Summer 2011

Working Life

“WHEN I RETIRE, I SHALL PLANT FRUIT TREES.” That’s not exactly how Percy Mather, a longtime civil and environmental engineer with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, had planned things. But then she became involved with Madison Fruits and Nuts, a volunteer group that plants fruit-bearing trees, shrubs and canes—so far, mostly cherry and peach trees and raspberry canes—in parks, community gardens and other public spaces around Madison.

They don’t grow nuts; the name is a gentle joke on themselves. “We’re embracing Madison’s kind of kooky reputation,” Mather says. And although their mission may suggest guerrilla action, the group works closely with city parks and other public authorities. “Madison Fruits and Nuts does not sanction or encourage illegal acts but works to identify potential sites where edible landscaping can be done,” says Mather.

Founded in late 2009, the group scored an early success by winning a national “win free fruit trees” contest—sponsored by Edy’s Fruit Bars and administered by the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation—which allowed them to plant trees in Madison’s Wingra Park last year.

Why go out and plant fruit trees?
I have always maintained my yard as my own private garden of Eden for eating, where you can go around and snack on raspberries. There is something very primal about that, and I have a real sense of joy when I do it. You look around and have the idea that there ought to be some public space for this. We’re in a time of unprecedented interest in locally grown foods, and this is just another step. If you’re buying your food from a local farmer, why not grow it in your lot or on the edge of a park or along a bike trail?

Why take this into your own hands?
There have long been plantings, often decorative flowers, for people to enjoy in public spaces. Funding cuts have made it so that there are fewer and fewer of those kinds of amenities. But we still have the land, and all we need are the seeds, the bulbs, the trees and people who will care for them. This is a way to give back to our community and to involve kids in growing healthy food because park budgets are so limited that it’s all they can do to mow the grass and pick up the garbage.

Your group is devoted to not only planting but also making better use of existing trees. Can you describe that?
One of our members has created a Google map of these places, and everybody can contribute to it. For example, there’s a huge pear tree in public space on Madison’s East Side and a lot of apple trees even in city parks. So, part of Madison Fruits and Nuts’ mission is to do a better job of caring for those trees and bringing them back into production—doing some pruning and then utilizing the fruit. For example, we sponsored an apple cider-making event where people brought apples that they had picked and pressed cider.

Any heartwarming experiences while planting?
In September when we planted in Wingra Park, it was good to see a number of parents brought their kids. These were preschoolers, and seeing them plant the trees and measure themselves against the heights, thinking they would grow up along with the trees—that was pretty cool.

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