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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.

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
  • supporting imperiled pollinators, including bees and butterflies
  • reducing our unused public lawn area—and with it, the chemicals, water, and fossil-fuel-driven maintenance we typically spend to keep public turfgrass looking perfect

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.

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.

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

Evelyn Hadden
on February 5, 2014 at 3:49 am, in the category Feed Me, Lawn Reform, Public Gardens, What’s Happening.