Foraging, farming and foodscaping

Matt Lebon, owner of a local landscaping company, forages for juneberries on May 30 in St. Louis. Photo: Eric Berger 

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

One of Matt Lebon’s first foraging experiences took place on a hike in Israel when someone spotted a mulberry tree. He recalls climbing into the tree and “gorging on mulberries.”

“That was incredibly exciting to me, whereas some people might just walk by and say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ I’m like, ‘No, I want to stay here all day and pick all this free, delicious food,’ ” said Lebon, 34, who grew up attending Congregation Shaare Emeth.

Lebon did such hikes in 2011, during breaks from an apprenticeship in permaculture at the Hava & Adam Eco-Educational farm in Modi’in, where he learned about sustainable gardening and farming and recycling gray water (water from sinks) and dealing with waste, among other skills. But they still had Wi-Fi and were only 30 minutes from Tel Aviv. 

He gained “a sense of balance, that connectedness to nature but not a complete return to nature,” said Lebon.

As a farm manager of a nonprofit and now owner of a private edible landscaping company, Lebon has since tried to bring that spirit from the desert to backyards around St. Louis.  

He sees permaculture — a method of creating sustainable ecosystems — as a way to not only provide fresh, local produce but also to bring people closer to nature. 

“There is a market of people who are literally and figuratively hungry to connect with where their food comes from,” he said.

Lebon first learned about the farm in Israel through an email after participating in a Birthright trip. 

He not only gained practical agricultural experience; he also developed a deeper appreciation for the Jewish and Israeli traditions around seasons. As part of a tradition on Shavuot, a holiday that celebrates the grain harvest, he and others on the farm did a three-day hike to Jerusalem and left wheat at the Western Wall.

“I connected with the idea that food and farming sets the pace, sets different markers for celebration on different Jewish holidays,” said Lebon.

After six months in Israel, Lebon went to work on urban farms in New York and then returned to St. Louis in 2013. He became a manager of EarthDance, a farm school located in Ferguson, on land from “the oldest organic farm west of the Mississippi,” according to its website. The nonprofit offers apprenticeship and youth programs with the goal of connecting “people to where food comes from to address the biggest health and ecological challenges of our day. The biggest ecological destruction on the planet right now, is coming from agriculture, arguably. And also, that means the biggest opportunity we have to restore the planet is through changing the way that we farm.”

(According to a 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, almost a quarter of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, more specifically “deforestation and agricultural emissions from livestock, soil and nutrient management.)

In 2017, Lebon left to start his own company: Custom Foodscaping. He has since installed edible landscapes or consulted for places like New City School and Vicia, the acclaimed restaurant in the Cortex innovation district that focuses on vegetables and has received national attention.

He installed a garden at the eatery in 2018, and cooks and bartenders have since used its alpine strawberries for a dessert and lemon verbena, an herb, for drinks.

“It’s really created a lot of really cool engagement for our staff, for our cooks to be able to go out and harvest things every day and be able to see how they grow and what they taste like throughout different stages of their lifecycle,” said Tara Gallina, owner and general manager of Vicia.

While providing guidance in New City leaders’ efforts to revive its school garden, Lebon also pointed out the serviceberry (or juneberry) trees that lined the property — a source for fresh fruit.

“We spent three or four hours walking over the entire campus, and we had no idea that we had all these serviceberry trees. He was like, ‘If you don’t get them, then birds will get them before you,’ ” said Julie Lazaroff, a parent volunteer who has spearheaded the school garden. “We promptly harvested the 10 serviceberry trees we had on campus.”

In consulting for the school, he advised Lazaroff to move the garden from its original location because the surrounding trees had grown and made it too shady. He also provided guidance on irrigation, among other tips. 

“If I ever have a question about a crop that we’re interested in growing but don’t have a lot of experience with, I’ll pick up the phone and call him. He’s just a wealth of information and so generous with the information,” said Lazaroff, who also did an apprenticeship with Lebon at EarthDance. She sees his instruction on permaculture as a necessary antidote to the harm caused by “monoculture farming and the industrialization of food.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a prominent national nonprofit states, “No matter what methods are used, agriculture always has some impact on the environment. But industrial agriculture is a special case: it damages the soil, water, and even the climate on an unprecedented scale.”

So how concerned is Lebon about the threat to human civilization posed by climate change?

He appeared to be in positive spirits as he foraged serviceberry trees at a location in the city that he requested the Light not disclose. Some people disagree with the urban foraging because, for one thing, they see Lebon as taking food away from birds, he said.

But by sharing his foraging practices with friends, he thinks he can spark the same excitement in them as discovering the mulberry trees in Israel did in him. 

“They come out and the say [wow], this is just out here for free? We can just pick this delicious food growing on the trees?” Lebon said. “And I think that is what sparks people who end up becoming ecological warriors.”