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Talk with advocates of the newest tree-loving initiative in the city, and the mind conjures visions of Madison as a latter-day Eden dotted with trees heavy with fruit, ripe for the picking.

As impossibly idyllic as that may sound, it’s pretty much what the members of Madison Fruits and Nuts have in mind: fruit-bearing (and nut-bearing) trees in a public place near you, where you can watch the fruit form and ripen and when the time is just right, reach up and pluck it.

“We want free, organic, locally grown fruit to be there and available to anyone,” says Janet Parker. A member of the Madison Park Board of Commissioners, Parker is also a driving force in Madison Fruits and Nuts, an informal grassroots group whose zealous drive to spread fruit through the city is finding fertile ground. After an organizational meeting in December that attracted nearly 100 people and later, a warm reception from the Park Board, organizers started working with Parks Division staff to identify parks that might be appropriate for small orchard plantings.

The group is hoping to be selected by the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, a California-based organization that has brought orchards to places as diverse as Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, American Indian tribal lands in Arizona and Midvale Elementary School in Madison. Eschewing apples because of the trees’ susceptibility to a variety of pests, Madison Fruits and Nuts  organizers would focus initially, if selected, on pears, plums and peaches. Normally associated with warmer climates, Parker insists that even peaches can be grown in Dane County, especially in urban Madison, where trapped heat creates a warmer microclimate. Suitable nut trees might include a hardy pecan, hazelnut, hickory and new blight-resistant varieties of the American chestnut.

Because of the high level of enthusiasm for public fruit orchards, Madison Parks Division staff have been working on two tracks over the past several weeks: fast-tracking identification of parks where an orchard might be planted as early as this year; and developing guidelines for assessing any future proposals, says Parker. So far, parks getting a preliminary nod for application to the foundation by its Feb. 28 deadline are Reindahl Park on the east side and Marlborough Park in the Allied Drive neighborhood, on the border with Fitchburg. The foundation — which travels to the winning sites, purchases local trees and plants them with community volunteers — takes on projects where at least a dozen dwarf trees can be accommodated.

A primary concern of the Parks Division is whether a fruit orchard would conflict with the existing plan for any park, like placement of sports fields or play equipment, says spokeswoman Laura Whitmore. Equally important: “Who’s going to take care of this?” she says. Developing guidelines for acceptable plans to plant, maintain and harvest fruit trees is crucial because no parks workers are available for additional duties, and fruit trees are more work than other trees, Whitmore says. The Park Board’s Habitat Stewardship Committee is scheduled to review proposed guidelines on Tuesday, with adoption by the commission in March at the earliest. “Then for any subsequent proposals for edible landscapes, we will have guidelines on which to base a decision,” she says. Parker says that with guidelines in place, fruit tree enthusiasts can use volunteer labor and funds to develop orchards in the future — with or without assistance from any particular source.

The importance of volunteer labor became important quickly at the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation orchard created in 2007 at Midvale Elementary School, 502 Caromar Drive. Keeping the new trees watered during a dry spell shortly after their planting was a challenge for the volunteer stewards of the orchard, says parent and volunteer Rachel Martin. The west side orchard, part of a community garden on school property, has 34 fruiting trees and 24 fruit shrubs — a real chore to keep moist during a drought. The solution? Number the plants and assign them to the scores of student gardeners to water. Many hands made a daunting job doable, Martin says.

The orchard is popular with both its student and gardening communities. “Everyone is just delighted that they can walk up and just take the fruit. It’s really cool,” Martin enthuses. Such casual harvesting is adequate now, because the young trees produce only a fraction of the bounty they will bear when mature in a few more years. School officials are working with community members in the meantime to tailor the orchard experience to the young students at Midvale, who are in kindergarten through second grade. “I’m hoping children will understand where fruit comes from, and learn science in a meaningful way by watching plants flower and the flower turn to fruit,” Martin says.

The Midvale orchard is one of three sizeable public orchards already growing in Madison, says Parker. The others are a stand of about 20 mature apple trees on the grounds of Mendota Mental Health Institute now tended by volunteers from nearby Troy Gardens and the 10-tree Jessica Bullen Orchard and Quiet Garden in the south side’s Quann Park, completed in 2008.

There’s no guarantee that Madison Fruits and Nuts will win a grant from the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, but its director had good things to say about the city when contacted by phone. The foundation is accepting the first 100 applications for public lands orchards it receives by Feb. 28 and will select among those which projects it will take on. “We’d love to bring the program to Madison. We were so impressed by the mind-set and enthusiasm for green projects” when visiting the city for the Midvale project, says director Cem Akin. The fact that Midvale’s orchard is thriving is another indication that the Madison community is ripe for public fruit orchards, he says.

The foundation, a small nonprofit organization founded in 2002 by raw food guru David Wolfe, is dedicated to dispersing fruiting plants to the world to benefit the environment and provide nutritious food. It has planted more than 60 orchards in locations around the world, including Kenya, Brazil and India as well as Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; and Sioux City, S.D. “We believe the benefits of fruit trees to be pretty much universal. We’d definitely love to do more plantings in the Midwest,” Akin says.

To make a new orchard succeed, getting enough volunteers lined up at the start is important, says Jim Winkle, a Madison Fruits and Nuts member with experience in community gardening. He recalls going door to door to get volunteers for one project. “You really want a lot of people on board at the beginning when the buy-in is easier,” says Winkle, also one of the organizers behind the memorial Bullen Orchard that was developed as a community project with the help of a neighborhood grant from the city. “That’s the model the city’s looking at.”

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He’s gratified by the depth of interest in the Fruits and Nuts initiative. “It’s really phenomenal, but there’s a lot of interest in urban food, period,” says Winkle. This project has whetted his appetite for gleaning — collecting and eating naturally growing food from the landscape — and he’d like to see Madison fruit sources identified and mapped. A national website, Neighborhood Fruit, already provides that service — complete with a mobile iPhone application, he notes, though Madison is not yet a part of it. “It would be a win-win; people could access food, and fruit on trees in parks would be harvested, so there would be no worry about having to clean it up,” Winkle says.

Harvesting is popular at Troy Gardens, where there are about 30 fruit trees, some of them along busy Troy Drive. People walk dogs along the street, wait for buses, and they also watch and wait for the fruit to ripen, says Christie Ralston, interim executive director of Community GroundWorks, the nonprofit group that runs the community gardens. “People who are out there a lot really look for it.”

Enjoying fruit straight from the trees can take some changes in attitude, Ralston says, like getting over the idea that it’s not OK to graze from a plant you don’t own or that doing so is somehow “not sanitary,” as a teen in a Troy Gardens program protested about mulberries from the bushes there. But once they get used to the idea, Ralston says, people are likely to return with a purple-stained mouth from an in-season visit to the garden. “Once people start eating, they always like it,” she says.

Maybe that’s the secret behind the enthusiasm for Madison Fruits and Nuts: a universal appetite for the fresh and sweet. Or maybe it’s something more uniquely Madison, as Winkle suggests in quoting the group’s slogan: “Madison Fruits and Nuts: because Madison needs more of both.”

“Who wouldn’t want to join a group like that?” he asks.

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