''Why don't we know this place?'' – that was the reaction of René and Helena when they arrived at the Westpark in Groningen. A nature and recreation area that is only a 10-minute bicycle ride away from the city center, yet unknown terrain for many city residents. Besides nice pathways, one can now find an emerging public food forest in this area. This is all thanks to René and Helena’s dream of creating a sustainable food landscape. I wanted to know more about this! And so I hopped on my bike to meet the couple in the West Park.
I met René and Helena at the beginning of the food forest and enthusiastically told them that I discovered this place by accident during a bicycle ride last year. And guess what? They also stumbled upon this beautiful place by chance.
René: ''We were actually looking for the location for the tiny houses, because we had heard about that. And we knew that that location would be somewhere in the West Park. We had to use the navigation because we had no idea where the Westpark was. Whilst we lived in the center, so actually only a few kilometres away."
Once they arrived at this place, they saw many more empty lots next to the empty lot that was intended for the tiny houses. One of those lots caught their attention.
René: ''The plot was really just bare grassland, a bit of rough terrain. So then it suddenly dawned on us like… hey.. can we do something with this?.. what is this?.. who owns it? what is going to happen here?''
Despite the fact the Municipality of Groningen had told the couple in previous conversations that there was no place for their food forest project, it appeared however that there was something possible with the plot they had in mind.
René: ''Yes, when we spotted this plot, it actually went pretty quick. We were able to start within a year.”
Meanwhile, René and Helena have been working on the development of the food forest for 2 years now and much has happened in this time.
Helena:" In the 1st year pigs rooted up the soil, a path was built and ponds were dug out…so really the big things. . And last winter, we started with really planting the food forest. We now see everything awaken. We are now increasingly getting a picture of, ‘’this is how it will look like’’, ‘’this is how it will eventually take shape...''
René: ''yes, last winter certainly hundreds of plants, trees and shrubs went into the ground, and their numbers will only increase. We now have planted about 1/3."
Creating a food forest requires a certain way of thinking and designing. René tells us that they work with the principles of permaculture, which stands for permanent agriculture. Where most fields consist of annual plants that have to be replanted every year, the focus with permaculture lies on creating perennial systems. René: ''So in a food forest, you have a forest system in which you work with trees and shrubs. And you try to organize it as nature would do – so you build an ecological system where you use the power of nature.”
Anyone who thinks that that means that nature does everything, and you don't have to do anything anymore is wrong.
René: It's sometimes jokingly referred to as ''lazy farming'', but that’s certainly not the case. It all starts with devising, planning, elaborating and planting everything. And it is constantly in motion, so you have to monitor continuously, and be constantly busy with all kinds of things. So it's definitely not lazy.
Helena: "It surely is fun though!"
The food forest is public, so ''basically everyone can drop by to pick an apple'', says René. This also means that the harvest cannot be guaranteed. Nevertheless, the couple is thinking about possible collaborations with restaurants.
René: ''What we hope is that at some point, we will discover new or interesting crops, which are not widely available, and that restaurant will think, for example, 'hey, this is a very interesting product.'
Helena: ''However, we are not operating on a commercial basis. We are a foundation. People sometimes ask, 'how do you do that'? But we mainly work with subsidies and donations. That's why we also have jobs in addition to this project. We do it all voluntarily and we also work with a lot of volunteers. We have volunteers who feed the animals, as well as a group of people that help plant and maintain the food forest. So luckily it’s not just the two of us, because there is a lot of work to be done."
At the end of our walk through the food forest, I ask the couple what inspired them to start this project. Besides reading many books and seeing many documentaries, one source of inspiration turned out to be the decisive factor: Food Forest Ketelbroek.
René: “In 2009 they transformed an old field into a food forest. It is a real gem, especially in that area, because you can still see the meadows around it. It has really become a beautiful flourishing forest, with all kinds of animals and insects living there now that weren’t living there before. And then you really think; there is true restoration going on there.”
Helena: ''And that was really our biggest inspiration for the food forest. When we got there, we were really like 'yes this is it'. We’ve always loved to walk in a forest and then we thought, what if you have such a forest, but that you can also pick it, that it is edible, how beautiful is that."
The documentary ''My Biggest Little Farm'' also played a special role.
René: ''We showed it on the beamer next door at Tuinindestad to demonstrate to people like ''..we want to do this as well, but a bit smaller.''
This documentary beautifully shows how nature eventually solves all problems by itself, as long as you give nature time to do this.
René: ''Yes, a natural balance has to be created, and you have that in every ecosystem. And that's just trusting nature that it'll sort itself out. Do not immediately act against it, or wanting to solve things yourself, but wait for nature to come up with a solution. And that's where all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, so let's hope that happens here too."
Photography by: Anouk Mos / Wouter van de Weerd
Planting a 1.5-hectare food forest may not be for everyone. Though, you can get started yourself!
René: ''Start with something that you find important or interesting and try to find ways to make that more sustainable? With food, for example, you can buy organic or local food more often.”
Now, have you become curious about René and Helena's food forest project? Take your bicycle for a ride and discover it for yourself or come to the opening of their interactive walking route on the 2nd of July!
Wat hebben we genoten, dankjewel allemaal! Op naar de volgende Sustainable Moments!