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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011

Planting the Seeds for a More Edible Milwaukee

Victory Garden Initiative's 'Fruity Nutty Campaign'

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In an effort to promote a healthier environment and more sustainable food system, the local Victory Garden Initiative encourages Milwaukeeans to grow produce in the city. If the idea of nurturing an urban garden seems too daunting, though, there's a simpler option for concerned residents without a green thumb: Just plant a tree. Since they don't need to be replanted each year, fruit and nut trees are exceptionally efficient food sources, and in addition to yielding a lot of produce without requiring much maintenance, they provide shade and oxygen and absorb carbon, and their root systems prevent soil erosion and can help deter flooding during heavy rains.

The Victory Garden Initiative has been spreading that message through its annual Fruity Nutty Campaign. “We're advancing the idea of creating Milwaukee as a food forest,” says director Gretchen Mead. “You can envision a very harvestable Milwaukee as you walk around, with fruits and nuts that are harvestable and accessible to everybody in season. It's a very easy way to reintegrate food ecology into urban life, which is important because right now we have this complete break in the cycle of life, where all of rural Wisconsin is farmland, much of it using unsustainable agricultural techniques, and then there are cities completely removed from that cycle. When we look around the city and we don't see anything we can eat, we don't have that connection to the cycle of life.”

Last year, the campaign focused on hazelnut trees, selling 350 of them to Milwaukee-area residents. This year's campaign is more ambitious. The organization is selling 10 varieties of edible perennials, including apples, cherries, currants, grapes, plums, kiwis and a mango-like fruit called a mango paw paw, and planting them in complementary clusters called guilds.

The campaign raises much of the money for these projects from its annual Fruity Nutty Affair, a cocktail gala that this year takes place Friday, Nov. 11, at the Best Place in the Pabst Brewery, 901 W. Juneau Ave. The event features live swing music, specialty drinks and tapas from local caterers and restaurants, as well a silent auction that includes a chicken coop and one of the last remaining Wisconsin apple trees, an endangered species that ecologists are hoping to return to the area. It's an important fund-raiser for a campaign that has high ambitions.

“We've planted thousands of trees in Milwaukee, but we feel that's just the tip of the iceberg,” Mead says. “We're hoping to plant up to 5,000 chestnut trees in the spring. I have somebody who is going to donate them if we can plant them. Chestnuts were historically a staple of the country's diet until about a hundred years ago, when a blight whipped most of them out. They have the nutritional value of potatoes or rice, and they're really delicious. You can roast them or just eat them plain, and they make a great side dish if you just peel them and mash them.”

For more information, visit victorygardeninitiative.org.