What could be better than fresh, ripe, local organic fruit? Free fresh, ripe, local organic fruit. That's exactly what area eaters will get if members of a new group called Madison Fruits and Nuts have their way. And it's looking ever more likely that they will.
The organization, formed last year to promote the planting of edible landscaping in the Madison region, is a wish come true for community activist and avid urban gleaner Janet Parker. A member of the Madison Parks Board of Commissioners, Parker recognized the swelling nationwide interest in public orchards; she teamed up with commission chair Bill Barker, fellow gleaner-gardener Jim Winkle and others to explore the local possibilities, and soon Madison Fruits and Nuts was born.
Fruit and nut trees and other edible plants provide a "low-impact free public food source," says Parker. Winkle lauds the "community-building aspect of people coming together to create and tend orchards." Plus, he says, "They're beautiful." The group envisions a local network of orchards that would add to the three currently in place at Mendota Mental Health Institute, Midvale Elementary School and Quann Park.
"City parks are the focus right now, but bike paths, greenways and street terraces are also part of the plan," notes Parker. "These are places where public orchards are already in place in other cities, like Portland and Detroit. So it can happen here, too."
Indeed, it's no pie-in-the-sky dream; the group has support from the Parks Division, which is working to set guidelines for orchards in city parks. Says Parker, "Once they have a review procedure in place, then everyone who wants an orchard can submit a proposal."
And there's considerable community support for the group's goals. An initial public meeting, held on a frigid night in December, drew nearly 100 attendees. With visions of plum, pear and even peach trees dancing in their heads, participants identified potential orchard sites around town; most also signed on for planting and tending duty. Later, using such criteria as the availability of water and a willing volunteer base, Parks Division staff narrowed the list to locations most likely to succeed.
Meanwhile, seeking funding for both the trees and training to maintain them, Madison Fruits and Nuts applied to the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, a nonprofit charity whose mission, according to their website, is to "plant and help others plant a collective total of 18 billion fruit trees across the world."
Now the Madison organizers have a good shot at getting financial support, too. Four potential orchard sites in Madison plus one submitted by a Middleton group have made it to the foundation's short list of 100 locations across the nation that are in the running for their funding. A total of 25 winners will be chosen by online public vote through Aug. 31; that is, the five top vote-earners each month during that period will win an orchard.
Local candidates in the competition are: Marlborough Park in the Allied-Dunn's Marsh neighborhood; Wingra Park in the Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood; Troy Kids Garden on the north side; Eagle Heights Garden on the UW Madison campus; and Bock Garden in Middleton.
Madison Fruits and Nuts members are encouraging people to vote via its website at www.madisonfruitsandnuts.org. (This route operates more quickly and effectively than via the official site, called "Communities Take Root," at which visitors faced navigating problems when the contest opened last week.) Each person may vote once per day.
The vote drive is but one effort that Madison Fruits and Nuts has under way. "We're shopping for other grants, too," says Parker. "In particular, we're looking for local sources to support orchard plantings this spring. We'd love it if someone came forward and told us, 'I can help with that.'"
In recent weeks, the group hosted several fruit-tree pruning workshops and has been organizing a series of Earth Day events to take place at UW-Madison on April 22. Plans for the latter include tours of urban-ag-related places on campus, such as the vegetable gardens operated by F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture (which is co-sponsoring the events).
They're also bringing in urban farming activist Ashley Atkinson, a program director at the Greening of Detroit, to lead a hands-on fruit workshop at Eagle Heights Community Garden and to give a talk.