Rooted in Community
Lessons from Bloomington’s Neighborhood Planting Project
Photography by Mia Beach
Excerpt from Ross Gay, “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian”
but no one told the fig tree
or the immigrants
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us
yes, I am anthropomorphizing
goddamnit I have twice
in the last thirty seconds
rubbed my sweaty
forearm into someone else’s
gleeful eating out of each other’s hands
on Christian St.
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
this is true
we are feeding each other
from a tree
at the corner of Christian and 9th
On a chilly March afternoon, a few dozen people with bundles in their arms listen as a local poet and co-conspirator reads a poem about figs. The bundles look like massed twigs, some of which are only as long as a chopstick, but they are infant trees. It’s a poem about figs that’s not just about figs. The poet describes the shared joy of eating fruit directly from the tree, then takes into his hands a small pine sapling and a shovel. He demonstrates to the small crowd how to correctly plant a tree.
You don’t just dig a hole and insert a tree, as he shows them. You should be mindful of the size of the hole and where the soil hits the base of the tree. He takes the shovel and stabs small cuts along the walls of the hole to help the threadlike roots more easily assimilate into their new home. Before deftly holding the tree in its aspirational spot in the empty hole, he adds a small bag of soil amendments to the hole: gypsum, rock phosphate, and green sand. A neighbor gently pushes the soil back into place around the tree. Those gathered can’t help but give a little encouraging cheer to the new tree.
In a similar vein, you don’t just give away trees and expect a community to build around it. But the Neighborhood Planting Project is trying to accomplish exactly that. The project has given away tens of thousands of trees and other edible perennials across Midwestern neighborhoods over the past four years. Each spring, neighborhood liaisons canvass their streets, knocking on doors and signing people up for native, food-bearing trees. The organizing group is rooted in these low-income communities on Bloomington's west side. With a species list that includes pawpaw, plum, hazelnut, elderberry, persimmon, and a variety of berries and medicinal plants, liaisons have a short checklist they use to sign people up for plants, assess if they need assistance with planting or maintenance, and gather contact information for future initiatives. Those who sign up for their free trees are a self-selected group of people tethered to a shared place, with an eye toward building a world there together.
Reforestation is one of the best ways we can halt runaway climate change, and in contrast to technocratic geoengineering schemes, tree planting can be done autonomously. But as we have seen around the globe, when it is instituted from above, tree planting is often ineffective or serves as a landgrab for forestry or tourism industries. The Neighborhood Planting Project is an effort from below, by those familiar with the ecological and social characteristics of a given territory. The success of the project relies on it being rooted in community, which means sharing stakes with human and non-human neighbors. Neighborhood liaisons generally knock on doors in their own immediate area, making contact with those who live near them and offering an excuse to meet that includes a shared effort to sustain the livability of the place they call home.
The Neighborhood Planting Project was inspired by the Nacogdoches Food Forest. Founded in eastern Texas in the catastrophic wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Tar Sands Blockades, the food forest project aimed to overturn historic inequities in food access and to create communal abundance. This abundance, however, was not conceived as a parochial matter. With fresh memories of massive and frequently racist dislocation by Katrina, it was clear that local, perennial abundance would ease the future prospect of offering refuge amid coming climate disasters. This mixture of meeting immediate needs while pursuing long-term plans is instructive for anyone planting trees. One of the Nacogdoches organizers describes their vision and founding:
We are gardeners working alongside residents, churches, and community groups to transform our shared landscape by planting edible and medicinal ecosystems for free in low-income neighborhoods and on a sliding scale elsewhere. We care for the gardens indefinitely while sharing skills with those residents who wish to garden… The program addresses wealth inequality by installing gardens on a sliding scale based on wealth, and giving families access to nutritious food in exchange for sharing the harvest of their garden plots... The Nacogdoches Food Forest started with a micro-nursery in a volunteer’s apartment with a tarp, 400 tree pots, and an LED grow light.
In some places, the major tree source is a state nursery that sells subsidized trees primarily to farmers. In this case, a planting project can cheaply redirect some of those trees to emerging neighborhoods-turned-food forests. In others, a DIY nursery nurtures thousands of young trees. Sometimes the local permaculture community is strong enough to contribute seedlings and extras. Many planting projects use a mix of all the above. Regardless of plant sourcing, soliciting donations of woodchips, potting mix, amendments, and soil eases the whole process.
The agricultural system is structured by massive flows of state cash, subsidizing the production of “staple” commodity crops like wheat and corn that are processed into mass market foods. These are overwhelmingly annual crops, encouraging farmers to employ practices which mine fertility from the soil, before letting it wash away after tilling and harvest. These cash flows have also been deployed to determine who can farm, with the USDA loan system historically biased against Black farmers, driving most of them off the land. Planting fruit and nut trees on a large scale chips away at the dominance of annual commodity crops, while building food autonomy for the dispossessed.
Reforestation not only takes carbon out of the atmosphere, it can also restore the health of the soil and broader ecosystems and provide human communities with more food security. The Neighborhood Planting Project is a more intimate process, where people are encouraged to coordinate with nearby houses to ensure effective pollination and to solve shared landscaping issues. This coordination helps restore the health of neighborhood dynamics and empower people to think about their role in food security. For instance, persimmons are dioecious, with both female and male trees, and the North American species is large. To guarantee pollination, it’s often necessary for neighbors with small backyards to talk to each other and plan on persimmons being planted on multiple properties. And along with offering trees for private groves, neighbors are given the option to take trees for communal plantings. This has produced everything from 100-bush food hedges bordering a neighborhood commons to squatted orchards seized from major landowners.
A key element to the Neighborhood Planting Project is the community planting days, when a neighborhood hosts a collective event in a shared place—an abandoned lot, community garden plot, or someone’s yard. It’s a festive afternoon, with someone demonstrating the proper way to plant, prune, and assess the health of a young tree. Warm food and drinks are offered alongside seed starts, plant care guides, and donations from friendly nurseries of herb starts and soil amendments. Small-scale growers have a stake in participating, contributing spare mulberry, fig, or blueberry plants, and connecting with people who wouldn’t be able to buy their stock.
“The future for us holds many more gardens, parks, and shared life. We will be opening a social space soon with its own food forest, free and open to the community.”
The Edible Parks Development Collective in Evansville, Indiana
From the beginning, the Neighborhood Planting Project was designed to be reproducible between places. A half dozen other cities have joined in on the planting days, each with their own local flavor. Some places, like Evansville, Indiana, had been tending perennial food gardens on urban lots for a decade. “An inspirational moment affecting all of these ongoing projects,” they recently explained, “was a talk Grace Lee Boggs gave at a housing co-op conference outside Detroit. She said that the plant life was reclaiming the city’s architecture and grids and we needed to reclaim a relationship with plants as accomplices.”
Participants in one small city in Ohio said that the structure of the Neighborhood Planting Project “truly had a massive impact as now that has led us to a point of trying to become more self-sufficient for this project and to carry it in our own direction.” Through an ever-evolving process, tree planting projects have begun learning from each other.
Now in its fourth year, some of the trees from Bloomington’s earliest plantings will fruit this spring. Until now, the primary yield has been berries—and community engagement. Once more of the fruit trees mature it will be a game changer in terms of creating a commons in which many working class people will have free access to a huge amount of fresh fruit and nuts.
One of the challenges we face is redeveloping familiarity with some of the native plants that were never appropriated by the colonizers for commercial food production. Some of these non-commercial fruit are delicious raw, like pawpaw, but cannot be sold because they are too fragile to ship to stores. This is what makes them perfect for neighborhood consumption. Others however are best enjoyed with processing, like the so-called chokecherry. Concentrating on native plants has also been an exercise in training ourselves to produce new expectations of our food. We need to learn to be satisfied by a small, unsweet homegrown hazelnut rather than the massive and mellow commercial hazelnut. A pawpaw can live up to its nickname of the “Indiana banana” only when we stop expecting it to taste like a banana.
As often noted, you plant a tree for the future and hope you’ll be around long enough to see its fruit. Tending a food tree can’t help but lead you to think about the other people who will enjoy the fruits of your labor. The shade we cultivate in fig groves will hopefully shield others from sunburn and hunger, even as we find shelter under them too. In this sense, the personal element of gain—free trees for those who will take them, either for a public planting or their own private yard—becomes irrelevant. Each planting is instead a contribution to “our regeneration, the birth of communal luxury, future splendors,” as the Artists’ Federation of the Paris Commune described their own contributions to public space. The planting project model also lets us avoid making a choice between building collective capacity immediately or constructing a future that is resilient, verdant, and welcoming. As Carbondale, Illinois’s project stated: “Collaborative relationships are rewarding and increase capacity—it makes it easier to scale up and easier to imagine making real change.”
For more information, visit neighborhoodplantingproject.org.
Other projects to take inspiration from: