A forest of food planned for city

Two women propose to turn four empty lots in Hazelwood into area of trees, herbs, fruit-bearing shrubs

Second Avenue in Hazelwood doesn't provide many scenic views, with its broken-down abandoned cars, boarded-up storefronts and other signs of a struggling neighborhood.

But four vacant, adjacent lots in the heart of its business district hold the promise of something better -- a soon-to-be oasis of fresh food. Now the land is covered with tall grasses, scrubby brush and milkweed plants with dried brown pods that have littered the ground with feathery white seeds.

In the center of the field is a tamped-down, cleared space revealing an unlikely sight. Juliette Jones and Michelle Czolba sit on the ground amid the tall weeds strategizing about the details of turning this place into something called a food forest.

Ms. Jones, of Hazelwood, works for REI, the outdoor-equipment store. Ms. Czolba, of Lawrenceville, works with TreeVitalize Pittsburgh, a partnership of community, municipal and nonprofit agencies that plants trees throughout the region.

Both women are using their masters' of science degrees in sustainable systems from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania to make a difference in the neighborhood.

Some of their inspiration comes from the Philadelphia Orchard Project, which since 2007 has worked with community organizations and volunteers in that city to bring orchards to vacant lots.

An Erie native, Ms. Jones learned about Hazelwood from friends who live there and moved to the neighborhood in June. She spotted the vacant lots near the intersection of Second and Hazelwood avenues and thought they would be a perfect place for a similar project.

The nearly quarter-acre site will use new techniques to provide fresh food and green space for the community, using a technique called permaculture, or permanent agriculture.

"It's trying to replicate some of the systems that nature uses to grow food," Ms. Jones said.

Unlike a community garden in which annual vegetables are grown, the food forest will be planted in zones -- one with trees, then smaller perennial fruit-bearing shrubs, hardy ground-hugging herbs and other plants that continue to bloom and produce each year.

The women are considering many plants for the forest, including strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb, fruit trees and smaller bushes bearing such fruits as blueberries and raspberries. One thing they will grow for sure: Hazelnut trees, the neighborhood's namesake tree. The soil is being tested now to prepare for early spring planting.

Ms. Jones and Ms. Czolba also are forming a license agreement with the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which owns the lots. They have obtained an $8,000 grant from the Sprout Fund for plants and other expenses.

The site will include an area for workshops that are already being planned for spring. Ms. Czolba wants to teach residents how to replicate what will be growing in the food forest in their own gardens.

They are connecting with churches, residents and community leaders to help with the project and are looking for volunteers to work on the site and maintain it for the future.

Self-described urban farming advocate Jim McCue, a longtime resident of Hazelwood, said he has watched as his neighborhood has lost important basic resources, such as a grocery store. He doesn't like it.

"We want walkable communities. You don't want a school, library or a grocery store that you have to get into a vehicle to get to," he said.

As a crusader for local food, he has helped create gardens and a farm stand in Hazelwood, and he dreams of building a greenhouse across from the vacant lots. Mr. McCue believes that turning to green strategies and fresh food will help resurrect Hazelwood.

"If you feed people, it's the wisest investment you could possibly make," he said. "Your mind is part of your body. If you eat well; you're going to think well."

But to succeed, he said, the project will need help from the community.

"I'm confident that people are going to start catching on; with good management you can take a small area of land right in the city and grow good, healthy food and a fair amount of it."

Ms. Jones also hopes to see the food forest idea spread to other city neighborhoods.

"Planting and growing my own food organically, that's what drives me," she said. "That's a way I can make a positive change, and then being able to share that with the community is important. "

To learn more ...

For more information about the Pittsburgh Food Forest or to volunteer, go to pittsburghfoodforests.blogspot.com or its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=243498015467. Or contact pghfoodforests@gmail.com.

Doug Oster can be reached at doster@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9177.


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