Where another group strolling through the Knoxville College campus might ignore a mulberry tree or think, "That's pretty," Katie Ries and her entourage of Urban Land Scouts take one look and write down, "Food."
The group was walking the campus last Wednesday as part of a ULS Level 2 workshop. They duly noted edible perennials along the way, and transferred the knowledge to a local Google map the group maintains, which is one of the most popular ULS projects since Ries began the grassroots enterprise last year as her 2010 MFA thesis at the University of Tennessee.
While the name may seem like a spoof, the Knoxville group is serious about inspiring "scouts," doers of good deeds for the urban landscape. Like many regional and national groups, its mission includes cultivating native and edible plants, promoting species diversity, and sharing labor and knowledge. What sets it apart from the greenie rank and file is its local focus—and its tight structure. Ries has broken stewardship into 10 "levels" with very specific tasks to complete; land scouts can earn a fine art embroidered badge upon completing any level, like, "Looking at the land daily" (Level 1), or "Planting a fruit tree, caring for it, and sharing the harvest" (Level 10).
Last year, around 60 people participated, and 20 of them consistently attended workshops and earned badges, says Ries. This year, she is partnering with Beardsley Community Farms, where she is also an Americorps volunteer, but little else has changed. The group is still focused on urban land stewardship, with activites geared for both adults and supervised children that are "very DIY, very hands on," says Ries. She expects the sessions involving growing vegetables at home to be popular again, too. "It's pretty standard stuff; we give out seedlings for tomatoes, peppers—low-hanging fruit for beginners," says Ries. "It's kind of like slow pitch."
Growing veggies is one of the more sedate, mainstream activities, though—ULS also awards badges for harvesting enough of a wild edible to create or supplement a dish, and for cultivating native or edible plants in whatever soil is accessible—including tossing "seed bombs" in barren public lands that a scout gauges are unlikely to be mown anytime this summer.
When Ries says "wild," she means any plant or fruit found in the city, but outside of a domestic garden, yet the group's been able to avoid any tussles with local landowners or public authorities so far. "We talk a lot about the ethics and etiquette of foraging," she says. "Our two main rules are, ‘Never take all of something,' and "Always ask permission if possible'—though if it's on the sidewalk, it's fair game."
The group also takes heed of the history of a site, whether it's been used industrially in the recent past, and whether that might make edibles less safe to eat. "I live right next to the Interstate, so I figure I'm already breathing most of that stuff a little," says Ries.
And they don't eat mushrooms at all. "We just don't know enough, at least not yet."
The second year of the program got off to a slow start the second-to-last Wednesday in March due to biblical rains, and just eight attended the second session, but Ries and Beardsley farm manager Khann Chov both anticipate growing numbers for the remaining eight Wednesday night sessions, including one about blogging, and one on April 13 with Jeff Ross of Blackberry Farms. (He'll teach about foraging for wild edibles in the city.)
Still, the sessions themselves are not mandatory. Ries emphasizes that like all scouts, ULS participants can work on badges by themselves. "We're mostly here for support and encouragement," she says.
She herself is an old hand at gardening. "My mom growing up in Nashville, and my grandmother, Julie Webb, who's lived in Knoxville as long as I've known her, were both prolific gardeners, mostly of ornamentals," she says. Webb lived in Farragut and turned her backyard into a native woodland wild area of sorts. When she moved into a condo downtown, Ries helped her transplant and start container gardening.
This year's goals include more publicity for the group. "We're not known to enough people, we really have to work on that," Ries says. "I ran into a friend yesterday who had seen a Facebook note about us and said, ‘Oh, I thought that was a joke.'"
One possible innovation might come. Beardsley and ULS are hoping to cohost a free Urban Land Scout camp (with farm chores) for rising 5th-, 6th-, and 7th-graders from select Knox County Schools for three one-week sessions in July. Ries says they hope to raise half the money for the camp through kickstarter.com, a seed money matching program, which helped successfully launch the Just Ripe co-op earlier this year. m
ULS sessions are held at CAC Beardsley Community Farm, 1719 Reynolds Ave., (behind the Cansler Boys and Girls Club), Wednesdays through May 25 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. The edible perennials map is at bit.ly/ULSmapping.