A Stroll Through the Sharestead Food Forest with Jared Williams

by Margot Dougherty

Before entering his Saugerties food forest, Jared Williams, founder of FutureFruits permaculture design, may introduce you with a melody on his drone flute. It’s a sign of respect, he explains, alerting the plants within that a newcomer’s on the threshold. The sounds from the double-barreled woodwind, believed to be of ancient Meso-American descent, have a mellifluous jungle quality—one side remains on a single note, the other, played simultaneously, searches and settles. What the musical interlude signals to the garden’s abundantly planted occupants is hard to read, but it readies the guest for another world.

Inside, Jared, barefoot and occasionally swatting at a lively posse of mosquitos, leads the way along a mandala design whose paths flow in the shape of seven intersecting petals. Intros to scores of edible perennials are made as we go: Here is the honeyberry bush and the cornelian cherry tree, there’s the strawberry ground cover and the ornamental peach with its red leaves. Over there are the Asian and seckle pears, the hazelnuts. A dozen adult pawpaws, natives but not often found fruiting in these parts, have settled in nicely and have children at their feet. Comfrey, a permaculture companion-plant darling, spreads at the base of each of the 30 or so trees. “It’s a dynamic lifter,” Jared explains of the herb, whose deep tap root can access and make buried nutrients available to surrounding plants.

Berries are rife in the 70-foot diameter space: gooseberries, elderberries, jostaberries (a triple cross of black currants and two varieties of gooseberries), mulberries, aronia (aka chokeberries, whose sour fruit can be used to make jam). “Have you eaten bee balm before,” Jared asks, proffering a spidery-petaled flower, a favorite of the pollinators it’s named for. “I just learned from Dina [Falconi, herbalist and forager] that it’s high in bioflavinoids.” Tastenotes? Minty with a floral finish.

We walk on to find horseradish, raspberries, goumis. “Birds don’t eat the seeds because they’re too long,” he explains of the latter, which keeps goumis from becoming invasive like their relative, the autumn olive. The soundtrack en route includes a snortling jazz riff playing under the crowing of a high-register rooster. Investigation reveals a pen of newly arrived piglets rootling around in a pile of fresh corn husks. Welcome to the Big Little Sharestead.

Jared, who grew up in Columbia County, and Lala Montoya, who’s from Colombia, were still living in New York City when they received their Permaculture Design Certificates in 2010. He was a motions graphic designer and Lala, a painter, worked in an art supply store. After getting their PDCs, they spent another year as apprentices to permaculture mentors Julia and Charles Yelton, then teaching near Ellenville. “Our minds were absolutely blown by the possibilities,” Jared says. “In 2013 we said, ‘Let’s quit our jobs, find the space and go for it.’”

They purchased a small home with three acres in Saugerties and observed it for a year before planting. “It’s the first principal of permaculture,” he says. “Don’t try to be the boss all the time.” Deciding on the mandala design, one reflected in nature, their overall plan was to create “a problem of abundance.” They cleared an area of pine and oak, one forest ceding space to another, and built a tiny house and root cellar with the harvested wood. They were early members of the Long Spoon Collective, a group of like-minded, earth-stewarding souls. “It was people creating gardens, sharing harvests, tools, time and skills,” Jared says. In other words, as it sounds, they created a sharestead. Abundance achieved, they held food shares in gardens and local senior centers and applied newly learned preservation techniques to what remained.

Jared and Lala live on the property with their five-year-old son, Rio, an exuberant berry enthusiast. “You know the saying that children choose their parents?” Jared asks. “I think the reason Rio came to us is berries.” A covered outdoor area adjacent to the food forest features a biogas methane digester and cob oven. “We basically cook with wood or food scraps,” he says. “In winter we use a wood cook stove inside.” They make teas and remedies from their abundant herb garden.

Although Covid has cramped some of the Sharestead’s community efforts, the food forest and other growing areas continue to evolve with sharing at their core. Visitors are likely to leave with a dozen eggs, a clutch of lemon balm or a pile of just-harvested berries. Innovating and adapting are constants. This year Jared saved space by trellising bean vines to the eaves of their house. In addition to designated nurseries within the food forest, he’s experimenting with planting seedlings beneath their parents. “I want to connect that a little tighter,” he says. “I think there’s some intelligence we don’t understand.”

In another area, he topped a black birch, which he mistook for a light-inhibiting wild cherry. The result is “this kind of pollarded tree,” he says, “and you can make birch beer with the new shoots. So now I have a grape arbor that’s also a birch-beer tree!” With new pawpaws planted below, getting the shade they need as youngsters, the arrangement observes the permaculture tenet of stacking function and timing: “I can cut that birch tree back each year and give the pawpaws and the grapes some light and space to come up harder,” Jared says. “And I can make birch beer.” Ah, the delicious synchrony of permaculture.

He has other new trees, chestnuts and buarts, a butternut x walnut hybrid that’s relatively easy to shell, growing, too. “We’ve done black walnut harvests for years,” Jared says. “The hulls make a beautiful dark brown ink, but it’s so hard to get the nuts out.”

In the immediate future, he looks forward to an “awesome pawpaw problem.” The fruits may be reaching their peak when Dina Falconi leads her plant walk at the Sharestead this Saturday, an event put on by the Library of Local and facilitated by #DirtyGaia. “A few pawpaws fell off by accident the other day,” Jared says. “It’s said they can’t ripen when picked early, they’ll just rot. But these are ripening—I think I debunked a myth.”