BRATTLEBORO — It was a TED Talk by Pam Warhurst, the co-founder of "Incredible Edible," an English initiative dedicated to growing food locally by planting on unused land, that laid a seed of inspiration in the fertile ground of Marilyn Chiarello's mind.
The talk was entitled "How We Can Eat Our Landscapes," and Chiarello, a Brattleboro resident, dreamed of trying that challenge on her town. She gained support from Post Oil Solutions, a nonprofit that develops sustainable practices locally, and formed a small group of area residents whose goal was to follow Warhurst's principles by transforming spaces in Brattleboro into edible landscapes.
That dream, begun in 2015, has blossomed into Edible Brattleboro, an organization that, as founder Chiarello explains, "explores new ideas for connecting people with healthy whole foods and educating them about the interconnectedness of health, food, soil and community."
A lot has happened for Edible Brattleboro since then. Its thriving help-yourself garden, in the Brattleboro Food Co-op parking lot, is a bounty of produce and herbs grown from donated seeds and plants and is free and available to everyone. It has a similar garden in the yard of Turning Point Recovery Center.
Chiarello has even started a garden for the organization on her property in West Brattleboro, with further hopes to build a small educational center on the grounds.
I met her there, among the apple trees in her orchard, which she plans to turn into what she calls a "food forest."
"My vision here is to have a lane for picking, but under and around the trees, lots of perennials and plants that I cultivate for a constant seasonal abundance of foods like rhubarb, greens, tomatoes, edible flowers, hearty kiwi, certainly apples, even hostas!" Chiarello said. She explains that the idea of this space is "just having food everywhere, and feeding people. My philosophy is that there is so much abundance that no one should be without fresh food."
Chiarello vibrates with equal parts compassion and determination. Spend a few moments talking to her and you will be uplifted by her spunk. You might volunteer to help in some capacity, too, since she is that kind of human: the one who naturally draws you to a worthy cause larger than herself.
"I don't know all this stuff! I'm learning it, but other people know it and teach me. They are my experts," Chilarello said.
She tells a story of an herbalist who came to a "seed bomb" (a small ball composed of compost, clay and seeds) workshop she was hosting on her property. After the class, they took a walk, and the guest taught Chiarello about the variety of plants, including milkweed, on her 10 acres. She was thrilled and spent that season protecting and checking the milkweed; eventually, a kaleidoscope of monarchs launched. If they migrate back to her next year, the milkweed will be waiting, as will the newly added pollinator garden.
As we talked, Chiarello pointed out where a seed bomb took root. There was a sunflower standing tall, with some lettuce at its base, flourishing though it's mid-October.
"The seeds grew here. They are telling me that's a place to plant similar things. It's all part of understanding the context of the land," she said. "We need to understand the principle of soil health and that every piece of land is different."
Chiarello openly admits that she did not come into this situation with a gardening background. Yet she seems a gardening savant. She speaks eloquently on the virtues of healthy soil and delivers on that by incorporating techniques like compost tea and sheet mulching into Edible Brattleboro plots. She credits Didi Pershouse, author of "The Ecology of Care," for inspiring the way she thinks about every aspect of edible landscaping.
"That book changed my life! It gave me hope because if you allow nature to do what it does, it will balance the carbon. It will save us, if only we listen to what the soil needs," she said.
We ate delicious ground cherries while checking on the solar panels behind Chiarello's apple trees, then headed to the co-op garden site, where we met with Tom Green, a member of Edible Brattleboro.
We gathered under the recently installed cattle panel arbor, teaming with foliage. He showed me the remarkable quantity of earthworm casings under a layer of sheet mulch and the elderberry bushes that have filled out since being donated by Vermont Elderberry last year. He knows the plot inside and out, from the spent-for-the-season strawberry plants to the ready-to-harvest Jerusalem artichokes.
"With our edible landscapes, we want to change the culture of thought around produce and access for all," Green said. "It can be a foreign concept. People have said to me here, 'May I really just take that tomato?' and I say 'Yes, please!'"
We talked about Edible Brattleboro's other programs: A Share the Harvest veggie stand at Turning Point, container gardens at The Root Center for Social Justice, satellite gardens throughout the town, cooking experiences throughout the winter — The list goes on, and volunteers are welcome.
"The Co-Op and Turning Point have been wonderfully supportive allies in this adventure," Green said. "We are grateful to them and our community, and always looking for new partners and garden caregivers to join us. Imagine a townwide phenomenon of edible landscapes."
For more information or to volunteer, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tina Weikert writes for Southern Vermont Landscapes from Bondville.