Even halfway planted, the full scope of the Merced College Los Banos campus Food Forest requires a little imagination.

The initial planting of the one-acre semicircle, which took place in the middle of March, consisted of saplings, including 20 different fruit trees and a variety of native plants.

While still esthetically pleasing in their own right, it hardly paints the picture of the lush forest and garden the Los Banos campus expects to be one of its calling cards in the years to come.

Still, after four years and a wide variety of hurdles, the young trees are a thing of beauty to Los Banos Dean Brenda Latham and her team that helped make the Food Forest a reality.

“It’s a privilege and a pleasure to have worked so hard to see this vision become a reality,” Latham said. “It’s obviously not producing yet, but just to see it planted and sprouted is very satisfying for all of us that have worked on the project.”

Latham said the original Food Forest idea came from retired English professor Susan Grigsby, whom had read about a similar project at Beacon Hill in Washington. Grigsby contacted Beacon Hill landscape architect Margarett Harrison to get a feel for the logistics and see if such a project would be right for the College. Biology professor Cary Coburn and English professor Susan Kimoto helped assume the mantle from there, earning the College a $50,000 grant from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Wells Fargo.

The Los Banos campus broke ground on the project in November of 2014. It didn’t gain a lot of momentum, however, until the summer of 2017.

“We had the plans and we had some funding, but it just kind of languished for a long time while we were trying to find someone to donate some earth-moving equipment,” Latham said. “Charlie McElvany and his construction company really came through for us donating their equipment and time.”

Things started moving quickly after that. Merced College Director of Landscape, Farm Management and Special Projects Bryan Tassey and his team mapped out a plan for the planting and got to work on the irrigation. Four years’ worth of preparation and effort paid dividends as the Food Forest group and some community volunteers conducted the initial planting in March.

“Dean Latham’s vision for the Food Forest was something that was going to help bring the students and the community together,” Tassey said. “We needed a combination of edible and ornamental that was going to serve both people and animals. The inside ring of trees is where we planted the fruit. The outside ring is intended to provide food and shelter for some of the local wildlife.

“There’s a lot that we can do with something like this. It opens the door for new plant identification, gardening and plant science courses. We can have community seminars. And when it’s all said and done, it’s just going to be a nice backdrop for people to go for a walk through.”

That’s part of Latham’s ultimate goal in helping further incorporate interaction between the campus and the community. The College is also working with the city to create a bike path out to the Los Banos campus that will wind around the Food Forest.

“We’re 80 to 85 percent done,” Latham said. “We still have to plant out the ground in the amphitheater and put in our raised vegetable boxes. I’m really excited for when we finish up with the irrigation and can put down the gorilla hair. It’ll give everything a more polished look.

“We’ll be able to have biology and art classes out there. We’re working on getting some master gardeners to host youth groups. It’s going to bring fresh produce to the students on our campus and will be open to both students and the community to harvest the fruits each year.”