CINCINNATI -- Berry bushes and squash vines, apple and pear saplings, and inches-high corn plants growing now are envisioned to blossom into an "edible forest garden" in urban Cincinnati for the benefit of joggers, bicyclists, hikers and those who simply want to relax along a waterway.
Community forest and gardening efforts have been popping up across the country, from Seattle to Pittsburgh, including other urban gardens in this city along the Ohio River. But this new project combines the goals of providing a new source of fresh fruit and vegetables for city dwellers with a long-term effort to renew the river, which has been polluted for decades.
"Basically, we are transforming what this river corridor looks like. We're giving the river a green edge and making it more inviting for people," said Robin Corathers, an environmental planner and the executive director of Groundwork Cincinnati, a community-based nonprofit.
The ambitious "Healthy People, Healthy River" project incorporates nutrition, recreation, education and artwork -- along with major environmental cleanup. A 28-mile greenway trail is planned in the Mill Creek watershed, which runs from the Ohio River through Cincinnati and into its northern suburbs. The watershed has long been a receptacle for industrial waste, raw sewage, residential stormwater runoff and other pollutants. Mill Creek restoration has been under way for two decades, and the edible forest garden is a way to heighten public interest in it, Corathers said.
Fresh, healthy food from the garden is intended to go to people who live within walking distance and aren't near a major grocery store, and to food pantries. It's also hoped the fresh produce will boost anti-obesity efforts and attract people to the area for exercise, learning and leisure. The site will include ground vegetation and a tree canopy.
The garden also is a celebration of art.
Jonathan Sears, executive director of Professional Artistic Research Projects in Cincinnati's Northside neighborhood, and community volunteer Lennell Myricks Jr. spent a recent 90-degree morning hoeing rows of recently planted corn in an acre-size maze. Regional sculptors will donate works to be placed throughout the corn maze; when the corn grows tall, people will come upon the works by surprise as they search for the way out.
"Long after the corn is gone, the art will be here," said Sears. "And people will be able to snack on the other things that are growing."
His group is among many participants in the forest garden. The Garden Club of Cincinnati is contributing plants and volunteers, and other help comes from neighborhood organizations, students, environmental groups, government programs and corporations.
Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. has made the project one of 1,000 community gardens and green spaces it plans to help develop by 2018 in a corporate outreach project for its 150th anniversary.
"There are so many healthy benefits to this," said Chris Cerveny, a horticulture scientist for Scotts, the lawn products and service company based in Marysville, Ohio.
Scotts has partnered with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which granted $25,000 to the project this year, including donations of topsoil, compost and other Scotts products. The company organized dozens of volunteers to help clear and prepare the soil for planting.
Ten sweat-soaked Duke Energy Corp. volunteers were working on a recent day, wielding machetes and sprayers to clear honeysuckle and other invasive plants along the Mill Creek. The greenway project is helping to revitalize heron, turtle and other wildlife habitat along the Ohio.
Student volunteers are teaching local youths more about the area's history, as well as the environment, nutrition and horticulture.
Some of the newly planted trees are called "Freedom Trees" to celebrate Mill Creek's role in the Underground Railroad system that helped fugitive slaves reach freedom.
Even on a recent hot summer day, a few people came down the trail on bicycles. Soon, it's hoped, they'll be able to stop and pluck some blueberries or an apple while taking a break under shade trees.
"Anyone who uses the trail who wants to grab some fruit and nuts and vegetables, that's what it's there for," Carothers said.