It was an overcast early September afternoon when I found myself driving to visit what I hoped would be one of the oldest food forests in the province, and it was only about a 40-minute drive from my house. During a recent tour of the St. Mary’s Community Food Forest, upon seeing the 2-year-old mulberry tree we had growing there, a lady mentioned that a previous member of their group, Joe, had a mature mulberry tree, along with a bunch of other fruit trees. I was excited at the prospect of seeing a local mature food forest, possibly even one that was 20 or 30 years old, so I got his contact information from her after the tour and gave him a call later that week.
Joe didn’t pick up when I first called, but I left a message explaining how I got his number, and that I had been working to establish food forests around the province, but that there weren’t many examples of mature food forests and that I’d love the opportunity to see his. He called me back 5 minutes later and had a flurry of questions for me and explained that due to COVID and being older he didn’t do tours anymore, but that since I was doing good work with an organization he knew, that he would make an exception for me. When I asked when I could visit him, he said I could come right away if I wanted to, but that he was fine with me visiting anytime if I called first.
It had been almost a week since that first call with Joe, and as I turned into his subdivision, I felt like I hadn’t had enough time to prepare what I wanted to ask him. I had been considering starting an inventory of food forests in the province, so there were the basics like when it was established, how large it was, and if it was for private or public use, but Joe represented such a resource of local information that I wanted to make sure that I could learn everything that I could from him. I wanted to know what had grown especially well, what had ended up dying, what he had tried, and the best practices that he had developed.
When I arrived, Joe was watering his vegetable garden behind the largest arctic kiwi hedge I had ever seen. As we started talking, he told me his mission was to grow every plant that produces edible fruit that could be grown in the province, and to let him know if there were any that I could think of that he didn’t have. That’s when I knew I was in for something beyond my expectations.
Joe started the tour by showing me the plot across the street from his house that he had purchased years ago because he was tired of seeing the plot unused everyday. As we started going quickly from plant to plant, it soon became clear that there were particular things that he wanted to show me, and that I was going to have to do my best at quickly taking notes while continuing to listen to every word.
Of course, he had all of the species that I would have expected; apples, plums, blackberries, raspberries, hazelnuts, serviceberries, highbush cranberries, sea buckthorn, elderberries, chokeberries, and so on, but he also had nannyberries that taste like dates, Cornelian cherries that he pickles to taste like olives, and “Milky Way” Chinese dogwoods with incredible-looking fruit, and that was just in the new section. And there was so much to learn. Last year they had lost most of their decades-old plum trees to a bad black knot year, including their Japanese yellow and German blue plums. The nannyberries were suckering and would spread easily, but his mature Autumn olive would not spread even though he had tried to get it to do so.
As we headed back across the street to his house, we reached the oldest section of the food forest in the front lawn, and I asked him when he had started planting. He said that they started planting fruit trees when they bought the house, and after thinking for a second, said that that was in 1980. I was floored; this was a 42-year-old food forest! Not only had he developed his own great-tasting apple cultivars, but he had mature peaches with an intense flavour, both the Bailey cultivar as well as cultivars from China. Not only did he seem to have every edible fruit-bearing plant, but most ornamental or interesting plants too. Beautiful buckeyes and tulip trees were mixed in with the edible plants, along with ornamental bushes such as the beauty bush, butterfly bush, and the seventh son that was just coming into bloom.
After showing me his vegetable gardens with turnips almost the size of my head, unique summer squash from the old country in Sicily, and his perennial vegetable collection that included perennial arugula and Turkish rocket, we made our way into the back yard arboretum. One side was an apple and pear orchard in neat rows while the other side was a sprawling collection of plants that reached to the surrounding woods in a way that you couldn’t quite tell where the garden stopped and where the forest started. All of the plants were in these low square wooden boxes, and Joe explained that when they plant something, they add extra soil in the box as their soil isn’t great, and then they use grass clippings as mulch inside the boxes. The boxes also allow them to weed whack everything and not worry about hurting any of the plants, while also creating the mulch they need which they add after letting it dry for a day. They have also started to delineate paths with rocks and are aiming to have entire areas planted sufficiently to remove the boxes in those areas and not have to cut the grass at all.
In the center of the first part of this arboretum was the huge arching Russian mulberry tree that I had heard about from the lady on my tour the previous week. Joe mentioned that they don’t get many fruit from it since the birds get them first, but then showed me a younger and smaller white mulberry that they do get fruit from. As we made our way through the arboretum, Joe pointed out mature horse chestnuts and Northern Catalpa, before showing me his collection of hybrid chestnuts covered in nuts. Although a couple of the chestnuts were decades old, Joe said that most of the fruit didn’t have nuts inside, and he suspected that poor soil or pollination was the issue. He also had several mature shagbark hickory trees that he wanted more for the flowers than for the edible nuts.
Next, Joe showed me his persimmons and his medlars, which were both a surprise as I didn’t think they could be grown in our zone. He said that he covered them with blankets over the winter, but now some of the persimmons were too large to cover but had been doing fine. The medlars such interesting-looking fruit, and Joe told me that they can be grafted onto hawthorn, which is very interesting as I have so many hawthorn around my property. I asked about paw paws, and Joe told me that he had tried them several times but they always died, so he gave up, which made me think I should move the paw paws I have planted into my four-season greenhouse.
As we were finishing up the tour we were talking about nurseries, and Joe told me that he doesn’t pay more than $15 for a plant, and that most of his food forest was started from seeds or cuttings. We agreed that it is unfortunate that the people who need the fresh food the most often don’t even have access to land to plant on, and that municipalities should plant fruit-bearing plants. When I told Joe about the St. Mary’s Community Food Forest, and he told me to come back in the spring and he’d give me anything I needed for that project. I left Joe’s place that afternoon with a pocketful of hazelnuts, a Sicilian squash, and a groundnut tuber, but more than that, I left feeling amazed with what Joe had accomplished and with a new vision of what was possible for New Brunswick food forests.