2013 promises to be a literally bountiful year for Seattle residents. The city expects the first harvest from its community gardens by next year, and harvests from fruit trees and shrubs in a couple of years.
Seattle’s food forest is not the US’ first, but it will probably be the biggest. City officials and volunteers started the project with two acres, and will cultivate it to an area eventually spanning seven acres. The food forest will be a community project, tended by city officials and local volunteers alike.
Several cities in the US already have community gardens and similar projects. Worldwide, food forests have been grown since ancient times and the practice is considered the oldest form of land use among humans. The practice of growing food forests is known by different names across countries and cultures. Home gardens, edible forests, family orchards, forest gardens are food forests in one form or another.
Robert Hart used a system to grow food forests and orchards in temperate zones based on his personal observations of natural forests. According to this system, food gardens and forests can have seven layers: canopy, low-tree, shrub, herbaceous, ground cover, rhizosphere/underground, and vertical. The canopy layer comprises of mature fruit trees, considered very important in food forests. Treehugger discusses the benefits of including trees in a garden, which include high yields of fruit, fuel, fertilizer, and fiber among others. Low-tree layers consist of shorter trees which may include nut and other fruit trees.Berry bushes may be found in shrub layers, and various vegetables and herbs in the herbaceous layer. Ground cover layer is made up of plants and vegetables that grow horizontally, which are also edible. The underground layer, also called the rhizosphere, consists of tubers and root crops. Finally, the vertical layer is made up of vines and climbing plants. Such a food forest needs intercropping and careful selection of plants to be planted in order to ensure a balanced distribution of space, nutrients, and sunlight. For example, sunlight-hungry plants may not do well in the herbaceous layer of a food forest with plenty of towering trees.
In Martin Crawford’s book, Creating a Forest Garden tells you everything you need to know – whether you want to plant a small area in your back garden or develop a larger plot. It includes advice on planning, design (using permaculture principles), planting and maintenance, and a comprehensive directory of over 450 trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, herbs, annuals, root crops and climbers – almost all of them edible and many very unusual.
Food forests are generally open to the public and are held up to the honor system. A person may walk in, take what he or she needs and leave some for others, trusting that others will leave some for him or her in the future.
Food forests provide the community an amount of food security for hard times. It also provides a connection to nature, which many urban dwellers lack and seek. The added bonus of wholesome, organic, and locally produced food made available is also another attraction. In some communities, tending food forests serve as an opportunity to learn for young people who work as volunteers.
To a city dweller, the idea of being able to walk into a food forest might seem like a dream that belongs to medieval fairy tales and folk tales. But thanks to widening appreciation and long term vision of people like Seattle’s officials and volunteers, as well all people who nurture similar projects, the food forest might just come to life in the reality of modern, urban living.
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