Why Food Forests matter now more than ever

When I was younger, my great grandfather had a garden I envied and loved spending time in. Walking around the back of his home, you would be met with a miniature greenhouse that he kept filled with seedlings. Then you would see the crab apple tree. Scattered in its shade would be numerous apples at varying levels of ripeness. Most would have bruises, while others would look perfect except for the small chunks taken out by hungry bugs. What was most eye catching was the massive, unkempt amalgam of vines, shrubs, and miscellaneous greens that stretched from his barn to the treeline. This was his garden, controlled chaos. As a child, the plants in his garden towered over me. He had decades-old blueberry bushes twice my height and raspberry bushes that were extensive enough for me to feel I could get lost in them. The whole garden felt like a forest. Picture the edible “land of candy” in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but instead of being candy it was all nutritious fruit and veggies. My grandfather had curated numerous edible plants, corralled them together, then left them to flourish. He was a stickler about his tomato plants, always tracking their progress and tweaking their behavior, but the rest of his garden was left to prosper largely unchecked. Any time I went to his house in the summer, I would come back home with stains of fruit juice all over my clothes. I feel very lucky to have gotten to see, and eat from, a garden like that throughout my childhood.

When I started researching food forests, his garden was the first place that came to my mind. I’m not sure if he had ever heard of food forests, but his garden was very close to being one. Food forests are a product of a technique of gardening referred to as “Forest Gardening.” (1) Forest gardening is a term that was coined by Robert Hart in the 20th century, but it is believed to be the oldest form of agriculture. (2) The technique essentially involves encouraging the growth of useful plants and eliminating those which don’t have a use to humans. So long as no essential plants are removed, the area will maintain a self-sustaining ecosystem, but will be filled with useful and edible plants. The forest garden would require very little intervention and be effectively self sustaining. Evidence of gardens like this have been found in ancient sites of the Maya, Zapotecs, the Benin peoples, as well as in the Buddhist Kingdom of Sri Lanka and the Hindu kingdom of Java! (3) It stands to reason that other ancient civilizations also practiced this form of agriculture.

Hart wrote quite extensively about this form of agriculture, and developed a system of thinking about forest gardens that would help people develop their own. The system mimics the way a forest naturally grows. Forest ecosystems are divided into four different layers. These layers include the canopy, understory, shrub layer, and forest floor (or herbaceous layer). (4)  Because each layer receives a different amount of sunlight and water, they feature different varieties of plants. The canopy contains the tallest trees, the understory contains shorter trees, the shrub layer includes shrubs and vines, and the forest floor is largely composed of ferns and grasses. The layers are a byproduct of the natural conditions in the forest, which is why forests are able to grow and flourish without human intervention. Hart’s system incorporates these layers, allowing a forest garden to be cultivated and then left to prosper in a way that is largely self-sustaining. I won’t attempt to explain the entire system Hart developed here, but it is worth investigating if you seek to start your own food forest! His book “Forest Gardening, Rediscovering Nature and Community in a Post-Industrial Age,” is a good place to start. I will also attach a list of resources to the bottom of the blog that should serve as a jumping off point.

A diagram of Hart's forest gardening system.

While forest gardening is an incredible old form of agriculture, its popularity has been steadily rising in the past few years. Food forests and permaculture are now being re-examined as a possible pathway to addressing the numerous food related issues that exist in our society. The development of food forests in urban areas is an attractive prospect because they can help address several problems simultaneously. 

As I have discussed in previous blog posts, increased access to green spaces yields positive effects on emotional and physical well being. This is especially important in urban areas, where green spaces are both less common and harder to access. More food forests in cities would benefit the overall well-being of nearby communities. Although they require more labor to get started than typical park spaces, they do not require significant maintenance once they have matured and can grow consistently without much intervention. Food forests can serve as a low cost solution to decreased green space access for urban populations.

Food forests in cities would also increase accessibility to healthy food, especially if they are selectively placed in communities with food deserts. Food deserts refer to places where healthy food is not easily accessible by the local community. (5) They are especially relevant in urban areas. I have lived in neighborhoods before where there are numerous corner stores and small markets, but no grocery stores within an easy walking distance. Subsequently, the food that is most accessible is processed foods, which are less nutritious. Besides proximity, the cost of healthy food also contributes to food deserts. Fresh produce costs more for urban residents than those in the suburbs, which could be a product of increased demand and shipping costs. (6) Growing food forests in communities with food deserts could increase local residents’ access to fresh produce by making it more physically and financially accessible.

Widespread implementation of food forests could also have a positive effect on air quality, climate change, and food waste. Increased trees and green spaces in urban areas has a positive impact on air quality and reduces air temperature. (7) Food forests can have that same impact. They can also shorten the supply chain between food and urban consumers, meaning less emissions from food shipping and storage. Furthermore, this would reduce food waste because about a third of food loss happens along the supply chain before the food actually reaches consumers! (8) Taking all this together, more food forests in urban areas can help local air quality, air temperature, food related GHG emissions, food waste along the supply chain, urban access to recreational areas, urban food security, and increased emotional well-being from accessible green spaces.

I think it’s fairly obvious, I could talk a LOT about food forests! Forest gardening, and permaculture, more generally, is an enormous topic. I’ll probably be writing more about the subject in the future (albeit with a slightly narrower focus!). But long story short, food forests are really effin’ cool. There are already numerous food forest projects that are active across the United States. This map has over one hundred different food forests on it, so if you want to get involved or see one for yourself I would start there. If you are interested in sponsoring a food forest financially you can donate to Project Food Forest, which is an organization that sponsors and coordinates the creation/maintenance of different food forests in the US. I would also recommend searching online because there are tons of small food forests emerging around the world that could use your support. Of course another way you can get involved is to start your own food forest! Robert Hart’s forest was less than a fifth of an acre, but its impact was huge! 

One of the best things about forest hardening is the community aspect of it. Like community gardens, forest gardens are about bringing people together around a shared commitment to environmental improvement and food security. At Galora, we are committed to those same principles. Sharing your homegrown or homemade food with people in your community, especially people who may not have access to nutritious food, can have a huge impact. 

If you want to talk more about food forests, or anything I have written about in the blog, you can email me at ahitchens@gogalora.com! I am always down to talk to people about environmental ideas, issues, and solutions. Below is my bibliography from this post, which includes a few resources that you may find helpful in exploring this topic further.

1: Robert Hart, Forest Gardening: Rediscovering Nature and Community in a Post-Industrial Age. P 126.

2: Hart, Forest Gardening. p 2. 

3: http://www.nycaudubon.org/pdf/Layers_of_the_Forest.pdf 

4: https://foodispower.org/access-health/food-deserts/ 

5: Robert Bullard, Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice, and Regional Equity. p 173. https://rb.gy/pydtqh

6: https://www.nrpa.org/globalassets/research/nowak-heisler-research-paper.pdf 

7: https://ccafs.cgiar.org/bigfacts/#theme=food-emissions