15. The Urban Food Forest

According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, forest gardening is a very ancient practice in many tropical parts of the world.  It originally involved people encouraging and protecting food-producing trees and other forest plants that grew in the jungles where they lived while suppressing unwanted plants, and eventually also planting useful food-producers that were not necessarily native, until they were living in a functioning ecosystem that was rich in low-maintenance sustainable edibles which they could harvest at will.

The concept was first adapted for temperate climates very recently (relatively speaking), in the 1960s and since.  Bill Mollison’s concept of permaculture includes areas where many edible plants grow with little maintenance in forest settings.  The term “edible forest” was coined in the 1980s, and a 2005 book by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier, title Edible Forest Gardens, focussed on using the idea in North America.

It only took one additional step to apply the concept of food forests towards solving the problem of hunger in cities.  Within the last ten years or so, several initiatives have worked to start food-producing perennial plantings that include trees in urban places where people need better access to fresh healthy food, as a way to build community by providing food plants that anyone in the community can harvest for free.

For example, Beacon Food Forest in Seattle WA started work in 2009 on a 7 acre site, with a plan to plant fruit and nut trees as an upper story, berry bushes as a mid story, and edible perennials and annuals as a lower level, along with plants native to that area.  The goal was to “combine aspects of native habitat rehabilitation with edible forest gardening,” creating a functioning food-producing ecosystem that members of the community could go into and harvest from.

In Milwaukee, WI, the Victory Garden Initiative has run a “Fruity Nutty Orchard” contest annually since 2012.  To enter the contest, a group of at least 10 neighbors, who can find places for planting fruit and nut trees on either public or private land within a 4-block radius, make an application.  Each year, 5 of these groups win up to 30 fruit and nut trees which VGI plants for them;  28 such orchards have been planted so far.

Most recently, TakePart ran an online article title “A Food Forest Grows in Brooklyn” about a group called Swale in New York City, which acquired a barge whereon they created a 130 by 40 foot garden that grows apples, persimmons, raspberries, grapes, strawberries, asparagus, potatoes, bok choy, chamomile, and comfrey.  New York has a prohibition on growing and picking food in public spaces, but this garden dodges the ban by being on a barge in the water.  The barge has been moved to various sites across the city, but got the most attention in Brooklyn at the new Brooklyn Bridge Park.  And while there had been concerns about people selfishly taking more than their share, such problems have so far most notably not occurred.  Artist Ann Mattingly, who helped design the Swale food forest barge, said, “Food as a public service is thinking about, ‘Can New York City Parks change their maintenance plan slightly so that it accommodates more perennial edibles?'”  For food forest gardens could easily be incorporated into public parks, and could add discernibly to the food that groceries, farmers markets, and community gardens supply.

This month (October 2016) Swale held a public panel discussion on this possibility.  Both the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Forestry Service participated, and Swale’s proponents felt that the officials’ concerns about public food forests were “not insurmountable.”

What city doesn’t have some public parks?  If it can be demonstrated that food-producing trees and shrubs can be incorporated into them, and harvested by whoever needs the food thus grown, that could be one more way to increase the overall food supply.    By itself, it won’t solve world hunger, but as yet another tactic among many it could be very useful indeed.  And really pretty too, and a whole lot of fun.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

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