Feed Me, Lawn Reform, Public Gardens, What's Happening

The Public Food Forest: Clever Solution or Future Flop?

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In a suburban home garden, a young black walnut tree (left) and a sour cherry (right) tower above a blooming patch of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Many urban gardeners lack the space for a single fruit or nut tree, much less a diverse mix.

Public food forests are a shiny new trend in the United States. Focused on perennial crops such as fruit- and nut-bearing trees and shrubs, they embody the values of permaculture (which I’ve touted elsewhere) : generosity, abundance, good health and nutrition, and food security. If they are developed and managed to incorporate runoff, build soil life, generate their own fertility, and promote insect diversity without relying on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, they can also be nature-friendly.

Unlike fad-dependent gardens that may be revamped when the plants go out of style, food forests are long-term landscaping solutions that promote the idea of land as an asset that increases its value each year. Trees in particular may need years of growth before they produce a crop, so a food forest represents a significant investment of time.

Whereas the continuing surge of interest in landscape restoration and enthusiasm for native plants might appeal to the altruist in each of us—the selfless protector of fragile natural communities or appreciator of biodiversity for its own sake—food forests tap our more basic desires for good health and good food. They cast humans in the pleasurable role of receiving nature’s bounty.

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To sample these serviceberries (Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’) when they ripen, you need to be in the right place at the right time. Don’t bother looking for them at your local grocery store.

Donning the rose-colored glasses, one might imagine a public food forest bestowing all sorts of benefits on its community:

  • offering the opportunity to taste fresh foods that may not be available elsewhere
  • fostering communal activities that may include planting, harvesting, cooking, preserving, and eating
  • highlighting historic and native plants used by earlier peoples of the region
  • modeling perennial food plants that can be grown successfully in nearby home landscapes
  • teaching modern kids that food really does come from plants

Who knows where this could lead? As many food plants need consistent water to reliably produce crops, I’m hoping it might spur more public trials and demonstrations of water collection and irrigation systems too.

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Asparagus, a low-care understory perennial, feeds pollinators too.

But wait! Take those glasses off for a minute. Public parks and municipal landscapes filled with trees bearing fruit and nuts? Won’t this cause a stampede of poor and homeless people, or at the other end of the spectrum, a rotting stretch of fallen, unclaimed food? Won’t it attract pests? What happens if the water runs out, or untrained workers irreversibly damage the plants (and their future yields) with a bout of lousy pruning?

Documented examples are scarce, but all seems to be working well in the renowned Village Homes neighborhood of Davis, California, developed nearly 40 years ago on a 70-acre parcel of land. The landscaping was designed to provide edibles, incorporate runoff, and enhance passive solar properties of the roughly 240 homes. Michael Corbett, the mastermind behind this model community, describes its features and their successful results in detail. If you’d like to walk the grounds vicariously, permaculture guru Geoff Lawton rhapsodizes during his visit in this short video.

Of course, Califonia’s climate is ideally suited to growing a wide range of food plants. It will be interesting to see how the newly planted Beacon Hill Food Forest in a Seattle public park matures. Public food forests have also been started recently in Colorado and Hawaii.

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Imagine wandering the public path and plucking leaves of this sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) to make your own savory, antioxidant-rich tea.

Communal food forests are also growing up at Massachusett’s Wellesley College and on the grounds of the Unity Church in St. Johns, Florida. These edible landscapes, having ready access to volunteers and being incorporated into the ongoing missions (educational and charitable, respectively) of the organizations operating them, seem more assuredly poised to thrive than strictly public ones.

However, the public food forest does seem a natural extension of America’s recently revived zeal for growing edibles in front yards and other public spaces, including the White House lawn. Could it be a better fit than intensive annual vegetable gardens in park land and other less robustly staffed public places?  Do you know of a public food forest near you?

Posted by on February 5, 2014 at 3:49 am, in the category Feed Me, Lawn Reform, Public Gardens, What's Happening.
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26 Responses to “The Public Food Forest: Clever Solution or Future Flop?”

  1. CheyDesignGuy says:

    Detroit immediately comes to mind as a suitable city where, hopefully, this concept has or can be implemented. Quite literally, one could be an urban farmer there with city block sized orchards that would require less city services, which are stressed and stretched thin already. Search for images of Detroit online and visualize this concept.

  2. I would love to see this happen in my town. The largest park extends all along the banks of our local river. This river is fed by a spring. Even during the busiest park days (4th of July and Mother’s Day) there are huge swaths of it unused. I’d love to see those areas planted with a public food forest. It would be so interesting to walk through a garden and feel as though it were a gardening book come to life. It isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination to think the garden could be watered from the river if done right.

    • Laura Bell says:

      Sacramento County (CA) has a huge parkway along the American River – 27 miles from the confluence with the Sacramento River up to Folsom Dam, both sides of the river. Several years ago, Soil Born Farms sprang up on old ranch land along this Parkway, and is a huge success. It’s all organic & sustainable. Row crops, backyard-sized orchards, chickens, pigs & cows (only a couple of those). Not only do they run a farmstand to sell the produce the grow, but they also teach classes on everything from how to start gardening to how to market your homemade goodies. Elementary & middle school students come to learn the basics of where food comes from, how we grow it, and how to care for the land. They have internships and in-residence student-farmers. There are special days when the public can come help weed or harvest or learn. And there is a native plant nursery onsite. Soil Born Farm is a wonderful thing & has done much in our region to promote sustainable living and eating local. If there is any way you could gather like-minded folks & get permission to make a park-garden, I highly encourage you to try.

  3. Peggy says:

    Great article! I am especially interested in how this will work on the east coast and possible resources/recommended plants.

  4. Boy oh boy the picture of that Black Walnut in the suburban garden makes me start twitching. Yike!

    I think the one of the best reasons for these public spaces is, as you say, “modeling perennial food plants that can be grown successfully in nearby home landscapes,” rather than actually feeding the public in any meaningful way. When people see ‘surprising’ sources of food growing well in their climate, they are more likely to try them in their own gardens.

    Have never thought of asparagus as an understory plant…going to look into this. I’ve got a lot of understory. :)

    • anne says:

      Asparagus and strawberries were often planted years ago in newly-planted orchards in our valley here in Oregon for crops to make money until the fruit trees were producing. We still have asparagus popping up in our orchard from long ago.

  5. It’s an interesting idea. I’m not sure it will translate to actual harvesting, though. We have lots and lots of uneaten pecans on the ground here in Atlanta as well as many other fruit and berries that only a few gardeners and foodies would ever think to pick.
    There’s a local group here called concrete jungle ( http://www.concrete-jungle.org ) that scours the city for abandoned or unharvested fruit trees and does the picking and processing and provides the food to hungry people.
    It’s a cool concept.

    • I too like the concept of gleaning organizations. Harvesting food does require a concerted surge of effort at the right time, so it makes sense that trained groups could cover this better than individuals (who may or may not know when to harvest, how to process or store the food, etc.).

  6. Ivette Soler Ivette Soler says:

    Thanks for this GREAT post Evelyn! The term “Food Forest” may be a trend, but the reality of public food has been happening for quite a while! Here in Los Angeles, neighbors planting their parkway hellstrips with edibles led to a change in the laws about planting these areas! A local group of Gleaning advocates, Fallen Fruit, planted a public Fruit Park in a neighborhood in Hawthorne, Ca – a noted food desert. It is young, but has activated the neighbors (especially the kids!) to maintain and care for the park, so far so good!
    When I wrote my book on edible front yards, the biggest concern from people was always other people taking their food. My response was always – plant more! Share! Gardeners share, that’s what we do. It isn’t automatic, and I have to admit to being peeved when someone took ALL the chamomile from my hellstrip veg garden the first year it was planted – but the sharing of food changed me. The planting of food in public spaces, the sharing of it, is a radical social act that should be encouraged! If a homeless person eats some fruit in a Food Forest – HOW FANTASTIC!!!! It might be the healthiest thing they get to eat! The fact that the ideal is shifting from the tiresome “outdoor living room” where people hole up in their fully furnished backyards and enjoy the opulence of high-end stainless steel outdoor kitchens and share their bounty only with those as fortunate as they are, to a public caretaking of our land and our citizens is such a wonderful, wonderful thing – a movement that we should all support. Yes, there will be burps and hiccups along the way, but I feel that this is a step towards changing the heart and soul of our country from “ME FIRST” to “ALL OF US”.
    YAY!!!!!!

  7. Laura Bell says:

    I’ve long thought this was an ideal solution for some of the green spaces in my town (not that far from Davis, actually). A former boss of mine lived in the Village Homes and loved it. It makes sense to use our public spaces for more than sports, dog-walking, picnicking… Why not grow food free for the public?

    Where I live now, I’m within walking distance of the remnants of an old pistachio orchard. The trees don’t produce much. They may not last much longer since they are no longer being tended in any way other than to have the grass cut beneath them. But the nuts are still good. And there is plenty more arable land (at least for orchards) around that could be planted in more pistachios, or any of the other multitudes of tree crops that grow around here. Or grapes – for wine, for jelly, for tables. We don’t have community gardens (yes, this really irks me), but nearby Sacramento has many, all with long waiting lists. We could use this land to start a community garden of our own, one that really is open to the community. So many ideas, and I have no time, no time to knock on doors at city hall, much less find funding & volunteers.

    Oh, you’ve got me thinking again. About how grand it would be. How I would dearly love to have this vision shared by neighbors!

    Any one have some good advice (or a good source for advice) on how to get the ball rolling on a community garden or public food forest?

  8. Sandra Knauf says:

    Thank you for this post! A good friend has been working on promoting a public permaculture food garden for some time here in Colorado–it’s a brilliant idea whose time has come!

  9. This is a great post! I’m actually working on getting my company to help with some permaculture projects as a way to give back to the community, and while I knew the benefits, it’s good to know that other people out there agree :)

  10. We’ve got a new food forest coming online here in Lincoln, NE next year. I like the idea — better than doing nothing. And I like the idea of promoting native plant beds among and around the crops to increase pollination and control pests, while filtering water etc. It’s a mini example of what larger farms should be doing — planting prairie buffers and strips, if not starting to grow more veg and fruit (which though more work, yields more profit than corn).

  11. Lisa Climer says:

    Ev: just read a bunch of your posts…makes me long for spring. How fun to plant in a new zone. Looking forward to more news of your garden.

  12. the title seems somewhat unrepresentative of your article.

    it lists plenty of awesome benefits.many that i have on our proposal to county!.
    But mentions none of the potential downfalls i can think of. what are the REAL “future flop” scenarios?! i am genuinely asking,so we can plan for it :) .
    only 2 typical concerns that always get brought up by nay-sayers is mentioned,attracting the hungry,and rotting fruit for rats.

    i’m WAY more concerned with the social structures and community interactions within the EFG. what if people give up maintaining it altogether, what about vandalism, theft, trespassing at nightto drink/smoke/shoot-up…
    what about Authority issues over who has the last say on matters concerning what to plant,delegation of jobs,funds, and so on…being that we are right at the start of our project,i have major concerns over county and town approvals(we’re backed by civic and historical society) and if govt will want to put it up for Bids and strip us of our project entirely….rotting fruit and homeless arent even on my radar!
    really looking forward to hearing other concerns and how to mitigate them! i have ideas for some but want to see existing proven methods!

    • Renee says:

      Matthew, I’ve seen several well-intentioned gardens on public space fade into oblivion when the founders move on. I hate to be a nay-sayer, but it’s NOT hard to round up volunteers to INSTALL a project — what’s hard is maintenance. Grants may cover installation, but it seems impossible to find grant money to keep a project going.

      At least here, a year or two without weeding, and a new bed is full of Oriental bittersweet and Norway maples, accented by multiflora rose, Euonymus alatus, honeysuckle, etc., which grow happily into the mulch or disturbed soil. As we all know, gardening is hard work — the results may look lovely, but they can be hard-won.

      Sorry if I sound bitter, but this is my sad observation. When I moved here to New London, I discovered a native plant/bird garden at my local high school that was almost unrecognizable eight years after planting, because it was barely touched after the first round of planting and mulching. I’ve found some volunteers who can donate a few hours, but something this big needs a real crew to maintain, not just a handful of women of a certain age (like me) whose spirits are willing but knees are weak.

      The cities and towns here in eastern Connecticut are struggling to keep roads plowed and trash picked up. There is no time, money, or expertise to maintain trees/shrubs/perennials — our parks are barely mowed. So I hope anyone considering a food forest respects the need to keep it going long-term.

  13. i should have included..Loved reading it , and thank you for sharing!
    still lots of good points in here :)

    • Thanks, Matthew. No worries, I am very interested in having a real pros/cons discussion of the concept and practice of public food forests.

      Besides the unclaimed produce that becomes a waste rather than a harvest, and the “attractive nuisance” worries, I alluded to another possible problem, and that is their long-term nature, which may decrease their chances of success in our culture of quick gratification and fashion cycles.

      The issues you bring up (what to plant? who will maintain? possible vandalism/theft?) seem like they’d be potential concerns for any public park. Must be plenty of well-thought-through tactics for addressing them. Not to dismiss them at all, I’m just thinking a little research could uncover some fine resources, particularly regarding public parks that have monuments, playgrounds, and other interactive elements.

      How to divide the harvest might be a question that hasn’t been tackled in many other public projects. I like the idea of coordinating with a local farm market, local gleaning organization, and so forth. I also like the idea of encouraging (and maybe demonstrating?) grazing by those who wander through.

  14. Susan says:

    Not to be a Cassandra or anything, but sadly I see these spaces as a necessity if Americans aren’t to starve outright in the future. The way our economy is headed, scavenging may end up being the only way the 99% will be able to eat at all. When you have a megacorp like Nestle trying to say that people don’t have a right to clean, safe drinking water (they’d like us all to pay them for the privilege), edibles can’t be far behind. I don’t think these edible public spaces are a trend; they’re going to be the only option for the millions in this country who won’t be able to afford food at all.

  15. gemma says:

    The more edibles in public spaces the better!

    The dark side is the “tragedy of the commons” where no one takes responsibility for tending the plants, or the scarcity mindset where a person or group will pick a fruit tree bare, often damaging the tree or trampling the rest of the garden.

    Nearly everyone I’ve talked to about sharing plants and produce has a story about the time they offered to share their bounty (a sign out front, or someone came to the door and asked), and they were cleaned out. It happened at a garden-share event last year to me. I picked a huge amount of mache — more than a dozen people could eat before it went bad — and while I was talking with some other people, one person took the whole bag. And she’d already been told it was a garden share, take what you need, etc. One of the organizers said that in this part of silicon valley, people new to the concept of sharing tend to be grabby.

    Same thing happens at community gardens with fruit trees that are accessible to the public. I’ve never even seen apricots on one tree. It gets picked overnight. A plum tree that’s inside the fence gets the outward-facing side picked all at once, too, even though the plums ripen at different times. I don’t know if they’re selling the fruit, or if they take it all because they’re greedy. One solution is to plant edibles that few people recognize as edibles, such as medlar or quince. Or plant them in a space that’s inaccessible after hours, or far enough from a public road or parking lot so they can’t pull up with trucks and ladders.

    Last month I saw someone picking something in a lawn near the community garden, so I went to see. She was picking dandelions! As long as you know the lawn hasn’t been poisoned, that’s a great urban crop. But at best, it’s a garnish, not a source of regular meals.

    Planting edibles in public spaces won’t feed the millions who can’t afford food. It takes some care to make edibles productive. A better plan is to teach people about planting and harvesting, and then create more community gardens. Sure it’s a great idea for towns to plant a fruit tree when they need to replace a street tree, but who’s going to be responsible for the care of each tree?

    One of the small community gardens in town is on church land, next to a parking lot. Most of the garden is run by volunteers, who take the harvest to local food banks. About 20% of the garden is plots for individuals, whose lease payments take care of the cost of running the rest of the garden (water etc.). As long as you can find a dedicated person to be in charge and enough volunteers to spread the workload, it’s a wonderful model. Churches own acres of unused land, but it doesn’t take much to grow lots and lots of food.

    • Yes it does seem that churches and schools might have more resources to create, and more importantly to maintain, productive landscapes. They have motivation too, as the act of caring for the landscapes, harvesting, and distributing their produce, aligns well with the goals of those organizations. But I can also see how a small municipal government might have similar values and goals, and might have the ability to enlist motivated volunteers.

      At its best, the public food forest might function like an outdoor community center, providing a comfortable shared space for classes, meetings, and celebrations as well as being educational and producing a harvest to share.

      • gemma says:

        Evelyn, this sounds like an ideal community garden: “an outdoor community center, providing a comfortable shared space for classes, meetings, and celebrations as well as being educational and producing a harvest to share.”

  16. By the way, if you happen to be on FaceBook and would like to learn more, there’s a nice compendium of resources at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Permaculture-United-Food-Forest/1418463695066220.

  17. Ivette Soler says:

    I’m glad people are bringing up the issue of neglect – because let’s be honest – it WILL happen. Volunteers will disappear, city budgets get cut – things happen. Just like in front yard edible gardening, sometimes things change and the structure to provide the basic needs of the trees/plants in question can’t be achieved. It is here where good design is CRUCIAL. A good hardscape design and other, non-edible, structural plants (like Benjamin Vogt’s natives, mentioned above) go along way towards making these spaces look less “fallow” if maintenance slips for a while. But maintaining and harvesting IS a part of these gardens – it will take a change in priorities and mindset. The answer isn’t – oh, let’s just make sure the good stuff is behind a wall, the answer is bringing people back into the culture of sharing, both sharing the work and sharing the profits of that work. It may seem idealistic, but all good things have an idealistic beginning.

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