Talk to Fred Meyer for any length of time, and you’ll quickly gain a new perspective on the landscapes around you.
You’ll start to see how—with a few thoughtful changes—lawns, yards, parks and other expanses might do more than just contribute to the aesthetics of their community. With the right plants, they might even help move that community toward goals as diverse as improved water quality, better access to healthy food and increased habitat for native wildlife.
Meyer founded Backyard Abundance in Iowa City, Iowa, in 2006. This unique nonprofit takes a holistic approach to teaching people how to create sustainable landscapes. Through classes, presentations, consultations and some very visible public projects, Backyard Abundance is trying to instill in its community an understanding of how gardening can be a whole lot easier if you work with Mother Nature, not against her.
The principles behind most of Meyer’s work are rooted in the concept of permaculture, a term coined in the 1970s that basically means designing not just gardens, but miniature ecosystems that can be both agriculturally productive and harmonious with nature.
The idea is to design permanent landscapes that mimic the intricate design of untouched lands so that they meet the needs of humans, plants and animals and require minimal input in the form of fossil fuels and irrigation.
“It’s based on the premise that nature has been working through these systemic problems for about 4 billion years,” Meyer said. So logically, copy what nature does, and success should follow.
Edible landscapes aren’t the only tenet of permaculture, but they are an excellent way to introduce people to the potential that lies in breaking free of traditional modern landscaping practices.
“Edibles are something people can wrap their hands around really quickly,” Meyer said. It’s one thing to walk around the prairie and see the butterflies and bees. It’s another thing to be able to pick something off a tree, smell it, eat it, cook it.”
When Meyer first started Backyard Abundance, his presentations consisted mainly of slideshows filled with pictures from other cities that offered examples of what edible landscapes looked like.
“Now, instead of giving a lot of slideshow presentations, we’ve transitioned to giving classes and tours of landscapes here in Iowa City,” Meyer said.
One of the best examples is the Wetherby Edible Forest. Backyard Abundance partnered with theIowa City Parks and Recreation Department to turn a portion of a city park into a sustainable forest of edible plants that provide both a source of free and healthy food for all members of the community and a powerful teaching tool.
“Until people can actually see and taste and get tactile experience in these landscapes, they really don’t know what we’re talking about,” Meyer said. “This is one of our biggest outdoor classrooms.”
The project started in 2011 with the construction—funded by grants and fueled by volunteer labor—of an edible forest maze meant as a fun way to teach residents about the benefits of growing food. Another grant in 2014 allowed the project to expand an additional acre.
You can find many of the plants in the Wetherby Edible Forest on Backyard Abundance’s Plants Map profile. Meyer discovered Plants Map on a Google search after a member of his team asked if it would be possible to label the plants in the edible forest with signs and tags displaying QR codes.
He liked the fact that visitors to his garden could scan the codes to enrich their experience, and that people anywhere planning gardens in the dead of winter could read about the plants in the garden and how they function as pieces of a sustainable ecosystem.
“We plan to build out the Plants Map profile to include recipes and more establishment details,” he said. Backyard Abundance is also preparing to raise funds to buy a new set of interactive signs from Plants Map to help label the garden.
To learn more, visit Backyard Abundance on Plants Map.