SEATTLE — Stu Hennessey pushes back leaves with one of his hands to reveal a swollen pear. It’s grouped among others, weighing a branch at the back right corner of West Seattle’s new edible park.
Stu says he found the pear tree a while back, swallowed in dominant blackberry plants.
Covered in them, the tree wasn’t visible and in poor condition. With care and pruning, it grew healthy again. Still, the trunk now lies flat to the ground, sloping up briefly only at its end.
Stu lets go of the branch, letting fruit plunge back down, diving in and out of dappled yellow sunlight. He points at where the trunk’s spine of bark is horizontal.
Saplings shoot out of the trunk there, vertical and budding.
It’s like a nurse log, Stu says. “Nurse log” describes a fallen tree, whose trunk, as it decays, births and houses new trees.
This pear tree, though surviving, inspired the same type of births from its flat, suffering trunk.
West Seattle’s new Puget Ridge Edible Park (PREP), which Stu helped to create, is home to pear, cherry, apple and plum trees. “Very old trees,” said Stu, sweeping his arm through dusty air. “Probably 70 years old.”
Development of an edible park in a "food desert"
The edible park is completely free to help garden in and harvest from. It's 2/3 of an acre and sits at 5265 18th Avenue SW.
The city of Seattle approved the acquisition of the land for use as an edible park during the first round of a funding program working to acquire land plots that ensure the restoration and preservation of green spaces and wetlands around the city.
The park’s location was crucial to the application’s success. The Delridge area of Seattle is highly diverse and also has high amounts of poverty.
In the 2009 application for the city-funded acquisition of the site, it's stated that Sanislo Elementary School is an over-30 minute bus ride from the closest grocery store.
The Delridge neighborhood is considered a “food desert.”
The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where at least 33 percent of the tract's population has low access to a supermarket or grocery store. [Click here to enter your zip code and see surrounding food deserts on the USDA'S food desert map or see it embedded below.]
There are convenience stores nearby, heavily trafficked, but fresh produce options are not abundant.
The new edible park hopes to help combat this problem.
Another neighborhood institution working to provide low-income families and residents of the area with healthy, local food is the P-Patch garden, located at Delridge Way SW and Puget Boulevard SW.
The farm stand works to provision itself predominantly using backyard gardens and community gardens.
The Puget Ridge Edible Park is an almost decade-long project. Many of the neighbors that worked to develop the project and original application are in their 60s now.
Some are heading into their 70s and decided they couldn’t be leaders within the project anymore.
History of the space
Before the plot was acquired, it was a home.
A small white house squatted on the grassy meadow.
Nearby, the orchard of fruit trees grew. In 2008, the home went up for sale “as is.”
It was being rented out to the owners’ children. At the time of the home’s sale listing, the housing market was stable.
“Within six months of course, it went the other way,” Stu recalled.
On December 1, 2008, the National Bureau of Economic Research announced that the economy had entered into a recession; a cause of the recession was the crisis that arose from the bursting of the housing bubble, according to the Journal of Business Inquiry.
The small home was sold to the city of Seattle.
It had been in the family for years, used agriculturally as well, so neighbors recognized the fertility of the land there.
“Puget Ridge neighbors and others were individually looking at this piece of earth and thinking – ‘What a farm it could be,’” said Stu.
Fruits and vegetables free now to harvest
The park is roadside along 18th Avenue SW. A giant yellow sunflower grows near three mailboxes, tomato plants and red, healthy flowers.
In soil beds are winter squash, cucumbers and pumpkins.
There are currently about six cucumbers ready to harvest. Beans snake up trellises, which were built by volunteers of the bi-weekly workshops.
At the gatherings every two weeks, volunteers (mostly residents of the neighborhood, but open to the public) meet to learn gardening techniques and put them to practice for the betterment of the space.
There are plans to host community dinners in the garden as well.
The West Seattle Nursery has donated plant starts and will continue to donate plants past their peak for floor sale. “We would rather have someone use the plants instead of throwing them out,” Marcia Bruno, with the nursery, said.
Grapes are fattening on the branches down the hill. “Man, those are good grapes down there,” Stu said, peering down at them.
Birds flit from tree to tree. Stu says ducks even visit the park. Future plans to assist Puget Creek will work to encourage more duck visitors. An area incorporating farm animals is also in the hopeful future of the park. Once in the neighborhood’s past, the Puget Ridge Creamery was run: a “time-share goat dairy.”
“Mostly we made cheeses,” Stu said.
At one point, a neighbor got a little “carried away” and had 12 goats. Even compared to close, overhead airplane flights and boom boxes, goats can be audibly disruptive. The bleating kept neighbors up all night.
If the park did decide to include farm animals, they would move forward with care and attention to past ventures.
To the right of where Stu peers down at the grapes, newly painted glass-windowed houses are layered into the hill.
Acquisition of the land by housing developers was a concern for the group of Puget Ridge neighbors that submitted the park’s application.
Housing developers could have potentially fit multiple homes into the space that is now preserved.
The role of food in childhood
When Stu Hennessey was a child, he’d forage in his grandmother’s yard. She grew a lot of her own food. He lived next door to her and would venture into her lawn to “graze,” he says.
“She was lucky to get any plums herself.”
The novelty of instant food influenced his meals as a boy. He was very familiar with ‘Hamburger Helper.’
His mother, though, often made pizza from scratch – a meal he remembers with fondness.
While growing up, he helped relatives on dairy farms around Washington state and in Michigan.
When he moved out on his own for the first time, he went to work as a farmhand between Snohomish and Snoqualmie valleys.
“It was a really nice place to be,” said Stu of working outside with his hands. But he worked hard and made very little – as is the nature of the work, he lamented.
One of Stu’s favorite things to eat is fresh broccoli; it’s also growing in PREP. He grew up on the frozen variety, “mush,” and then rediscovered it as an adult.
Providing children with fresh produce and an interest in agriculture is an important goal of PREP.
Some area kids are already involved and helping, from both Pathfinder and Gatewood elementary schools.
One young boy was especially interested in the farm.
“He was always riding his bike over,” said Stu. “Asking me to help him with his bike.” He was a good kid, helpful and interested in the project.
He rode over from nearby low-income housing where he lived. Recently, he rode over to the garden with tears in his eyes, said Stu, with the news that he was moving to more affordable Lynnwood with family.
The future of the park
It’s in the future of the park to host field trips from nearby elementary schools.
Right now, one terrace of plants lines the top of the hill.
After the edible park is built out, there will be three terraces.
Stu says he’d like to see the development of the third tier cater to gardeners in wheelchairs.
He foresees keyhole gardens – nooks where wheelchair users can access gardens on their level at all sides.
Helping Puget Creek weave through the garden is a priority as well.
“Our park is bordered by Puget Creek, which is a mere ditch at this time,” Stu said. “Our goal would be to change the creek path to meander some through the park to slow down the rate of flow and absorb more runoff before it plunges down to the Duwamish river, where flooding can occur during heavy rains.”
For now, the park is open. Some yellow bur-bearing plants line the grass and crunch underfoot.
A wooden bench sits below a massive apple tree. One can sit on the wood and breathe in the scent of post-ripe fruit, browning in piles on the grass. Soon, the fruits and vegetables will be harvested with new hands: old and young.
Teaching in the way that harvest teaches those who grow to wait and reap fruit at the end of labor.
And there are messages of hope in the garden – the impact less than an acre of land can have on an entire community. As with the "nurse" pear tree once obscured by bramble – when hands peel away what doesn't work to serve, potential is revealed – and there, new fruit can grow.
© 2020 Cox Media Group