Food Forests: A Woodland Ecosystem that you can Eat

In a world where more and more people are wanting to take control of their local food system, food forests (aka forest gardens) have presented themselves as an ideal implementation of local permaculture design.  Permaculture is defined as, “The development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.”  On the opposite end of the spectrum is monoculture, which only uses a given area for one crop, often wasting agricultural land that can host a variety of different foods.  Permaculture design uses observation of nature to create regenerative systems, and the place where this has been most visible has been on the landscape. There has been a growing awareness though that firstly, there is the need to pay more attention to the “people care” ethic, as it is often the dynamics of people in the local community that can interfere with projects including food gardens, and secondly that the principles of permaculture can be used as effectively to create vibrant, healthy and productive people and communities as they have been in landscapes.


Beacon Food Forest in Seattle (above)

So what is a food forest/garden?

Food gardens are woodland ecosystems that you can eat; using an ecological design and voluntary human labor to create multi-species gardens that bring forth mountains of flavorful, nourishing grub (fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc.) without fossil fuels or other polluting substances.  The catch is that all of the food in the garden is up for grabs to members of the community, free of cost.  Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest is the United States’ largest edible food garden, and a community gathering space, giving the garden social value as well.  Food forests mimic how wild forests work, but substitute the normal species for species that are edible or beneficial to humans or animals.  This allows for species such as fruit trees, nut trees and berry shrubs to coexist and support each other.  This is especially important in contrast to monoculture and organic farming, which gives farmers “dead” soil that needs constant fertilization, watering, and pest control rather than natural cycles and diverse species supporting each other.

Community food forestry demonstrates a smarter way to grow food locally, which is important, considering that we’re staring at a future of overpopulation and food scarcity. The Beacon Food Forest is a lush public garden where all of the produce is up for grabs. 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.  It may seem as though foragers will take more than their fair share of produce, resulting in a free rider problem or the tragedy of the commons, but statistics from food gardens in Seattle and Boston both show that yields of produce almost always exceed demand; especially with a consistent number of community volunteers.


Volunteers beginning their day at the local food garden (above)

     Food gardens give communities complete control over the growing process and what is grown.  The community shares the workload and decision-making power, too. Beacon Food Forest emails out to a list of more than 2,500 volunteers, up to 150 of whom show up for a given work party. An 11-member steering committee, Friends of the Food Forest, creates policies by consensus, while 10 to 15 folks from a rotating cast of dozens attend weekly meetings of various committees that vote on smaller decisions. If you want a say in the Beacon Food Forest, you just show up to be heard and counted.  People who show up to the Beacon Food Forest are curious about where their food comes from and how it’s produced, so in addition to cultivating produce, the food forest holds classes and workshops.  These classes and workshops are free and educate members of the community on hands-on edible forest gardening.  The goal is to show local residents how viable growing their own garden and produce is in the long-run.




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4 responses to “Food Forests: A Woodland Ecosystem that you can Eat

  1. amyquandt

    Interesting topic. Did you read anything about what percentage of their food community members can get from these forest/food gardens? What are some of the major crops grown?


    • miltonlockett

      It seems that the amount of food community members can get, depends a great deal on the actual food garden itself. According to a consumer of California’s largest food garden, he was able to access up to 80% of the food needed for his wife, child and himself every month. However, some food gardens limit the amount of food each consumer can take, in order to prevent waste and free riding. The crops here seem to vary quite a bit, depending on the type of agriculture the garden is built on, but typically the crops grown seem to be low-hanging fruits such as strawberries tend to be the most abundant.


  2. sszabian

    Great post! This seems like a fantastic way to bring a community together while educating and providing healthy, local produce. Did you find any information on food forests outside of this location? How common are they across the US? Boulder would be a great place to try something like this.


    • miltonlockett

      Food forests have just started to gain traction in the last few years and are only available on a community scale in about 10 locations around the United States (primarily in California). However, small scale food gardens are becoming increasingly popular in neighborhoods and backyards. The trend is gaining increasing popularity in England, Japan and Canada as well.


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