The other day I came across news of what might be the most inspiring project I’ve heard about in years. In an age where cities are often hard-pressed to find time and space for garden plots, Seattle is embarking on an ambitious effort at edible reforestation. On Beacon Hill in Seattle, seven acres of land recently added to Jefferson Park are being converted into an urban food forest, the first large-scale urban example of it’s kind I’m aware of. This is being accomplished through a little city funding and a large volunteer effort, as well as training and design help from local permaculturalists. Best of all, the food grown there will be free to anybody who wishes to come pick it.

This food forest plans to combine fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs, vines and other plants to create a self-sustaining, food-producing ecosystem. It’s something that many have written about, but which has (so far) few examples in this part of the world. Forest gardening takes the principles of permaculture to the next level by imitating entire forest ecosystems, and in theory it’s one of the most productive and sustainable ways possible to grow food.

Unlike a traditional farm which grows single crops in huge multi-acre fields (monoculture/monocropping), permaculture uses a mix of different plants in the same plots (polyculture/polycropping). This has been shown to produce higher yields, since not all the field’s plants are competing for the same nutrients or growing/fruiting at the same time of year (when they need the most water). Even 2-3 different crops or flowers combined with “companion planting” can produce impressive results, but once larger plants get involved there are even more benefits. Trees have roots which reach much deeper than garden crops, and can feed on water which has drained far past their reach. They provide shade, mulch and windbreaks for smaller, vulnerable neighbours and anchor the ground in place preventing erosion. The right mix of plants can be self-fertilizing (as are forests) and dense enough to prevent weeds from getting established – eliminating the need for chemicals. It can provide a steady stream of fresh food through the whole growing season (it’s already maple syrup time, dontchaknow…), and ideally, needs very little maintenance of any kind.

There are many more ways I could list in which permaculture or similar systems easily multiply yields. Trees allow for more contoured land, which has much more surface area per hectare than flat farmland. Proper soil management makes plants far more resistant to pests and diseases, as well as larger and healthier. Mulch, itself, has more benefits than I have space to list. Most of these are well-known, but not in practice because they’d make large-scale machine harvesting very difficult. Thankfully, for this project, that’s not an issue.

Urban agriculture, in itself, is almost always more productive per square foot than farmland, 15 times over by FAO estimates. This is due to many factors, but most can be summed by how much more attention each plant gets. On a backyard scale or community garden scale, this has obvious limits, but given more space this opens up amazing opportunities for reducing our impact on the rural environment and addressing important questions of food security.

A single dwarf fruit tree can produce hundreds of pounds of fruit, which is about what the average human needs for a year.

The implications for cities like Hamilton, where huge regions suffer from poverty and de-industrialization should be obvious. There are countless multi-acre sites which now sit vacant. Many are already returning to a forested state, though others are paved or mowed constantly to keep this regrowth at bay. Most won’t be “developed” for decades, if ever.

What would such an effort look like? It could be as small as one of the (admittedly gargantuan) parking lots downtown, or as large as some of the former factory sites. Besides any necessary work with pickaxes or jackhammers and soil testing/remediation, much of the hard work would happen through natural regrowth. As saplings mature, there’s plenty of time to let land fallow and regenerate, and any “weeds” which grow can later be cut and used for mulch or composted for fresh, on-site soil. With a combination of both (and perhaps neighbourhood kitchen/green waste), mounds and beds can be built up to create land contours, increase soil depth and create space for smaller bushes, shrubs and herbs. Nearly all of this could be managed with on-site materials, such as fresh-cut wood and stone or crushed concrete “urbanite” for pathways and patios.

On a smaller scale, parks and community gardens could plant rows or clusters of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and herbs. These could line pathways and boulevards or break up our many large, unused lawns. Our city already spends millions on “landscaping”, to say nothing of the space, labour and fertilizer. Forest gardening allows us the ability to cut those costs substantially while actually producing something. Aesthetically speaking, it’s hard to imagine these getting uglier than Hamilton’s many, tacky, might-as-well-be-plastic flowerbeds.

From a human perspective, our city desperately needs a source of free food which isn’t mediated by mountains of paperwork. At present, this usually means raiding dumpsters or picking weeds down by the tracks. Food banks only allow a few visits per month, and community garden plots often involve applications and waiting lists (some give their foods directly to food banks). A forest garden would offer instant fresh produce to anybody willing to visit. The food produced would be some of the healthiest possible – vine-ripened and fresh-picked, it wouldn’t lose taste, texture and nutrition to weeks of truck-ripening and storage. Beginning with smaller volunteer-led initiatives at the neighbourhood level helps ensure the expertise needed to plan, plant and maintain a project like this isn’t limited to a few “experts”.

It will be fascinating to watch the Beacon Forest Garden take shape, and see if such an ambitious project can function in the middle of a major, modern city. If so, it opens up opportunities for transforming many more. Free, local food turns the traditional economy and ecology of cities upside-down – free, collective food production means freedom for those who would otherwise depend on shitty jobs and government handouts. It creates real, immediate, local value in a way that call centres never can, and does so by breaking up our sterile and lifeless expanses of concrete with a thriving ecosystem. Forest gardening may one of the oldest systems of food production known to humanity, but it also may well be our future. (Homepage)