An edible forest takes root at Peckham Farm


This sign greets visitors to a special project at Peckham Farm.

Most 2012 URI seniors have left Kingston in pursuit of careers or more education but Tyler Desmarais is planning on hanging around the campus—specifically Peckham Farm– to pursue a vision that he hopes will help change society’s agricultural methodology.

Desmarais is the creator of a unique project at URI called the “Edible Forest Garden” and his base of operations is a section of Peckham Farm surrounding a small man-made pond.

Up until a couple of months ago, the perimeter of the pond was composed of aging, diseased trees of no great value and brush. It was cleared to make room for a wide variety of trees and plants that when mature will serve as a demonstration of how land can be made more fruitful and sustainable.

The edible forest site from the air and a plan for the future development.

The project thus far has required a lot of physical labor but that is not the only hurdle Desmarais has had to contend with since he broached his 11-page proposal last fall to URI faculty members in the Plant Sciences and Entomology Department and to the Provost. He had to approach both the Provost and the College of the Environmental and Life sciences for funding and even had to address a state Department of Environmental Management cease and desist order when he started removing vegetation from around the man-made pond at Peckham. He succeeded in overcoming all those challenges.

Desmarais has dedicated his life so far to promoting sustainable agriculture and in so doing he argues that the present agricultural system which is based on the extensive use of dwindling fossil fuels is inherently unsustainable.

Tyler Desmarais atop the heath spiral he built which will be planted with berry bushes and other edibles. He hauled the rocks down from his hometown, Smithfield.

In his introduction to the proposal, Desmarais argues that the present system of factory farming contributes to greenhouse gas generation, uses fossil fuels “and is the number-one culprit contributing to climate change and destabilization and is also the number one catalyst to global extinction rates.” He also cites the honey bee population collapse, the decline in phytoplankton population, the shrinking ice caps, fish population declines and loss of the rain forests as all tied into the using  of “industrial totalitarian agriculture to try to synthetically sustain a human population that has exceeded its planet’s carrying capacity.”

Desmarais’ solution—something called permaculture.

“The ultimate goal of the permaculturalist is to design and establish edible forest gardens. Edible forest gardening is the art and science of putting perennial plants together in woodland-like patterns that forge beneficial relationships that mimic those found in nature, creating a garden ecosystem that is greater than the sum of its parts..,.. With permaculture, we can grow fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms other useful plants, and animals in a way that heals and nurtures the soils and ecosystems they are a part of.”

Before he started at Peckham, Desmarais had already put his ideas into play with a highly successful sustainable agriculture project in Smithfield where he lives. That project, “Revive the Roots,” employs several of his friends on a 20-plus-acre piece of land that has netted local governmental support (see http://cels.uri.edu/news/nRoots.aspx.)

The Peckham project is much in the same vein although on a much smaller scale. The project site is the area around the peanut-shaped man-made pond, a rather nondescript utilitarian feature that no doubt will be enhanced in the future by the edible forest.

Eventually the edible forest at Peckham Farm will be transformed into a shaded area. But in the meantime, here is a place to rest.

Currently there are bales of hay around the pond to prevent erosion into the pond while construction is going on. On the south side of the pond are wood-framed raised beds, irregularly shaped and divided by walkways. The beds contain a variety of plants from fruit and nut trees to, blueberry, boysenberry and beach plum bushes. Other areas have strawberries, squash, pumpkins, goldenrod and yarrow.

The various plants offer either edible fruits or provide biocontrols to attract pollinators or beneficial insects.

Even though he received funding from the Provost’s office and  CELS, the project still needs more funding to accomplish the initial goals. A more reliable irrigation system is needed (rather than a 150-garden hose strung across the pond—a hydrant system is being planned. Desmarais also hoped to have a solar powered electric system but the cost of that was too high. Creating a forest garden out of what was largely a waste area involved a lot of soil amendments and it will be years before the soil will be ideal.

Tyler Desmarais is all animation when visitors come to the Edible Forest Garden.

But Desmarais, whose work ethic seems to be at warp speed all the time, thinks the edible forest will blossom sooner than later. The idea is to have the site be an integral hands-on part of a curriculum for students studying plant sciences at URI. A key figure in that is Dr. Brian Maynard, a horticulturalist, who served as faculty mentor to Desmarais and his student co-workers as they planned and installed the Student Permaculture Garden at Peckham.

Said Maynard “despite some potentially ‘fatal’ roadblocks the students persevered and have an interesting set of plants and garden beds, benches and sculpture installed. While this was very much a student-led effort, as it should be at this point, a faculty member or staff group  will have to help ensure its survival in the future. I expect to continue granting students credit in horticulture for curating the gardens and bringing Tyler’s dream to fruition.”

Recently Maynard attended a three-day conference on permaculture gardens hosted by UMass at Amherst and he said he gained some valuable information on how permaculture projects should be set up and run. Some 45 persons attended representing 23 campuses around the country.

Overview of the planted raised beds which offer a variety of foods and also plants that attract beneficial insects.

At UMass, he said the two permaculture gardens, both two years old, are located right next to  dining halls so students have first-hand knowledge about the source of some of the things that are on the menu. Close cooperation with dining personnel works well there although Maynard said he does not know what kind of staffing model makes sense for URI since Peckham is not near the dining halls.

Nonetheless, high visibility of permaculture gardens is important to deliver the message that food can be provided on a perpetual basis. “Permaculture goes beyond sustainable agriculture but there is some overlap,” said Maynard who added his goal is to work on the permaculture project with a group of students every year. “I think I learned a lot about the tremendous amount of student energy and enthusiasm,” he said.

Signs identifying plants are an important part of the edible forest.

Desmarais’ efforts have won praise from other quarters as well. Dr. Richard C. Rhodes, associate dean of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, which gave the permaculture project some funding, said “Tyler, the college’s permaculture dynamo, has done an excellent job reclaiming an area around the Peckham pond and bringing value to that area,. The creation of the permaculture garden is tangible evidence of our investment in students and our commitment to values of sustainability and environmental stewardship. We appreciate what Tyler has started and look forward to the development of a plan for long term sustainability.”

Even though he has graduated from URI, Desmarais says he has no intention of leaving the project he has started. In fact he has plans to seek more funding and is in the process of setting up a meeting with URI President David M. Dooley.

It appears for this recent grad, the learning curve is just starting.