Arts & Culture Features

Forest Heights Blueberry Festival: Regenerating the Earth One Bush at a Time

Credit: Kim Deakins

For many, the Forest Heights neighborhood draws to mind mid-century brick ranches and herds of fearless, wandering deer. But in recent years, the humble blueberry, thanks to the Community Blueberry Project and Blueberry Festival, has come to be a source of pride, symbol of resiliency and opportunity for connection among neighbors. 

The Community Blueberry Project was co-founded by Bart King of New Growth Communications and Clyde Yates of Hungry Gnome Gardenscapes in 2021. At the time, King, who has specialized in writing about environmental and sustainability issues for much of his career, was keeping an eye out for a small project that could embody regenerative culture. That’s when inspiration struck after hearing Yates’ idea of planting blueberries throughout a neighborhood as a perennial food source. Neighborhood residents with sunny lawns can offer to host a patch of bushes along the street or volunteer to plant, weed, mulch and fertilize bushes. In return, all passersby are welcome to pick and enjoy blueberries—even the occasional deer clever enough to outsmart the plant cages.

After putting a call out to residents in the Forest Heights and Newtown neighborhoods, King and Yates identified the best locations with good sun exposure and safe access to plant a total of 71 blueberry bushes in the pilot year. That summer, the first Forest Heights Blueberry Festival was held to raise funds for additional bushes through donations and merchandise sales, thereby creating a self-sustaining cycle. The festival taps into the talents of the many musicians, chefs and artists who call the neighborhood home, such as Kim Deakins of Pink Goblin Tattoo & Piercing, who designed this year’s festival artwork. 

Kim Deakins

“I began this after COVID because I wanted to do something to create more community resilience,” says King, who co-directs the festival with Danielle Gilmer and Philip Bishop. “I’m not sure that we could ever be fully prepared for some of the disruptions that might come as a result of environmental, economic or social upheaval, but I do think that we’ve begun to weave a tighter community that can be more supportive of one another and thus more resilient.”

The Blueberry Festival and Community Blueberry Project have both steadily grown over the past four years, with an estimated 600 people attending last summer’s festival and over 150 bushes planted in total between Forest Heights, Newton and Hampton Park so far. King hopes to eventually expand the project to include the entire Oglethorpe corridor between Hawthorne Avenue and the loop. He also says he would be excited to see other Athens residents apply the project’s model to their own unique identities or needs. 

“I think it’s a terrific hyper-local model for community and resource building that could easily be replicated in other neighborhoods,” says King. “It doesn’t have to be for blueberries, it could be used to fund any shared community resource—a park, a tool shed, a swimming pool. It becomes a virtuous cycle in which the festival raises funds through the celebration of community talent and the strengthening of local culture and pride.”

To accommodate the project’s anticipated growth moving forward, organizers decided to partner with the Athens Land Trust, who will serve as a fiscal sponsor by handing funds. The organization, which works to increase affordable housing and conservation through land stewardship—and even has two houses in Forest Heights—has a compatible mission with the Blueberry Project’s goal of regenerating community and land through food culture. 

The new partnership with ALT was recently recognized during a festival kick-off and community forum held at Oglethorpe Garage in early May. In addition to launching a custom-brewed blueberry beer from Southern Brewing Co., the event doubled as an opening reception for King’s first-ever solo exhibition, a vibrant collection of images produced with a flatbed scanner and natural objects such as leaves and flowers. The exhibition will remain on view through mid-June, with a portion of proceeds benefiting the Community Blueberry Project. 

This year’s Blueberry Festival will be held on Saturday, June 1, with activities centered in Holly Court, a small looped street with a grassy median located towards the back of the neighborhood. The day will kick off bright and early at 9:30 a.m. with the BikeAthens Blueberry Rally for Kids, followed by the popular Blueberry Cook-off Competition at 11 a.m. Garden tours at four different homes will run between 12–3 p.m., with topics ranging from ecological gardening, uncommon fruits and nuts, native plants for pollinators and cascading rain gardens. Finally, from 5:30–9:30 p.m., The Blueberry Jam concert will close out the festival with live performances by Alys Willman, Ron Hendon, The Vinyl Strangers, The Ukulady and The Warm Fuzzies. Visit for a detailed schedule and information on how to volunteer.

WHO: Forest Heights Blueberry Festival
WHEN: Saturday, June 1, 9:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
WHERE: Holly Court