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The Food Forest – Part I: Strategies for Green Urban Infrastructure

July 8th, 2010 · 2 Comments

This guest post comes from Jim O’Donnell who, in real life, has explored the taiga and provides consultant services on permaculture and greening the urban environment.  The idea of greenign the urban environment via paths that contribute to shifting our agriculture to a more sustainable path is one that is quite appealing. Whether Edible Estates‘ vision for America’s front lawns or the tomatoes growing alongside my driveway Jim’s work echoes and enhances the images supporting and the voices calling for a more sensible use of our urban/suburban land.


“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” ~Masanobu Fukuoka

Imagine strolling out of the hot summer sun and into the moist, cool and dappled sunlight of a mature forest.  At eye level you are surrounded by fruits and nuts of all variety.  At your waist are bushes heavily laden with currents and berries.  There might even be tomatoes and artichokes growing.  The ground is blanketed in wild herbs and grasses and topped in native flowers in full bloom.  The air is full of sweet smells, the call of birds and the chirping and squirrels.  The forest is alive with butterflies and other insects.  Oddly enough, you are in the middle of a large city walking down the sidewalk towards the entrance of a public building.  Better yet…maybe you’re on the grounds of a public park….or a public school…or your own backyard….

This is the food forest.

As we all know, our development practices have created urban and suburban communities that are, for the most part, vast areas of paved surfaces, hot streets, dark roof tops and barren soil that contributes to despoiled water, polluted air and an alienation of people from nature.  And an alienation of people from food.

Many diarists here on Dkos have brought forth exciting examples of urban agriculture, urban homesteading and other ways to bring green, clean and liveable to urban centers.  I would like to add to that library by proposing the creation of food forests (forest gardens) in urban public spaces.

So…  Instead of dumpster diving kids could sit in a shady grove munching apples. Instead of marketing junk food to kids we could build benches next to the current bushes that line the path to school….


A food forest (or forest garden) is an ancient agricultural concept that mimics nature in all its glory.  We’re not talking a vegetable garden here.  Instead, a food forest is a largely self-maintaining whole and inclusive, interdependent and highly productive system of multi-storied trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, pollinators, soil, water and you.  A food forest is an efficient, diverse, beautiful ecosystem that functions like a natural woodland.

By the end of this diary I hope you will have a soil definition and idea of what a food forest is, some history of food forests and an understanding of WHY you might want to create a food forest in your yard and in your public spaces.  In Part II (give me a few days) I will get into the details of HOW to build your food forest.

First, tho, lets talk about me for a minute…

A Little Bit About Me

Two years ago I was fired from my job with a prominent conservation organization for my writings.  A powerful Democratic Senator’s chief-of-staff did not appreciate my taking his boss to task for his energy policies. Needless to say, it’s been a very rough ride since. I’ve lost friends, I’ve lost my house, I’ve exhausted my unemployment benefits, been rejected for over 200 jobs and now I’ve filed for bankruptcy.  The stress has been unreal.  Losing your job and being blacklisted within your profession is not a good thing to go through even in the best of times – much less at the start of the worst economic crisis of that past 70 years. Since then, I’ve been pretty silent around here.  I doubt I’ll ever again post as much as I used to but I am intent on contributing where I can. I’m constantly fighting the urge to wallow and complain but today I’m not interesting in sympathy or talking about the tough times any further, thank you.

The hit I’ve taken has given me the opportunity to reassess priorities, reassess strengths and to begin to move forward by combining my life-long passion of growing food with my interest in greening our urban centers and bringing high-quality food production (and food security) to the community level.  That’s where the food forest comes in.

Edible forest gardening is not necessarilygardening in the forest, it is gardening like the forest. You don’t need to have an existing woodland if you want to forest garden, though you can certainly work with one. Forest gardeners use the forest as a design metaphor, a model of structure and function, while adapting the design to focus on meeting human needs in a small space. While you can forest garden if you have a shady site, it is best if your garden site has good sun if you want the highest yields of fruits, nuts, berries, and most other products. Edible forest gardening is about expanding the horizons of our food gardening across the full range of the successional sequence, from field to forest, and everything in between.

Forest Gardening – A Painfully BRIEF History

The forest garden is a concept that is possibly as old as we humans.  There is evidence that forest gardening was practiced at one time or another over every part of the planet. In Africa, it is known as the home garden. In Nepal they are known as ghar bagaincha. The Maya practiced highly evolved types of forest gardening from which the Central American milpa may have origionated.  The terra preta areas of the Amazon were likewise a type of forest gardening.  This fun video documents a permaculturists visit to a 300 year old food forest in Vietnam:

When Europeans arrived in the Americas they looked for row crops and, finding few, they assumed that the natives had just very simple forms of agriculture.  Anthropologists thought the same thing until very recently.  Little did they know or imagine that those seemingly wild jungles just beyond the settlement fringe were actually complex agricultural systems. Most were just cleared away.

In the 1940s and 50s the Englishman Robert Hart, basing his ideas in part on the Keralan home gardens created his own forest garden on his land in Shropshire.  His later book “Forest Gardening” brought the concept to Australian permaculturists where it became one of the key concepts of permaculture.  Food forests can now be found in many places including such well-known places as at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Research Institute and Montview Farmamong others.  The Bible of food forest design is the 2005 two-volume set “Edible Forest Gardens” by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmier. Much of the information in this diary is pulled from those volumes. Then there is renown permaculturist Geoff Lawton’s Food Forest video, which is likewise wonderful.  Here is the introduction:

So…Wait…Food Forest? What was that again?

I’m not talking about a gloomy mass of light-blocking trees, but an open, may layered edible woodland garden with plenty of sunny glades and edges.  – Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden

An edible forest garden is a perennial polyculture of multi-purpose plants — many species growing together (a polyculture), most plants re-growing every year without needing to be re-planted (perennials), each plant contributing to the success of the whole by fulfilling many functions. In other words, an edible ecosystem: a consciously designed community of mutually beneficial plants and animals intended for human food production. Edible forest gardens can provide more than just a wide variety of foodstuffs; the seven F’s apply here: food, fuel, fiber, fodder (food for animals), fertilizer and “farmaceuticals”, as well as fun. A beautiful, lush environment is either a conscious focus of the garden design, or a side-benefit one enjoys.

The forest garden mimics forest ecosystems, those naturally occurring perennial polycultures originally found throughout the humid climates of the world. …. Why not put up a sail and glide along with the land’s natural tendency to become forest? Edible forest gardening is about expanding the horizons of our food gardening across the full range of the successional sequence, from field to forest, and everything in between.

Trees have an unmatched ability to produce soil-enriching leaf litter, fill the earth with humus-making roots, quell temperature swings, hold moisture, arrest erosion, and offer tiers of wildlife habitat. And you can’t beat trees for productivity. An acre of apple trees can yield 7 tons of fruit, and an acre of chestnut trees may offer up 10 tons of protein-rich nuts–without annual replanting.” – Toby Hemenway

Forest gardeners often talk about the Seven Story Garden.  These layers or stories make up the food forest.  They are the:

  1. Tall-tree layer: an overstory of multifunctional fruit and nut trees (apple, pear, plum, chestnuts, pinyon, etc.) and/or nitrogen fixing trees (locust, mesquite, alder, acacia, etc.)
  1. Low Tree layer: dwarf fruit and nut trees and/or naturally small fruit trees (nectarine, almond, peach) and/or flowering and nitrogen-fixing trees (dogwood, mountain ash, mountain mahogany)
  1. Shrub layer: flower and fruiting shrubs (blueberry, rose, wolfberry, currents, gooseberry, Siberian pea shrub)
  1. Herb layer: these are perennial non-woody plants such as vegetables, flowers, kitchen herbs and soil building plants.
  1. Ground cover layer: low-growing plants that offer food or habitat and that push their way into the empty edges and spaces between plants. (strawberries, nasturtium, clover, thyme, etc)
  1. Vine layer: these are plants that will climb the trunks and branches of the trees (grapes, hops, passionflower, honeysuckle, squash, cucumbers, melons, etc.)
  1. Root layer: these are the shallow rooting foods (garlic, onions, radish, carrots, etc.)

Diagram by Grahm Burnett

Are you starting to get the idea?

Naturally, all of this will adjust with your specific local ecosystem.  As an example… My home design (which will belong to PNC mortgage again by September 1…don’t remind me) includes an overstory of honey locust and New Mexico privet and aspen with a lower tree layer of apple, plum and apricot.  My shrub layer includes golden current, wolf current, lilac, apache plume and gooseberry. My herb layer consists of colombines, flax, poppies, sage, iris, violets and a number of other flowers, tomatoes and chilies, chives, chard, lettuce, native grasses and so on.  My ground cover has involved a number of trials and failures.  I finally have a thyme layer in some places, a few strawberries in others and…well…I’m working on it.  When it comes to the vine layer my home forest garden is also struggling. The heat and wind followed by hard winters in my area has made it hard for me to secure vines.  Carrots, onions, garlic, radishes and beets make up my root layer.

But Why Grow Forest Gardens?

For one, you can take dead, urban spaces such as this and begin to transform it into something much more pleasant. And fun. And cool. And…one of these days…yummy.

(these photos are from a middle-school food forest workshop I lead last year.  We raised a few thousand dollars to begin putting in a very small food forest along the entryway to the local public swimming pool)

But the greening of our cities thru the use of food forests has multiple benefits including naturally managed stormwater, reduced flooding risk,improvment of air and water quality, quality of life, cost reduction, enhanced liveability and counteracting the urban heat island effect.

Can We Talk About Me Again? Yes. Thanks.

As for me, I’m intent on taking my skills in designing and creating food forests and starting a consulting business of some kind wherein I can bring these valuable systems to our urban centers, our school grounds, our landscaping and to sustainable international development situations.  When Meteor Blades asked WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO? a few weeks ago, my response was and is that, in the short-term, I intend to raise some money over the next couple of months, find an organization to work with and go to Haiti at least once but hopefully twice in 2011 to help plant food forests.  I’ve talked to enough people who work there to know that it would be a needed addition.  So now it’s just figuring the details. For the long-term, I have been appointed to the Board of Directors of the North American Green Infrastructure Foundation and am putting serious thought into going back to school in some form or another. Even here in the USA and in Europe, our urban centers need to be green-ed and put into food production. I am particularly interested in home-scale food forest design and food forests for community spaces. I also want to strongly advocate for the investment in and creation of food forests in our urban areas.

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Tags: agriculture · Energy

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anna // Sep 16, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    This is an excellent idea. I have seen a local food forest and it is really something we should all strive to be a part of. By providing our own food, we will decrease commercial production and sustain the planet!

  • 2 Kristie Lafavore // Jul 4, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Hello 🙂
    I am the president of Students for the Environment at Hillsborough Community College in Brandon Florida and we are planning to have a food forest on campus! Any knowledge you wish to empower us with would be amazing! The site is our fb page, please contact me if you get this, Thank You 🙂