The Public Food Forest: Clever Solution or Future Flop?

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.

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.

    • CheyDesignGuy
    • 8th February 2016

    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.

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 17th May 2016

    I do hope we see some exciting landscape innovations out of Detroit. Have you heard of their cool new initiative to give homes to writers?

    • The Smallest Acre
    • 7th August 2016

    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
    • 21st August 2016

    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.

    • Peggy
    • 28th September 2016

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

    • Frank Hyman
    • 11th November 2016

    Peggy, the Fruit and Nut Club in Asheville NC has one of the oldest public forest food gardens in the country:

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 15th November 2016

    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.).

    • Ivette Soler
    • 15th November 2016

    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”.

    • Laura Bell
    • 15th November 2016

    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?

    • Sandra Knauf
    • 16th November 2016

    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!

    • Peter Roberts
    • 16th November 2016

    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

    • Benjamin Vogt
    • 16th November 2016

    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).

    • Lisa Climer
    • 16th November 2016

    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.

    • Matthew Fallon
    • 16th November 2016

    the title seems somewhat unrepresentative of your article.

    • Renee
    • 16th November 2016

    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.

    • Matthew Fallon
    • 16th November 2016

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

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 16th November 2016

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

    • gemma
    • 17th November 2016

    The more edibles in public spaces the better!

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