A visionary's quest: a city filled with gardens

Orion Kriegman wants Boston to burst with food-producing parcels tended by the community.

Courtesy of David Hugh Smith
Orion Kriegman and an enthusiastic group of like-minded activists called the Boston Food Forest Coalition are moving forward with a half-dozen 'forest gardens' in Boston that will host a wide variety of food-producing plants, including trees and shrubs.

Orion Kriegman wants to fill Boston with hundreds of places where people grow food together.  And not just grow food, but reconnect with nature, while cultivating neighborhood friendships that knit together the city’s diverse cultures.

Can he do it?

So far Mr. Kriegman and an enthusiastic group of like-minded activists called the Boston Food Forest Coalition (BFFC) are moving forward with a half-dozen “forest gardens.”  Each garden will host a panorama of food-producing plants, including trees and shrubs to mimic woodlands. The BFFC also aims to “revive and conserve” old, neglected city apple orchards.

“There is something about gardening that appeals across age ranges and ... across cultures,” Kriegman says. “It brings people together from a range of backgrounds.”

The Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Boston Nature Center in the city’s Mattapan neighborhood hosts the BFFC’s flagship demonstration garden. Here, on a one-acre plot once part of a hospital complex site, volunteers plant fruits and vegetables, and mitigate the impact of damaged urban soil by mulching and creating raised vegetable beds.

No fences surround this BFFC forest garden. Kriegman wants the public to visit and enjoy these green places. And, in the spirit of sharing, thoughtfully sample their fruits.

“One of the great things about the BFFC is their strong commitment to educational outreach,” says Julie Brandlen, director of the Nature Center. The BFFC “reach[es] out to the community ... about permaculture,” and about organic, sustainable practices.

Meanwhile, a half block from where Kriegman and his family live near Egleston Square, is the first fully realized BFFC neighborhood garden on a 4,000-square-foot parcel where a house burned down. It’s a funky and welcoming place, with plots of vegetables and recently planted trees sharing space with artwork. There also are grassy areas for Egleston’s diverse community of Hispanics, blacks, and whites to gather.

Ed Honeycut, who lives directly across the street from the Egleston Community Orchard (ECO), and who values the neighborhood connections he has made while volunteering, sees “people stopping by all the time” to enjoy a green space that for decades sprouted only junked TVs, auto parts, used hypodermic needles, and other trash.

The garden counterbalances nearby streets that are not always friendly. The Egleston area, shared by Boston’s Roxbury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods, is “in transition.” Crime and deadly shootings are an issue, along with concerns that affordable housing is giving way to gentrification.

ECO has “gone from an empty, uncared-for lot to a community space, accessible and inviting to everyone in the community,” says Luis Cotto, executive director of Egleston Square Main Street, which works to support local businesses and improve living conditions in the Egleston area. “The food forest [was] possible because of years of community building,” Mr. Cotto says. “Orion took root in the community,” Cotto adds, and included everyone in planning discussions.

Kriegman says there is no lack of interest from community organizations that want to work with BFFC to create gardens. And there are plenty of vacant parcels of land throughout Boston.

It’s funding that’s the issue. “[We need more] financial support so that we can truly support community-based groups," Kriegman says. "We have more opportunities than we can handle.”

The BFFC is pursuing public and private grants, as well as more large and small contributions. With a $200,000 budget, Kriegman says, a small paid staff could support an expanding network of gardens tended by volunteers.

Kriegman works full-time, unpaid, as director of BFFC.  He and his wife, Hannah Thomas, are worried about what will happen later this year when she begins working fewer hours at her job after the birth of their second child.

“It’s a nonprofit business, but we need to get this financially sustainable – otherwise we won’t be here for the long term,” Kriegman says.  “That’s the stress that’s on my shoulders.”

Kriegman, who holds a master’s degree in public policy and urban planning, has abundant organizational experience. For two years after college he worked in Guatemala with the Organization of American States.  Among his many activities aimed at reducing racial and income inequality, he worked for Tellus Institute, a liberal think tank, and co-founded Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition.

Along with partnerships with other community organizations, such as the Boston Nature Center, which supply land and resources to build and sustain gardens, Kriegman is working to advance more neighborhood sites like ECO, which would be sustained by government and foundation support.

“Each neighborhood site,” he says, would have a “stewardship council” and “the support of a wider circle of neighbors to help on clean-up days and organize harvest festivals, and other community activities.”  These sites would be included in the land trust the BFFC has created.

Two rapidly advancing partnerships are with Boston’s Old West Church and the Italian Home for Children in Jamaica Plain.  

Old West, a United Methodist Church in downtown Boston, is a historic brick edifice that’s more than 200 years old and surrounded by big buildings and traffic. BFFC and the church are creating a garden in the front of the churchyard.  

“I really hope it causes people to think, hopefully slow down, engage, and care for their neighbor,” says Rev. Sara Garrard, pastor for Old West Church. She adds that BFFC is providing the church with “a truly unique opportunity to transform our yard in order to feed people.”

Meanwhile, the Italian Home for Children is partnering with the BFFC to expand its traditional agricultural model on its Jamaica Plain campus by adding food-forest plots. Italian Home, formerly an orphanage, now focuses on programs to help people of all ages with emotional and educational needs.

Plans are for the children, adults, and families it serves – and members of the nearby community – to tend the new gardens.

“If anyone can get BFFC off the ground and sustainable, it is Orion,” says Allison Meierding in an emailed message. Ms. Meierding, a BFFC volunteer, adds “He has the rare blend of gifts of being both organized and action-oriented, as well as someone with the imagination to craft a new vision that may not have existed before.”

That vision, of a city filled with “food forests,” is taking form in a gradually increasing number of gardens – and harvests of fresh fruits and vegetables.

• To learn more visit www.bostonfoodforest.org.

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