By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Well, by a variant of Beveridge’s Law — “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no” you would guess the answer is “I don’t know,” but in fact my answer is “A lot more than I would have imagined just a few years ago,” and that’s a good thing. An IndieGogo fundraiser to “Help us get to as many sites as possible to learn directly from the pioneers of the community food forest movement” closed unsuccessfully, alas, but one of the organizers, Catherine Bukowski, went on to collect some of the information, and mapped it:
So I have to surrender my idea that “These permaculture types are so focused on the site specific that they can’t generalize,” but they sure don’t make it easy; in fact, I only came up with Bukowski’s map after a considerable search, in which I gave up once; all the other lists I can find are just random, with no pretence of being even close to exhaustive.
And so the answer to the headline question is: More than 54, probably fewer than 100, certainly fewer than 1000. So why focus on edible forests? And what is an edible forest? And who creates them?
Why Focus on Edible Forests?
Perhaps idiosyncratically, I believe that horticulture (as opposed to agriculture; see Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”) is an activity that’s intrinsically worthwhile; considered rightly, even one of the arts, like painting, or music, or poetry. 1491‘s author, Charles Mann, says that some anthropologists consider Amazonia — very large portions of which are an edible forest — “a cultural artifact,” perhaps the world’s largest. And indeed, a garden may share many characteristics with art: Beauty, survival for more than one generation, persistence and enterprise, skill in the making, including sensitivity to the use of materials.
Perhaps more importantly, food is power. We saw in Greece how the financial powers-that-be were able to leverage their control of the payments system to enforce their political goals; but that control would surely have been less absolute than it was had Greece been able to feed itself, as the likelihood is that Greece is not, since then food security would have been less closely coupled to the payments system required for imports. For example, up here in Maine we’re at the end of the line; thirty or forty miles north of me are the woods — hmm! — and Interstate 95 turns into a two-lane blacktop road. Problems in circulation — whether slowly choking arteries, or infection — hit the peripheries first, and if or when “the trucks stop,” I would like Maine to be able to feed itself.
Finally, although you can most definitely create your own edible forest on even a very small patch of land, most edible forests are on public land. I think public goods are to be encouraged in principle where found, as a counterweight to the ruling neoliberal ideology of “because markets.” The whole principle of an edible forest is that people can pick and eat for free — in fact, that’s exactly what people do and should do in the raspberry patch that I have grown — and that just isn’t a market-based thing; edible forests are much more like common pool resources.
What Is an Edible Forest?
I’m going to give this operational definition, sourced to Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, not because it’s the only possible defintion, but because it creates a very clear picture in my mind of the possibilities (and, though I say it, the beauty):
The Seven – Layer Garden
An edible forest is a layered garden. The seven layers of a for est garden are tall trees, low trees, shrubs, herbs, ground covers, vines, and root crops. Here are these layers in more detail.
1. The tall-tree layer. The tall trees in an edible forest are mostly fruit and nut trees, such as apple, pear, plum, cherries, ch estnuts, and walnuts. There needs to be lots of space between the trees to let light in to the lower layers.
2. The low-tree layer. The next layer is made of smaller trees, such as apricot, peach, nectarine, almond, and mulberry. Dwarf varieties of bigger trees are also good choices for this layer. These trees can be pruned to have many openings to let lots of light through to the lower layers.
3. The shrub layer. This layer includes flowering, fruiting, and wildlife-attracting shrubs. Examples include blueberry, rose, hazelnut, and bamboo.
4. The herb layer. The “herbs” in an edible forest are plants with non-woody, soft stems. They can be vegetables, flowers, cover crops, cooking herbs, or mulch crops. They are mostly perennial, but sometimes gardeners choose to plant a few annuals .
5. The ground cover layer. These are very low plants that grow close to the ground, such as strawberries, nasturtiums, and thyme. They are very important because they make it difficult for weeds to grow.
6. The vine layer. In an edible forest , some plants, like grapes and kiwis, grow up the trunks of the trees.
7. The root layer. A forest garden grows both up and down. The last layer is plants that grow underground. These should be plants with shallow roots, like garlic and onions, which are easy to dig up without disturbing the other plants.
(In my own tiny practice, I have planned for #3, and not even thought about #6 (vines) or #5 (ground cover). #5 is especially important to me because weeding is work. I don’t like work.) And (as NC readers know) you don’t need a lot of land to start one:
Derived from woodland ecosystems and incorporating layers of fruit trees, nut trees, herbs and perennial vegetables, root plants, ground cover plants and a vertical layers of vine plants, forest gardening is a low maintenance and sustainable gardening system that also yields a useful food supply. You needn’t have a lot of land to start your own forest garden – you can begin with a space as small as 30 ft x 60 ft and up your acreage from there. Armageddon? Bah.
And in the same way that I’d like to abolish the lawn, I’d also like to abolish the “Home and Garden Center” (since the big box stores tend to bring infection with them from out-of-state, too). Why not learn from the best?
Forests are the perfect design
With 460 million years experience, and a 9.6 billion acre garden, Mother Nature has refined the way to grow self sustaining gardens better than anyone! No weeding, spraying or watering!!!
Nature has supported, fed, clothed and sheltered humanity for 95% of its existence – agriculture only first emerged 10,000 years ago.
It stands that Nature is obviously the best (and only!) model available for us to imitate for growing gardens.
Of course, mimesis is very far from a literal transcription….
Who Creates Edible Forests?
Here, I’ve collected a number of projects (not all of them on Bukowski’s map). One thing that struck me about the tone of the news stories on edible forests was their resolute normality; they were presented as forms of civic engagement and covered much like fund-raising projects for libraries, or Fourth of July parades, or the Kiwanis sale. Further, many projects were instigated, from the bottom up, by entrepreneurs whose sense of industry had taken that form. (Frankly, there’s a good deal of that in the permaculture community, with trainers charging for courses and so forth, but I don’t see a better alternative to get stuff in the ground today; waiting around on foundation grants doesn’t seem like a good idea, for example, and Common Pool Resources don’t have a lot of clout, at this point, in state institutions.) The twin characteristics of utter normality — with an exception I’ll get to — and bottom-up civic engagement strike me as very good characteristics for edible forest propagation.
Since the projects all have varying social engineering issues, I’ll just go state-by-state in alpha order and comment as I go:
Florida Gulf Coast University has an amazing program (far more interesting to me than their
professional NCAA sports teams. From the university’s site, though cloaked in administrator-ese, here it is:
The FGCU Food Forest works to advance the mission of the university through offering unique and innovative educational and service learning opportunities for students, alumni, staff, faculty, and community members and through enhancing awareness of sustainable food production and whole food nutrition. Furthermore, the Food Forest seeks to elevate the environmental sustainability of the institution through providing organic fruits and vegetables to the campus and southwest Florida communities. Ultimately, through engaging the hands, hearts, and minds of students, alumni, staff, faculty, and community members, the Food Forest will offer a space for the cultivation of lifelong learning and for a commitment to sustainable food and living practices.
The food forest rates not one but two awesome (and note the very typical focus on saving gas money):
Lacey Lind 9/29/11
Seeing the progress it’s made is exciting. I’m excited for it to be officially up and running. I think that by putting a food forest for the students to gain access to for free is really . It saves trips to the grocery store, and gas, and money. The fact that it is fresh means that it can only be healthier for you. It’s not covered with bad chemicals or pesticides. It also is a better source of food because it’s not processed. Everything about the food forest is one-hundred percent natural. I like how it is the student body that came together and built this from the ground up. It’s really . Also, I like how precise they are with what types of soils they use, and how the forest is put together in order for preservation. The food forest is built for self sustainability. It should be able to survive on its own for a certain amount of time with no upkeep. The other thing I enjoyed about this opportunity is I learned tips and tricks that I can use if I decide to build my own food forest. I really like to see how much of a love people have for our environment. We really need more people like that, because I think it would gain us a little more time on this Earth.
Thank you so much again! Yay food forest!
And here’s a good national goal from a practitioner:
A good friend of Arlo Simonds, a student of environmental studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, first introduced him to the concept of a campus Food Forest in 2011, just before members of the Food Foresters Club broke ground for their permaculture project. “When I was a freshman, my friend brought me to a couple of planning events and eventually, I was hooked,” says Simonds, who is now a senior, president of the club and its service learning coordinator.
Simonds is active in the Southeast branch of the Real Food Challenge, a movement that leverages the power of youth and universities to create healthy, fair and green food systems. Their primary campaign is to shift $1 billion of existing university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food towards local or community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food systems—“real food”—by 2020. “We’re hopeful that the movement can take hold here, because it has had success at other universities,” advises Simonds.
Shifting a billion dollars out of bad food into good food (and good food-growing practices) is clearly a worthy goal. University administrators: Pay attention!
From The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:
In a few years, visitors to Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids, Lowe Park in Marion and Wetherby Park in Iowa City will be able to pick an apple or a pear to snack on, .
Local groups are planting the fruit trees to create “edible forests.” The trees are saplings now, but in years to come they’ll provide food to anyone walking by.
Urban food forests are growing in popularity nationwide, part of a wider focus on eating food grown close to home, orchard organizers say.
” think as a society right now people are paying really close attention to the mileage of the food they’re eating,” says Dustin Hinrich, field coordinator for Marion-based Trees Forever. “People recognize the fact buying apples from Chile is foolish when we grow very good apples here in Iowa.”
I think it would be a splendid innovation if candidates campaigning in Iowa started visiting locally-driven and entrepreneurial projects like these, in addition to meat-heavy spectacles like the agriculturally focused Iowa State Fair. Campaign staffers: Pay attention!
From the Traverse City Ticker in Northern Michigan (though not the Upper Peninsula):
After raising more than $5,000 on crowdfunding website Indiegogo, a network of environmental and land use groups planted two stretches of edible forests along the TART Trail system last year. The Cedar Lake and Cedar Creek Food Forests will eventually feature jostaberries, hazelnuts, elderberries, blueberries, sweetfern, mulberries, persimmons and several other varieties of fruits and nuts that are by anyone using the Leelanau Trail.
Owner Stuart Campbell of Perennial Harvest – a partner in the project – says the group will next turn its attention to other potential planting sites along TART, including Jupiter Gardens near the corner of Rose and Boyd streets. “We’re looking at pitching an ‘Adopt-A-Berry,’ similar to an ‘Adopt-a-Mile,’ where businesses or people could adopt a certain stretch of the trail (for planting),” says Campbell. The group is also pursuing grants and other funding sources and hopes to develop a website of resources that can help other communities plant their own edible forests.
Note the funding source and (again) a local entrepreneur (but and so I hope the website doesn’t suck too many resources, as they tend to do; see note ). And I like the “Adopt-a-Berry” idea — privatized though it may be — very much, again because of its resolute normality.
Michigan is also, of course, the home of Detroit, which is famous for turning the vacant lots produced by neoliberal policies into gardens (and also farms, although horticulture is not the same as agriculture). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an example, in Detroit, of a food forest per se. (And here I will pause to note a distinct bias, at least in the photographs of permaculture projects I have seen, toward “middle class” white people, often in Birkenstocks or similar. I’m not sure why that is — and I don’t think it has to be — but I would suspect access to land, private and public, has a lot to do with it; for example, the property I use was inherited, and inheriting property is something that black people disproportionately do not do. And I would imagine that access to public land in, say, Ferguson, would be easier for some than for others). All this said, I’m including Detroit as an allied example exactly because of property issues. Consider one neighborhood, Brightmoor, and the Brightmoor Farmway project. From their site:
Urban gardens and farms play an important role in the City of Detroit. They provide hundreds of thousands of pounds of fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables for families and strengthen our communities by connecting neighbors, providing an attractive alternative to trash-strewn vacant lots, improving property values, and reducing crime.
The Brightmoor Farmway, which winds its way about nine blocks through the four-square-mile-area on the city’s northwest side, is full of gardens, orchards, sculpted landscapes, pocket parks, and even goats, chickens and bee hives.
The nature trail residents blazed through the area runs through one of the few wooded preserves left in the city and in part runs adjacent to the Rouge River — a natural wonderland indeed.
But who owns the land? As it turns out, the City of Detriot has big plans. From newly hired city planner Maurice Cox, who previously worked in New Orleans:
Brightmoor’s vacant land can be turned into productive acreage that works for both its remaining residents and those in nearby Rosedale and Grandmont.
What constitutes “productive” land? Cox said empty lots in Brightmoor will be remade for recreation, nature, agriculture or so-called green and blue infrastructure, with engineered plots of land with plants and trees to dispose of stormwater or alleviate air pollution. Along with its blight, Brightmoor already has some of the most extensively developed agriculture in the city. Cox said Brightmoor residents eventually will benefit by living near carefully landscaped property, including parkland and wooded areas, rather than amid the wild and trash-filled parcels that mark many parts of the landscape now.
“We will have a strategy of how to steward that land, that vacant land within the city, and make it contribute to why someone would actually want to live in Grandmont-Rosedale,” Cox said.
Whenever I hear statements “we have a strategy,” I ask who “we” is, and whether the locals have been consulted. Not necessarily. From the Metro Times:
On the Facebook page of the group Neighbors Building Brightmoor and the Brightmoor Farmway, a message was posted concerning about 100 parcels they had been told they’d be able to bid on that were part of that bundle:
All of NBB’s vacant land was put in the blight bundle by the County treasury and the Detroit Land Bank. We were assured we could buy it later from them, since no one was going to buy this according to them. Well, it was sold, I don’t know by whom, but many of our farmers are left with pieces of their land no longer available to them and many of our parks now have pieces of land that belong to God knows who… the Chinese, the Japanese, Saudi Arabians? 6,000 properties in Detroit in one fell swoop snatched up by someone we don’t know.
One commenter on the thread posted: “How sad!!! Why would you try to disrupt the neighborhood like that? This is so wrong!!!” Another declared: “selling all of these far flung properties to one buyer is beyond ridiculous. Whose bright idea was that anyway??”
The Brightmoor folks sound like good examples of conscientious Detroit homeowners, people who own their land, their homes, precisely because they want to be in a good position to determine what’s going to happen with their neighborhood. When outside, anonymous forces are given free rein to buy such unrealistic bundles of property, they have every right to feel threatened.
Indeed. And remember that all public land can be privatized, and since local politics is all about land use, insiders will know before the rest of us (“I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”) So, as in Detroit, all such Common Pool Resources will have to be defended from those who would plunder them.
Here’s a food forest in Mattapan, a Boston neighborhood:
As a brutal winter retreats into the record books, Bostonians of all species are out and about. “Mating sparrows, wild turkeys, hunting hawks, they’re all around us as we work,” says Orion Kriegman, Director of the Boston Food Forest Coalition. On the idyllic grounds of the Boston Nature Center in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston, neighbors work to prepare the Boston Food Forest for its second growing season. After only one year, the Food Forest is well stocked, boasting 34 young fruit and nut trees, with 45 more to join them in 2015. Though the most plentiful harvests are years away, the Food Forest is already yielding a stronger community and a fine model for economic and environmental justice in the city.
(I’m not sure I like that “years away” very much. It might make more political sense to include immediate concrete material benefits; as in food for the hungry from annuals to be phased out later, for example.)
And in the Berkshires, Hugel culture. (I’ve tried hugel culture in a small way, with scraps from my firewood; it works great, so I’m quoting extensively on the technique in case readers which to try it.)
All along the side of the yard of the former Notre Dame rectory Berkshire Earth Regenerators planted an extensive “hugel” bed, employing a large amount of natural wood debris already in need of disposal on the property.
“We basically planted it in a day, and walked away,” said Lamb of the installation, which can now produce hundreds of pounds of food with minimal tending.
“Regenerative is a better term than sustainable,” Allard of this kind of agriculture, “We don’t just want to sustain where we are now.”
This first phase of several planned at the Shire City Sanctuary includes over two dozen different foods, including corn, radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, asparagus, squash, peas, carrots, beets, broccoli, chard, sprouts, cucumbers, plantains, potatoes, beans, melons and more within one long, tiered row of mutually beneficial ecosystem.
Hugelkulture (from “hill culture,” pronounced “hoo-gul culture”) employs a layered mound system that holds moisture and maximizes surface “edge” ecosystem, increasing soil fertility progressively each year. The mound beds store and better utilize rainwater, and wood debris used in their installation provides long term nutrition for the array of plants. Through this method, practitioners aim to not only exponentially increase the yield volume of vegetation relative to both space and labor hours, but do so in a way that improves rather than depletes the soil in which they’re growing.
The initial hugel bed planted at Shire City cost less than $200 in seed and supplies.
Berkshire Earth Regenerators say they’re looking to expand this model into partnerships with other public and private properties to create a beautifying, easily maintainable “forest of food” in small pockets throughout the extensive acreage of open space throughout the city. Hoped for collaborations with parks and local schools would provide not only a great source of locally sourced food for cafeterias but also offer great educational benefit, something Allard and Lamb said is crucial to their overall mission.
“Plant in a day and walk away” … That’s my kind of gardening, because (I think I’ve said this) I don’t like work. (Of course, it seems that the real work in this area is engineering the social systems around the edible forests so that they continue to be supported).
Here’s a proposed project in Texas from the Dallas Morning News, and you’ll see from the first paragraph why I flagged this as a departure from the resolute normality of the other projects:
While it sounds a little hippie-dippie for conservative Collin County, a park near McKinney could become the site of the nation’s largest public “food forest.”
A what, you say?
That’s a plot of land planted with a variety of fruit and nut trees, berries and other edibles to provide a renewable supply of for residents and serve as a model for sustainable [or “regenerative”] gardening.
“It would be a showplace for Collin County,” said Stephen Kallas, a member of the advisory board for Myers Park, a 158-acre county park and event center that highlights the area’s agrarian heritage.
As the board considers future plans for the park, Kallas proposed establishing an edible forest garden on an undeveloped 60-acre section.
“This land is sitting fallow and not being utilized,” he said.
(The acreage was a former soccer field; said the County Extension Agent: “You can’t grow anything there.” Part of the problem…) The board turned Kallas down, but asked him to come up with a less ambitious plan. And despite the “hippy dippy” remark, the Morning News went on to say:
The use of public lands for edible forest gardens is a growing trend throughout the country.
In Seattle, the Beacon Food Forest, started in 2009, provides 20 to 40 pounds of free produce each week during the growing season.
In Sonoma County, Calif., a nonprofit organization called Daily Acts has partnered with municipalities to create small food forests at Petaluma City Hall, at parks> in Windsor and Cotati, and at the city hall-library complex in Sebastopol.
(Sounds like the reporter had the same problems getting an overview of how many edible forests there really are as I did!) Here, note the continuing themes of “free food” on public land — and if your standard for public land is “highest and best use,” isn’t free food high on the list? — as well as a local entrepreneur driving the process. (Kallas has already created a edible forest on his — “his”? — own land.)
Finally, from Seattle, WA, the Beacon Food Forest:
The BFF is a lush public garden where all of the produce is up for grabs [that is, “free”]. Instead of dividing the land into small patches for private planting, like most community gardens, volunteers cultivate the whole food forest together and share, well, the fruits of their labor with anyone and everyone. Urban foragers are welcome to reap what the community sows.
A food forest is pretty much what it sounds like: “A woodland ecosystem that you can eat,” says Glenn Herlihy, one of the BFF’s founders. A food forest mimics how a wild forest works, but swaps in species that are edible or otherwise useful to humans and other animals. Fruit trees and nut trees cast shade (on sunny days) over berry shrubs, herbs, and veggies, while vines climb up trunks and trellises. Underneath, healthy soil teems with tiny life, storing carbon, water, and other nutrients necessary for plant growth. The BFF leans on permaculture farming, which uses ecological design and a bit of good ol’ human labor to create multi-species gardens that bring forth mountains of flavorful, nourishing grub without fossil fuels or other polluting substances.
At about two acres, it’s already the largest edible garden on public land in the U.S. And it’s a wildly prosperous example of the real sharing economy.
Importantly, the BFF is managed as a common-pool resource. (That’s why I’ve focused only on edible forests, as opposed to “community gardens,” or “urban farming” (which I’m not sure is a thing, and if a thing, not necessarily a good thing; I think Grist’s headline — “These urban farmers want to feed the whole neighborhood — for free” — is just plain wrong, starting with the fact that horticulture is not agriculture).
So there we have it. It looks to me like edible forests are here to stay, and more than here to stay. It also looks to me like “free food from public land” is being treated, well, with resolute normality. (Perhaps the neo-liberals haven’t noticed it, yet!)
Of course, we can’t feed a whole continent or even a state with around a hundred food forests, but it also looks to me like edible forest projects are scaling nicely; as a movement, it seems to be spreading rhizomatically, with practitioners sending out roots and stalks in onesies and twosies, but in the aggregate multiplying to cover the field, like my g*******d Scotch thistles, but also like hops, asparagus, ginger, irises, Lily of the Valley, Cannas, ginger, and turmeric, all of which are highly beneficial.
Winter is coming; I hear crickets now, and the usual blights are sadly visible now that the tomatoes and winter squash have set fruit. Perhaps instead of looking at seed catalogs next to the fire we can consider a little social engineering instead? Focused on local land use?
 I do think, however, that the field is to some extent hobbled by a generic problem of information sharing: The onus is on the time-pressed and, if not actually impoverished, very far from being poverished practitioner to share, and I would bet most see that as interfering with the direct provision of services. Bootstrapping a process where people share information with unknown others for unknown returns is often very hard to do.
 I feel that leverage was aided greatly by people taking the payment system, and especially the ATM, as a sort of public service, as something almost natural, like air or (mostly) water. You put your card in the box, and money comes out. What could be simpler? Power relation? What power relation? Volcker famously remarked that that “the most important financial innovation that I have seen the past 20 years is the automatic teller machine. That really helps people and prevents visits to the bank and is a real convenience.” But that’s not all it does, as we see from Greece.
 Yes, I know that Avian Flu doesn’t infect humans. Good thing, eh?
 Another reason “trade deals” are insane. We really should not optimize for Chinese vegetables — or any other vegetables than our own — coming here in shipping containers and refrigerated trucks from thousands of miles away; we should optimize for food production right here.
 Elinor Ostrom lists eight characteristics of Common Pool Resources; I think the only one that does not yet apply is #8: “Nested enterprises. Appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises,” for CPRs that are part of larger systems. Perhaps when the number of edible forests increases by an order of magnitude, we’ll see these nested enterprises emerge.
Open for comments, but please stay on point. I’d love to hear about your own projects, no matter the scale!