Volunteers needed to help Simcoe Food Forest take root

It may not look like much today — a large pile of wood chips and a few dozen seedlings and shrubs dotting about a quarter-acre section of Water Works Park in Simcoe.

But when Brooke Martin looks into the future, she sees a thriving urban garden where fruit trees, berry bushes and plots of herbs and edible plants produce free food for anyone in need.

“The idea is to increase food sustainability and have access to nutrient-dense food for people that may not be able to afford it,” Martin said when describing the Simcoe Food Forest at the corner of Nelson and Chapel streets, near the Simcoe Town Centre mall.

The health-care worker and anti-poverty advocate was at Norfolk council this month to give an update on the food forest, which is located on county-owned land but funded through private donations.

Ten volunteers put spades into the soil last October and planted more than 100 perennial plants at the site, including apple and pear trees donated by Schuyler Farms, two pawpaw seedlings from Carolinian Canada, and berry bushes and asparagus donated by Eising Greenhouse.

“We hope to fill in the rest of the layers of the food forest this spring and fall,” Martin told councillors.

Food forests have cropped up in several southern Ontario communities as a response to rising grocery costs and persistent urban poverty.

In Simcoe, volunteers opted for “beneficial” native plants to attract pollinators and act as “natural fertilizer” while attracting helpful insects and keeping pests at bay, Martin said.

“The idea is to mimic a natural forest ecosystem using edible and beneficial plants,” she said.

The next step in naturalizing the county-owned parkland is spreading cardboard around the young fruit trees and covering the area with mulch donated by the county to get rid of the grass layer.

Norfolk also supports the park by donating a water tank and wood chips obtained from regular tree trimming.

Martin and her team — which includes members of Simcoe-based anti-poverty group RISE Norfolk — need help to ensure the food forest takes root.

They are looking for a core team of volunteers to work one to two work days a week “to help maintain the food forest through watering and weeding,” Martin said, and others who can help plant and spread mulch on special work days.

Martin is also assembling a committee to handle fundraising, grant applications, and planning educational events for residents to learn about growing perennial sources of food and see live gardening demonstrations at the food forest.

With enough donations, the plan is to put up signs identifying the plants and indicating when they are ready to be harvested.

Anyone interested in donating or volunteering can find the Simcoe Food Forest on Facebook or Instagram, email norfolkfoodforest@gmail.com or text or call 519-410-7566.

Councillors are in support of the project.

“Your dedication to this is amazing,” Coun. Kim Huffman told Martin.

Mayor Amy Martin said she is “really interested” in the food forest because developers have offered to plant fruit trees instead of typical parkland and she sees the Simcoe Food Forest as a potential test run of the idea.

“Keep us posted on your progress,” the mayor said.

“We could be doing something really unique here in Ontario’s Garden.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator