The Public Food Forest: Clever Solution or Future Flop?

In a suburban home garden, a young black walnut tree (left) and a sour cherry (right) tower above a blooming patch of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Many urban gardeners lack the space for a single fruit or nut tree, much less a diverse mix.

Public food forests are a shiny new trend in the United States. Focused on perennial crops such as fruit- and nut-bearing trees and shrubs, they embody the values of permaculture (which I’ve touted elsewhere) : generosity, abundance, good health and nutrition, and food security. If they are developed and managed to incorporate runoff, build soil life, generate their own fertility, and promote insect diversity without relying on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, they can also be nature-friendly.

Unlike fad-dependent gardens that may be revamped when the plants go out of style, food forests are long-term landscaping solutions that promote the idea of land as an asset that increases its value each year. Trees in particular may need years of growth before they produce a crop, so a food forest represents a significant investment of time.

Whereas the continuing surge of interest in landscape restoration and enthusiasm for native plants might appeal to the altruist in each of us—the selfless protector of fragile natural communities or appreciator of biodiversity for its own sake—food forests tap our more basic desires for good health and good food. They cast humans in the pleasurable role of receiving nature’s bounty.

To sample these serviceberries (Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’) when they ripen, you need to be in the right place at the right time. Don’t bother looking for them at your local grocery store.

Donning the rose-colored glasses, one might imagine a public food forest bestowing all sorts of benefits on its community:

  • offering the opportunity to taste fresh foods that may not be available elsewhere
  • fostering communal activities that may include planting, harvesting, cooking, preserving, and eating
  • highlighting historic and native plants used by earlier peoples of the region
  • modeling perennial food plants that can be grown successfully in nearby home landscapes
  • teaching modern kids that food really does come from plants
  • supporting imperiled pollinators, including bees and butterflies
  • reducing our unused public lawn area—and with it, the chemicals, water, and fossil-fuel-driven maintenance we typically spend to keep public turfgrass looking perfect

Who knows where this could lead? As many food plants need consistent water to reliably produce crops, I’m hoping it might spur more public trials and demonstrations of water collection and irrigation systems too.

Asparagus, a low-care understory perennial, feeds pollinators too.

But wait! Take those glasses off for a minute. Public parks and municipal landscapes filled with trees bearing fruit and nuts? Won’t this cause a stampede of poor and homeless people, or at the other end of the spectrum, a rotting stretch of fallen, unclaimed food? Won’t it attract pests? What happens if the water runs out, or untrained workers irreversibly damage the plants (and their future yields) with a bout of lousy pruning?

Documented examples are scarce, but all seems to be working well in the renowned Village Homes neighborhood of Davis, California, developed nearly 40 years ago on a 70-acre parcel of land. The landscaping was designed to provide edibles, incorporate runoff, and enhance passive solar properties of the roughly 240 homes. Michael Corbett, the mastermind behind this model community, describes its features and their successful results in detail. If you’d like to walk the grounds vicariously, permaculture guru Geoff Lawton rhapsodizes during his visit in this short video.

Of course, Califonia’s climate is ideally suited to growing a wide range of food plants. It will be interesting to see how the newly planted Beacon Hill Food Forest in a Seattle public park matures. Public food forests have also been started recently in Colorado and Hawaii.

Imagine wandering the public path and plucking leaves of this sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) to make your own savory, antioxidant-rich tea.

Communal food forests are also growing up at Massachusett’s Wellesley College and on the grounds of the Unity Church in St. Johns, Florida. These edible landscapes, having ready access to volunteers and being incorporated into the ongoing missions (educational and charitable, respectively) of the organizations operating them, seem more assuredly poised to thrive than strictly public ones.

However, the public food forest does seem a natural extension of America’s recently revived zeal for growing edibles in front yards and other public spaces, including the White House lawn. Could it be a better fit than intensive annual vegetable gardens in park land and other less robustly staffed public places?  Do you know of a public food forest near you?

Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on February 5, 2014 at 3:49 am, in the category Feed Me, Lawn Reform, Public Gardens, What’s Happening.

Comment List

  • CheyDesignGuy 09 / 11 / 2016

    Detroit immediately comes to mind as a suitable city where, hopefully, this concept has or can be implemented. Quite literally, one could be an urban farmer there with city block sized orchards that would require less city services, which are stressed and stretched thin already. Search for images of Detroit online and visualize this concept.

  • The Smallest Acre 19 / 11 / 2016

    I would love to see this happen in my town. The largest park extends all along the banks of our local river. This river is fed by a spring. Even during the busiest park days (4th of July and Mother’s Day) there are huge swaths of it unused. I’d love to see those areas planted with a public food forest. It would be so interesting to walk through a garden and feel as though it were a gardening book come to life. It isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination to think the garden could be watered from the river if done right.

  • Laura Bell 20 / 11 / 2016

    Sacramento County (CA) has a huge parkway along the American River – 27 miles from the confluence with the Sacramento River up to Folsom Dam, both sides of the river. Several years ago, Soil Born Farms sprang up on old ranch land along this Parkway, and is a huge success. It’s all organic & sustainable. Row crops, backyard-sized orchards, chickens, pigs & cows (only a couple of those). Not only do they run a farmstand to sell the produce the grow, but they also teach classes on everything from how to start gardening to how to market your homemade goodies. Elementary & middle school students come to learn the basics of where food comes from, how we grow it, and how to care for the land. They have internships and in-residence student-farmers. There are special days when the public can come help weed or harvest or learn. And there is a native plant nursery onsite. Soil Born Farm is a wonderful thing & has done much in our region to promote sustainable living and eating local. If there is any way you could gather like-minded folks & get permission to make a park-garden, I highly encourage you to try.

  • Peggy 20 / 11 / 2016

    Great article! I am especially interested in how this will work on the east coast and possible resources/recommended plants.

  • Marianne Willburn 21 / 11 / 2016

    Boy oh boy the picture of that Black Walnut in the suburban garden makes me start twitching. Yike!

  • anne 21 / 11 / 2016

    Asparagus and strawberries were often planted years ago in newly-planted orchards in our valley here in Oregon for crops to make money until the fruit trees were producing. We still have asparagus popping up in our orchard from long ago.

  • Laura Bell 21 / 11 / 2016

    I’ve long thought this was an ideal solution for some of the green spaces in my town (not that far from Davis, actually). A former boss of mine lived in the Village Homes and loved it. It makes sense to use our public spaces for more than sports, dog-walking, picnicking… Why not grow food free for the public?

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