‘Edible Landscaping’ in Missouri Helps Build Resilience in the Face of Climate Change | KCUR 89.3
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A house in the heart of the Tower Grove neighborhood stands out for its green landscape.
Native fruit trees line the edges of the fence, a salad garden sits in the middle of the yard, and other herbs and vegetables grow in scattered patches. A beehive is above in one corner and logs – used for growing mushrooms – are stacked under a tree.
Matt Lebon, a foodscaper in St. Louis, is the owner of this “urban food forest,” a type of gardening that focuses on edible and perennial plants. It is the headquarters of Lebon’s company, Custom Foodscaping, which aims to replace traditional ornamental landscaping with edible plants.
This style of farming, Lebon said, could hold the key to withstanding major climate change.
“The idea behind this edible landscape is that these perennial native plants come back every year, and every year the system becomes more robust, resilient and abundant, so you do less work and get more out of it,” Lebon said. .
Lebon did not grow up with a green thumb.
“My story is a kind of childhood disconnected from nature, from plants, from animals,” Lebon said. “And I had no idea where the food could have come from beyond Schnucks.”
But while working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, he lived in a rural farming environment. Many members of the community owned livestock, fruit trees and vegetable gardens.
“I witnessed firsthand how these small farmers became masters at managing the local ecology with a deep understanding of the plants and animals they cohabited with,” he said.
And when the city hit the drought, he said, they were ready.
“It was a really remarkable thing to see the resilience that comes with a super diverse self-sufficiency model, a model where people won’t just be affected by a summer drought, because there are all these other ways to weather the storm, if you want.” Lebon said. “It gave me context for the power of resilience.”
Lebon returned to Missouri and started working at EarthDance Organic Farm School, a 14-acre organic farm school in Ferguson. He said he faced many climate challenges, such as soil erosion, tilled soil washed away by water events and gullies forming during heavy rainstorms.
In response, he and his team implemented a farm-scale water management system – a type of land management that re-establishes a hydrological cycle, channeling water into the landscape instead of the let it flow into the storm water system. They also planted fruit trees like papaya, a native deep-rooted fruit that blooms late and is well adapted to harsh weather conditions.
He used this knowledge and experience to start his own business. Its now seven-year-old urban food forest is home to native fruit trees like papaya as well as persimmons, jujubes and perennial grasses and shrubs. Lebon champions these lesser-known plants by offering tours to the community.
“If we can give them even a taste, it will immediately light them up and inspire them to grow it in their own backyard,” he said.
And since Custom Foodscaping’s inception, it has tried to build on past lessons of diversity and resilience.
“So one of the recent challenges that a lot of us gardeners have faced is the lack of cold winters,” Lebon said. “So a super cold winter can kill some pathogens, prevent some insects from overwintering, or just dramatically reduce the amount of insect eggs that overwinter.”
Wintering is a term used to describe a type of hibernation that insects use to survive the cold. But without cold winters, more insects can survive the harsh conditions. Lebon said he had problems with flea beetles – a pest that affects brassica plants like arugula, broccoli or cabbage.
“Arugula is a very important early spring green, and if it’s very holey it’s really hard to market,” he said.
But he found a solution.
“I think the way I chose to mitigate that was to grow lettuce,” Lebon said. “It turns out that lettuce has almost no pest or disease problems here in our climate. Suffice to say, diversity always wins.
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