My background and Purpose
My name is Johanna Walker. I am a 4th year student at the University of Florida (UF), pursuing a B.S. in environmental science. Although I grew up in Michigan it was my good fortune to have been able to experience other environments and cultures at an early age. I lived in the Brazilian Amazon while still in middle school, a life-changing event that made me a passionate environmentalist. I moved to Gainesville for college. The University of Florida’s spectacular natural environment has made me even more committed to protecting the natural world. The fall semester of 2021 I applied successfully for an Institute of Food and Agricultural Science (IFAS) Extension Internship, which gave me a fantastic opportunity to explore my professional interests with the Wakulla County Extension office under the supervision of 4-H Extension agent, Dr. Rachel Pienta. The internship program supplied a wide range of activities and projects, but my main focus was on the 4-H food forest community garden.
Why am I doing this?
The non-governmental organization Project Food Forest defines such forest as a type of permaculture that emulates natural relationships found in a forest ecosystem while at the same time producing for human subsistence (https://projectfoodforest.org/what-is-a-food-forest/). Unlike industrialized agriculture with its addiction to fossil fuels, land development, costly inputs, and vast amounts of water use (Horrigan et al., 2002), alternatives such as food forests enhance sustainability by producing food based on ecological relationships while at the same time promoting biodiversity, improving soil fertility, and conserving water (Albrecht & Weik, 2021). Given the onset of climate change and the rising cost of living, sustainable agricultural practices that work with nature and not against it are essential.
When I was first awarded the internship, I spoke with my supervisor Dr. Rachel Pienta about my interests. As luck would have it, the 4-H program that oversaw my internship already had a sustainable food forest project in the works, located at the Wakulla County Public Library at 4330 Crawfordville Highway. This aligned perfectly with my interests. I was excited that my interests aligned with a shovel-ready project. When my internship began, I was able to work on the 4-H community garden. In particular, I was given great leeway in designing and implementing the type of food forest that, in my view, would be most sustainable in the years to come. In other words, I was allowed to be ecologically creative.
Steps and Challenges
I began my project with an in-depth assessment of the site. I immediately recognized the challenge of implementing a fruitful garden in an area with full sun exposure as well as extremely sandy and alkaline soil. Another problem was water. My internship began before the onset of the rainy season, and drought is a significant stressor for young plants. Given these conditions, I spent the first few weeks of my internship researching what plants flourish under such conditions. To give them a fighting chance, I also looked for combinations of plants that exhibit mutualism and grow well together. In fact, intercropping with companion plants is a key feature of successful permaculture systems. With the help and mentorship of the Leon County Horticulture Extension Agent, Mark Tancig, I came up with a sketch and design plan for the garden.
Engaging the Community
The next crucial step I took in executing my project was to introduce it to the community and to key stakeholders. I spoke at quite a few public meetings in efforts to raise awareness about the project. My community outreach also helped elicit donations. I also established a two-way channel of communication by asking members of the community what they wished to see the project become. My supervisor Dr. Rachel Pienta helped me to engage community members to raise $3,000 along with additional in-kind donations.
A key step to installing any garden is preparing the site, which was my next step. It is beneficial to remove problem plants such as weeds before you install your garden. It is also extremely important to remove any plants that work against your garden plans. For example, when I began my project, there were eight century agave plants growing on the site. These plants are enormous when they reach full size, and their spikes can cause skin irritation. Thus, removing these plants and donating them before I started installing the food forest was a key priority. In addition to the agave, there were several edible tree varieties that were growing in close proximity and competing for resources. The next step was to uproot these trees and place them in locations in the garden where they would flourish.
In general, when preparing a garden site, one must ensure water access. If your garden is situated rather far from water access, you should install a hose or irrigation line to supply water. I had the intention to install a drip irrigation system on a timer to conserve water. Unfortunately, the spigot at my site was found on the other side of a sidewalk that borders the garden. Therefore, I had to find a way to get water from the source and to the plants without the line crossing the sidewalk and creating a trip hazard. Thanks to the instruction and support from Mark Tancig and Chris Humphrey, I successfully ran a drip irrigation line from the spigot under the sidewalk to supply all the plants with water.
How a Site Becomes a Garden
I could not install the food forest on my own, I needed help from the community. Thus, I spent part of my internship designing flyers and promoting two community volunteer events on social media. The week we planned to have our events was forecast to have triple digit heat. My supervisor and I were pleasantly surprised that we had a strong turnout for both events. With the help of the twenty-five community members who donated their time and sweat equity over two volunteer work events we were able to successfully install the food forest despite the extreme weather conditions.
When I first arrived at the Wakulla County Extension office, I was not sure how much of the 4-H food forest community garden project I would be able to complete. I am proud to say that with the help of my supervisor, Dr. Rachel Pienta, Leon County Horticulture agent, Marc Tancig, the Wakulla County Public Library Director, Robyn Drummond, and the amazing community volunteers, I was able to successfully install the 4-H food forest community garden. The 4-H food forest community garden will supply many benefits to the community for years to come. The garden will serve as an educational demonstration garden illustrating how to grow self-sustaining and environmentally friendly food systems. The garden will also be a resource for educational programming on healthy food choices, food preparation and conservation, and resiliency, all provided by the Wakulla County Extension office. Food security will also be promoted by the garden, as harvested food will be donated to community members. As of now, the garden consists of trellises with edible vining that will create an edible food tunnel, raised beds for annuals, perennial fruiting trees, a mix of perennial and annual herbaceous and groundcover plants, as well as native and nonnative flowers that will attract beneficial insects and pollinators.
Community is Everything
A valuable lesson a community member told me is that “if the community doesn’t want a community garden, then there will be no garden. You must get the community on board first.” This is a lesson that I will remember forever and will use in the future. The key to change and development starts at the community level, and therefore community outreach work is crucial. I am happy to say that I would not have been able to carry out my goals if not for the enthusiastic support I received from the community. Through this internship I honed my public speaking and leadership skills. I had to speak at community meetings to gather support. At the volunteer events, I guided 10-16 volunteers in gardening, from all ages and skillsets. I will never forget seeing people’s eyes light up when I explained to them the intention of the garden and the benefits of creating self-sustaining food systems for all of us and our planet.
For more information about UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension programs, including the Food Forest project, please visit their site https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/wakulla/ or call 850-926-3931.