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Program plants trees in Central Texas
The Giving Trees

Growing your own food is fast becoming an urban legend in Texas. TreeFolks, an Austin-based nonprofit, is hoping to reverse this trend by helping Central Texas communities plant food trees through its Urban Orchard project.

"We work with community groups to plant fruit and nut trees in public places like parks, church yards and community gardens," said Scott Harris, executive director of TreeFolks, an organization whose mission is to grow urban forests in Austin and surrounding areas.

TreeFolks plants trees and educates residents on caring for the trees and harvesting their fruit. Since the Urban Orchard project began in 1998, TreeFolks has planted about 300 fruit and nut trees in urban communities in Central Texas.

Open to the public
"We started off concentrating on lower income areas," Harris said. "It's pretty much open to any community group at this point who is interested in planting food trees and learning about them."

TreeFolks planted an orchard at the South Austin Community Garden on one acre of land owned by the Salvation Army, Harris said. Community members harvest the fruit and donate the excess to the Salvation Army's food bank.

Raul Munoz, the community development director for the Salvation Army in Austin, said every bit of donated food helps. With 278 beds for men, women and children, the Salvation Army's Social Services Center in Austin is the largest shelter in Central Texas, Munoz said.

"Money is tight," he said. "The cost of living is up; food costs are up. ... To be able to have fresh vegetables and fruit is very important."

TreeFolks requires groups that participate in the program to have at least six people and to plant trees in a publicly accessible spot, Harris said. Groups can request any type of food tree as long as it's compatible with the soil where it's planted.

"Even though some of the soils and microclimates are difficult here, we have something that will grow just about anywhere," Harris said. TreeFolks conducts a site visit to ensure the trees are appropriate to the area.

"We have some Southern version of just about anything you would buy at the supermarket," Harris said. "We plant a lot of traditional foods from Central America--a lot of citrus and pomegranates--and they're not your mainstream foods, but they're important to a lot of cultural groups."

Growing the next generation
The main goal of the Urban Orchard program is to teach the public how to care for trees, Harris said.

"We've influenced more plantings than we've actually planted just by reminding people of how valuable our trees are," he said.

Initially, a grant from the National Tree Trust funded the program, but now it is funded through private grants and memberships, Harris said.

Participants must attend four quarterly training sessions on tree care. The first class focuses on planting techniques; the second class demonstrates proper care during Texas' hot summer months; the third class teaches the importance of pruning fruit trees and pruning techniques; and the final class focuses on post-harvesting activities, such as canning and making jellies.

In 2000, kindergarteners at Popham Elementary School in Del Valle Independent School District teamed with TreeFolks to plant fruit trees at the Southeast Metro Park.

"Many of our children don't have places near their homes where they can plant," said Joyce Bannerot, Popham's principal.

Each year the same group of kids returns to the park to care for the trees, Bannerot said.

"They take it very seriously, and they have since they were in kindergarten," Bannerot said. "They are known as the class that takes care of those trees."

The students completed the 4th grade in 2005, and they will continue to care for the trees each year until they graduate from high school, Bannerot said.

Angela Freeman