Northampton nonprofit seeks public space mini-gardens

Last modified: Monday, April 29, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — A fledging group of green thumbs is floating a plan to convert underused public spaces in the city into mini gardens of Eden where volunteers nurture edible landscapes for consumption by all.

Help Yourself! Northampton, a new nonprofit group, aims to reform the public spaces so they are teeming with free-to-pick fruit, vegetables and herbs.

“Our vision is a Northampton bursting with food — accessible food, local food free for everyone,” Felix Lufkin, co-chairman of the Northampton organization, which was created last summer, told the City Council last week.

Help Yourself! organizers say they plan to start small by planting a variety of items along the Nagle Walkway section of the Manhan Rail Trail between Pleasant and Conz streets — if it can get approval.

The city’s chief planner, while supportive of the idea in general, said he is concerned that the group is having conversations with different governmental bodies, but has not presented its plan for a comprehensive review.

“I think the concept is great, but it’s easy to ignore the details,” Wayne Feiden said in a telephone interview with the Gazette this week.

Lufkin said Help Yourself! has sought public support. Some 500 people signed an online and paper petition in favor of the project, and another 2,000 supporters contributed to a campaign that raised more than $5,000 for the effort.

“There’s public support and a lot of the people who signed the petition had positive comments,” Lufkin said.

Lufkin and other organizers behind Help Yourself! met with the council and the Energy and Sustainability Commission. Members of the group also have discussed its ideas with Department of Public Works officials. The group has not met with the Recreation Department, which owns that section of rail trail.

Several councilors have praised the idea.

“We look forward to seeing the abundance on public property,” City Council President William H. Dwight said.

Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge agreed.

“Growing natural food here is the right way to go,” she said.

Feiden said his chief concern is the location the group has chosen for its pilot. He said there is likely hazardous waste from the old railroad tracks and possibly from an old oil tank depot that potentially could get into the food depending on where the plantings go.

He also said trees and other plantings must not impede snow plowing and other maintenance efforts.

Feiden said he likes the idea in general, though, because these kinds of projects help make an urban area more attractive.

“I don’t want to discourage this idea,” he said.

Help Yourself! organizers said they have conducted soil samples in the areas they want to plant and that those samples have come back clean. They said that’s likely because contractors who built the rail trail brought in fresh dirt as part of the project.

Additionally, the roots for fruit trees are shallow and would not be far enough down to be contaminated, Lufkin said.

Help Yourself! would like to begin planting this spring depending on the approval process.

The pilot project would initially include grape vines along a fence bordering the trail and apple trees on a sloped section of land off the trail. The group would also like to install a handful of raised beds for vegetables and herbs, Lufkin said.

The fruits and vegetables would be tended by community volunteers, among them students from Northampton High School and North Star, a program in Hadley for homeschool teens.

Signs in the area would encourage passers-by to harvest as many items as they would like.

“I think there is enough public support of this to maintain and sustain it,” said Jessica Tanner, another Help Yourself! organizer.

One of those supporters is Dean Colpack, who said an increase in oil prices will make it harder for businesses and people to import food into urban areas.

“I think it’s high time we start devising ways to grow food in cities or close by,” Colpack said.

If successful, Help Yourself! said it has already identified more than 100 “miniature zones” in the city’s public ways that it would like to incorporate into its overall vision, Lufkin said.

The approval process would vary in each case, depending on who owns the land. Much of the land surrounding rail trails in the city is owned by National Grid, and the city only has right-of-way access, Feiden said.

In its presentation to the council, the group sought to alleviate some concerns raised by municipal leaders in other communities, including how messy falling fruit from edible trees can be and fears that dog excrement could contaminate the food.

Tanner said ornamental trees are just as messy and don’t have the advantage of producing edible food.

Plus, Lufkin said, Help Yourself! would hope to plant far enough away from the path that fruit won’t litter the trail and cause a safety hazard.

The group intends to plant many of its vegetables in raised gardens in an effort to alleviate the dog issue, and may include signs reminding people of the importance of washing their food before eating it, Tanner said. Other signs will encourage the picking of edible plants.

The effort is about more than providing healthy food for people to eat, Tanner said. It’s also involves conversations about local food and providing educational opportunities for all ages.

Colpack said offering the food free is key to the educational piece. He anticipates the signs will include tips on how and when to grow fruits and vegetables.

“We want to give people the power to have knowledge of how to grow food,” he said.

Similar movements in recent years have blossomed in Holyoke and Greenfield in the Valley and in places as far away as Houston and Portland, Ore. Portland’s group has more than 500 volunteers and has gathered 39,000 pounds of fruit in the past few years, said Wendy Messerli, another organizer.

Organizations in other communities seek out residents willing to share their surplus fruit and lure volunteers to tend trees on public land or vacant lots. They also organize harvests throughout the year and sponsor workshops.


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