftover pizza, some chips, and ice cream, but all the fruits and vegetables were eaten up earlier in the week. She doesn’t feel like taking a trip to the grocery store, but wants to make something nutritious for her family.
Then something catches her eye.
A bright red tomato peeks out beneath a green bush as she passes the city park. A sign reads, “Community Garden: Free for All.” Surprised at the convenience, she snatches up a few tomatoes, before finding the fresh peppers and apples. In just a couple minutes she has her arms filled with fresh produce, making the healthy choice the easiest choice.
This is the scene that community partners around Franklin County are envisioning for the future. The hope is to integrate food plants within ornamental and decorative settings. The concept, known as edible landscaping, has inspired various pilot projects around the county this summer.
“It’s a new concept, not in general, but to our area. People are just kind of dabbling around what it means, what it looks like, what can we do that’s not going to give us a lot of push back and what do we have money for,” said Destiny Cadieux, Public Health Nursing Supervisor at the Vermont Health Department.
Cadieux, who oversees many of the programs administered by the health department, is currently part of a committee working to draft a plan for edible landscaping within St. Albans City.
This summer, city residents may have noticed tomato plants popping up outside the Health Department. Though an official proposal has not yet been drafted, these were planted by the city’s landscaping contractor and could be the beginning of more and more plants popping up in the future.
“Some tomatoes have made an appearance but the city is looking for a more comprehensive plan,” said Chip Sawyer, the city’s director of planning and development. The city wants to be certain it has the right plants in the right place, with an eye toward maintenance and safety.
Both the city and the health department agree that edible landscaping could not only help address food insecurities but also public health concerns in the community as a whole.
“When we’re able to include more edibles in a community that people can access, either for free or for a low cost, it just increases access to healthy foods for families that may be struggling with food security in a different and more viable way,” Cadieux said. “It also gives an opportunity to provide education that folks may not otherwise have available to them.”
The idea is to grow sustainable foods in safe places, where families can be engaged and brought together over these healthy resources. That has also been part of the inspiration of the beginnings of a community garden in Houghton Park.
The garden, which has been in the works for a couple years, sprouted more roots this summer. It was all thanks to a St. Albans City resident, Joshua Lareau.
Lareau, aware that many community members were missing out on sustainable and healthy choices simply because of a lack of awareness, approached the City Parks Commission with the idea to plant edibles in areas that would be accessible to the public.
“I wanted to bring awareness to some undervalued choices that are perfect for at home growing, such as currants, gooseberries and rhubarb,” Lareau said.
Because of the everyday foot traffic especially in the summer months, Houghton Park was the obvious place to start this idea, Tom Koldys, chair of the parks commission said.
Koldys said the garden is currently in a trial period as the commission and Lareau look for ways to increase its usefulness both aesthetically and as a food source to the community.
Currently, the garden has tomatoes and apples growing among other plants. This year, Lareau also planted a dwarf peach tree, pink and black currants and rhubarb. The parks commission also suggested Lareau plant more pollinators, so coneflowers, gladiolus and yarrow were also added.
Both Koldys and Lareau are hopeful for the future of the Houghton park garden. The Parks Commission feels this could be a great opportunity to involve the community in events and education around gardening and edible landscaping in general.
Lareau already has a pretty vivid vision of the future.
“I can just imagine kids running around picking blackberries, red or yellow raspberries, sea berries, kiwi, or heirloom grapes off the vines,” he says. “My ultimate goal is to utilize as much green space to grow food instead of grass at specific locations to make free and healthy food available to as many people as possible.”
Though his goal is to make a difference in the community as a whole, Lareau’s inspiration stemmed from a desire to impact the city’s youth. One of his fondest childhood memories surrounds visiting Schmanska Park in Burlington.
“I remember when I was a kid I would walk around the border of the park and pick black raspberries. I want to take that memory and bring it to my children’s community in hopes they can have a similar memory,” Lareau said.
This idea of exposing the community’s youth to fruits and vegetables, and the recent state initiative focusing on children’s wellness was what inspired Swanton to also jump on the edible landscaping bandwagon.
This June a group of community partners collaborated together to plant ten blueberry bushes next to the Blake Street section of the Swanton recreation path. The group, consisting of members from the Swanton Beautification Committee and the Recreation Department, also planted a few plum trees in the garden plot area just behind the Recreation building off Jewett Street.
Betsy Cherrier, chair of the Swanton Recreation Department and a RiseVT wellness specialists for the Franklin Northwest area, was approached by Karyn Rocheleau
of the St. Albans Rotary back in March. The rotary had extra plants that needed a home and Cherrier thought they would be perfect for the rec. path.
Having the plants right near a high traffic area would ensure that they would get eaten and noticed. It would also be in the perfect location for youth, who may be out and about in the summer.
“The schools do such a nice thing introducing kids to fruits and vegetables, but when they aren’t in school they don’t have the same access. This is another way for our community to give back and make sure these kids have access to them all year long,” Cherrier said.
The Swanton project, just like the plots in St. Albans City, is in it’s beginning stages. Cherrier said this year the blueberries were small and bitter, but she has hopes for next year. She also says the recreation department is having conversations about setting something up in the Village Green.
“It’s a high traffic area and a lot of people spend a lot of time there,” Cherrier said. “Right now we’ve just been talking about it with the Beautification Committee, but we haven’t planned anything yet.”
Cherrier wants this concept to be normalized around the county. She feels that if it’s an ordinary thing to have people pick off fruits along bushes on the street, then more and more people will be comfortable with relying on this as a means of food.
“I think at first people may wonder if they can eat some of these fruits, but once it becomes a normal thing and more communities start doing this, I think it’s just going to be expanded upon,” Cherrier said.
Normalization is one thing the health department said is key to making edible landscaping work. Though the concept is being used as an idea to tackle food insecurity, community partners want these plants to serve the population as a whole. Advocates see it as a way to guide our county on a healthier path.
“We want to normalize the fact that everybody is entitled and should be able to access healthy foods. While we may be planting berry bushes and tomato plants outside, it doesn’t have to necessarily be for a family who doesn’t have it, but it could be the lady that’s just walking down the street who needs a pepper for her salad that afternoon,” Cadieux said. “It’s for everybody, and it’s a way to build community.”