With Frank Cetera, written by Michelle Sutton
Photos Courtesy The Alchemical Nursery
The Rahma Food Forest on Syracuse’s South Side is a project of The Alchemical Nursery, co-founded by SUNY-ESF Forestry graduate, Permaculture Educator, and Small Business and Co-operative Advisor Frank Cetera. In 2010, Rahma Free Health Clinic provider and co-founder Magda Bayoumi began talking with Cetera about the possibility of a food forest on a 1/5th of an acre lot adjacent to and owned by the Clinic.
Bayoumi envisioned a place where community members could harvest nutritious produce for free in the South Salina Street neighborhood, which is one of many in Syracuse that are considered food deserts. Frank Cetera coined the phrase, “Bringing the health care mission of the clinic outside of its doors,” to build on Bayoumi’s vision. The Food Forest would also replace the maintenance headache that the vacant lot had become with an alternative, community-oriented kind of land use.
The lot is a former commercial site that was demolished and back-filled with rubble and a mere two inches of usable soil on top of the rubble. The first order of business was to test the soil to make sure that lead and heavy metals wouldn’t preclude food growing. Soil tests came back within safe food growing parameters, but Cetera knew the soil would have to be built up significantly so that Food Forest plants would have adequate rooting volume to establish and thrive.
Using Permaculture principles, Cetera and friends prepared the land and beds by first sheet-mulching the full ⅕ acre with two layers of cardboard and multiple inches of wood chips. (The cardboard boxes were collected from recycling bins outside of retail and service businesses. Before laying them out with overlapping edges, volunteers removed all plastic tape and staples from the boxes.) A dozen dump truck loads of wood chips from the City of Syracuse were amassed on the Food Forest site; with volunteer help, the chips were wheelbarrowed, shoveled, and raked into an even distribution over the cardboard.
Cetera and friends initially bought small amounts of compost from the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency (OCRRA) to use as they planted. Since then, they have obtained free compost each spring as a member garden of the Syracuse Grows network. This compost has been used for both new plantings and topdressing existing plants and is also sourced from OCRRA.
The overstory was the first food forest layer to go in, with trees like pawpaw (Asimina triloba), chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), plum (Prunus domestica), peach (P. persica), and apple (Malus sp.) filling this niche. Fortunately, the site already had two mature serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) trees at the southeast corner of the lot which were kept and stewarded within the growing forest layout. Volunteer trees like honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) were embraced (for its edible flowers and nitrogen-fixing properties), as was mulberry (Morus alba) (for its fruit).
About twelve years in, the overstory is serving its functions (fruit, shade, soil stabilization, etc.), and the volunteers have since focused on a shrub layer and culinary and medicinal herbaceous plants that can double as weed-suppressing groundcovers. Polycultures prevail in each bed or zone of the garden. A Monarch Waystation garden provides verbena (Verbena bonariensis), liatris (Liatris ligulistylis), and other plants with nectar for butterflies. There is even a small ornamental perennial bed on the corner of the lot to help signify to passersby that this project— one that looks more rowdy than your average garden—is indeed a food forest/garden.
An ongoing challenge for Rahma Food Forest is the upkeep. Regular volunteer workdays help greatly but haven’t been enough to keep up with the likes of bindweed (Convolvulus sp.), cleavers (Galium aparine), sumac (Rhus typhina), and box elder (Acer negundo). Rahma Food Forest is currently fundraising to hire a part-time gardener to help with maintenance. This would mean that the extensive investment volunteers have made thus far is preserved and can be built on so that Rahma Food Forest reaches its potential to best serve the community.
Cetera wants to be sure to acknowledge Robbie Colville, a fellow SUNY-ESF grad who was a Rahma Food Forest Board Member and project steward for five years before he moved away from Syracuse. “He was a right-hand partner for so much of the work during those years,” Cetera says. “We continue to collaborate, though—the two of use just recently submitted an abstract to the World Agroforestry Conference in Quebec City this July (2022), and we are excited that they have invited us to present a poster about the Rahma Food Forest at the conference.”
Cetera also wanted to be sure to mention Rahma’s Annual Spring Plant Sale. Orders will open in April, with pickup generally the Saturday before Mother’s Day in May.
A Selection of the Permaculture-Friendly Plants of Rahma Food Forest, with Frank Cetera Commentary
4-in-1 Apple (Malus) Trees: There are two of these compact, self-pollinating trees in the garden, each bud-grafted with four varieties of apple on one tree. One 4-in-1 is grated with modern apple cultivars, the other is grafted with heirloom varieties. Each can provide up to five months of fruit, and they are fast-growing and extremely cold hardy.
Apple Mint (Mentha suaveolens): We planted this groundcover in a partly to full shade area, which keeps it from spreading aggressively. Sometimes I wish it had spread more, earlier, because that would’ve helped us keep at bay the field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) and/or hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium). Bindweed is our biggest maintenance challenge in the garden. It found its footing in the southeast corner of the lot, in full sun and in raised beds that had open soil for a time. Then it moved around lightning fast. This year we’re going to make a line in the sand, botanically speaking, across one section of the garden, stocking the “line” densely with apple mint and other groundcovers to try to hold back the bindweed.
Aronia/Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa): This plant produces small dark purple drupes—and tons of them. My wife Ursula and I, our heritage is Polish to a high degree. We are familiar with how aronia is really popular as a tonic and as a juice in Eastern European countries. It’s one of those plants whose fruits you don’t eat right off the plant, but you can make drinking vinegars with it and Ursula and I make aronia-infused brandy. The last time we traveled to Poland we brought home a bottle of aronia wine that we are looking forward to tasting on a special occasion.
Asian Pear (Pyrus pyrifolia) is ripe when the fruits, which are the size and shape of apples, are past the pure green stage and start to appear mottled; they will continue to ripen off the vine. The texture is crisp, juicy, and grainy relative to European pears. There are a number of Asian pear cultivars available in the fruit tree nursery trade.
Comfrey (Symphytum officianale) has a deep taproot which can pull up nutrients from deep within the soil and store them in its leaves and stems. The N-P-K analysis of comfrey leaves is on a par with farmyard manure, and you can “chop and drop” the aboveground parts several times a season, providing a nutrient-rich mulch for other plants or to kick-start the compost pile. It’s also a great pollinator species; the bees love it.
Golden Currant (Ribes aureum) is often mistaken for black currant due to the similarly colored fruits. The Golden moniker comes from the very bright yellow flowers of the plant. Goldens have less of a musky taste than black currants and are more palatable directly from the branch.
Jostaberry (Ribes × nidigrolaria) is a cross between currant and gooseberry, and the fruit is pleasant in that it’s slightly tart and slightly sweet. The fruit is edible right off the plant, and you can use it in cooking, too. The shrubs get to be 4 to 5 feet tall and a couple of feet wide, and produce a ton of fruit. Everyone who tries them loves them.
We grow a showy lilac bush (Syringa vulgaris) because the flowers are edible, but also to signal to the community that this is a garden, just one with a food forest model that’s unfamiliar to many people. You can’t go wrong with lilac for boosting the aesthetics of the site.
Medlar (Mespilus germanica) fruit is ripe and ready to eat after bletting (softening by frost), when the fruit under skin is the consistency of applesauce. These fruits can be snacked on well into winter.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a curiously lesser known native fruit tree to this region with fruit that has the creamy consistency and flavor of a tropical fruit.
Plantain (Plantago sp.), along with other “weedy” greens, can be used to make “backyard” kimchi. Use plantain leaf with dandelion greens, dock leaf, and any other edible greens in place of cabbage in your favorite fermented kimchi preparation.
Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) was added within the past two years as an understory anchor. This perennial vegetable is extremely resilient and in the right spot covers ground quickly, suppressing unwanted weedy species. We would like it to spread more and have plans to move divisions of it into sunnier beds where it should be more vigorous.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a highly nutritious perennial green used in many recipes such as soups, lasagnas, casseroles, and teas. The sting of skin contact with nettles only lasts a few minutes to a couple hours and doesn’t create any lasting effects.
Sunchoke a.k.a. Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) tubers are grown at Rahma in one red and two white varieties. Tubers can be harvested into early winter and cooked like any other root vegetable.
At its most essential, permaculture aims to mimic the structure of natural ecosystems to maximize productivity and sustainability. Food forests are a form of permaculture in which a woodland ecosystem is created with edible plants at every layer—trees, shrubs, climbing plants, perennials, and annuals.
About The Alchemical Nursery
The Alchemical Nursery embodies two ideas in sustainable development: Alchemy, the transformation of one substance into another, and nursery, a place for nurturing. “Permaculture integrates food production with the ethics of people care, earth care, and fair share,” says Frank Cetera. Read more at alchemicalnursery.org.
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