Wayside Fruit: Considering the Productive Potential of Roadway Verges in Washington, DC, and Alexandria, Virginia

Nathan Heavers


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An edible persimmon planted on Prince Street in Alexandria, Virginia, April 2015.

For millennia, the edges of paths and roadways have been a common source of natural and cultivated plant products. However, in the 20th century, with increased speed of travel and polluting vehicles, roadway edges have been treated as gutters and buffers. Consequently, the design of road and street edges has focused on streamlining their planting and beautification, rather than cultivating the verges for particular productive plants.

In the United States, the nearly nine million kilometers of paved and unpaved roadway edges are simply “maintained” rather than “cultivated”, representing a significant loss in how we see and use this land resource. In the combined cities of Washington, DC, and Alexandria, Virginia, there are about 3500 km of streets. These primarily support vehicles, but also accommodate pedestrians along sidewalks. In the city, people notice, use, and can even contribute to the care of their environment in small ways, which raises the question in this urban context: How might we cultivate wild and planted species—especially trees—in our street plantings?


An inventory of isolated wild and cultivated fruits and nuts found along streets and in parks in Washington and Alexandria suggests that there is a range of possible species suitable for planting in this area. An analysis of the opportunities and constraints of growing these species in greater numbers is discussed—from the wonder of picking one’s own fruit to the hazards of urban soils and air pollution on each species. The concept of a productive street planting designed along people’s daily walk is further explored in a discussion of a proposal for an edible arboretum in the Old Town of Alexandria, VA. In conclusion, given neighborhood interest and careful selection of species, an urban street is an apt environment to cultivate some particular wayside fruits.  



Nathan Heavers headshotNathan Heavers is an assistant professor in Landscape Architecture at Virginia Tech in Alexandria, VA. He holds a B.A. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Princeton University and an MLA from the University of Pennsylvania. His research explores how we can increase the productivity of landscapes through tree planting. His projects, such as the Prince Street Arboretum, often repurpose historic concepts, practices, materials, and places for contemporary use. Seeing landscapes as evolving phenomena, he has been an integral member of a design team charged with re-imagining the Casey Tree Farm in Berryville, Virginia, as an arboretum.