Will an apple a day keep the food desert away?

Reinventing the Garden of Eden in the Emerald City.

  • Seattle's Beacon Food Forest in an early conceptual phase.

    K. Shuyler, cc via Flickr
  • An initial work party at the Beacon Food Forest.

    Kevin Taylor
  • The Beacon Food Forest reaches fruition: Cheryl Wilder with a bouquet of freshly dug sunchokes.

    Beacon Food Forest
  • Glenn Herlihy with bounty from the Beacon Food Forest.

    Beacon Food Forest

Standing near his pickup truck on a gray October Saturday, Glenn Herlihy gazed over a sloping strip of grass bisected by a power line and a gravel maintenance road. When a chilly breeze stirred the curtain of mist, Seattle's glass and steel skyscrapers appeared in the distance, as bunched and fantastical-looking as the emerald towers of Oz.

Here, on seven acres stretching from a hilltop by a city park down to the curb of busy 15th Avenue South, Herlihy and a handful of neighborhood activists have convinced the city and a variety of its citizens to help transform bald grass into a self-perpetuating forest of foodstuffs. There will be nut and fruit trees, berry bushes, and an understory of herbs interwoven with community vegetable patches.

Today was the monthly volunteer work party to create the Beacon Food Forest on ground owned by Seattle Public Utilities. From here, Herlihy watched more than 100 people wielding pulaskis, shovels and rakes, planting blueberries and other shrubs and running wheelbarrows, mounded with steaming mulch, to newly terraced garden sites. The ringing sound of a circular saw came from another group, building worm compost bins.

Food forestry is essentially gardening with trees, except that the harvest is food instead of wood. Volunteers do the work, but the food they produce is available to anyone who walks by. "We mimic a natural forest system – the structure and the layers and the functions of the plants in real, biodiverse nature," says Herlihy. "We're modeling that structure, but substituting in edibles and medicinals and also nitrogen-fixing and insect-attracting plants, to make it a little more useful to our community."

In Seattle and several other Western cities, food forests are part of the rising interest in producing food locally, using community muscle rather than burning fossil fuels to import food from distant farms run by corporate agribusiness. The movement, says Herlihy, is "about building community, first; about educating the community about food, second; (and) about the harvest, third."

Beacon Hill received national publicity even when it existed only on paper. Part of the buzz came from its ambitious size – acres when most food forests are measured in square feet –– as well as from the timing. Just as the concept was being pitched, Seattle's then-Mayor Mike McGinn proclaimed 2010 to be the Year of Urban Agriculture and fell in love with the food-forest idea. Huffington Post, NPR and even Forbes did stories, creating a groundswell of interest from as far away as Scandinavia.

"That scared the pants off us," Herlihy says. Organizers held their first work party in September 2012, before they'd even obtained the necessary permits. "We sheet-mulched on the lower area where we didn't really need permits for grading or moving of soil," he says. "We had 120 people show up from 28 different zip codes."

Today, volunteers ranged from an elderly man in a wheelchair to a toddler "weeding" a fallow bed by rolling around in it with his brothers. Most, however, were earnest young men and women serious about creating a perennial organic food source in the city.

In a year, thanks to their energy and muscle, grass has vanished from the first phase of just less than two acres. Spindly young trees – plum, apple, filbert, pear – have been planted, and last fall, blueberry and other bushes went in around them.

The tree list also includes heart nuts and butter nuts, persimmons and Asian pears, figs and quinces. A woody understory will include salmonberries, lingonberries, salal. And Seattle's P-Patch community gardening program will offer vegetable plots – with volunteer time required as part of the "fee" – by February.

Old chain-link fencing has been torn out. Terraces have been raised with handsome gray "stone" that turns out to be busted-up, repurposed segments of old city sidewalks. Wooden apiaries and whimsical birdhouses have appeared – to attract both pollinators and pest controllers. University of Washington architecture students have built a hexagonal gazebo and benches near the top of the slope for communal gatherings.

Though much of the labor and material is donated, the food forest is getting off the ground on $206,295 in grant awards and matching funds from the city – managed by the P-Patch staff – for the development of the first 1.75 acres.

A Seattle levy for the creation of new public gardens has expired, and the Beacon Food Forest, which was able to tap those funds, "will need to look for continuing grant opportunities," says Jackie Cramer, a co-founder.

Food-forest organizers chose Beacon Hill in part because it is racially and economically diverse. Organizers mailed nearly 6,000 fliers in five languages and made numerous presentations. Still, almost all the volunteers are white, and many do not live in Beacon Hill.

The food-forest group focuses on neighborhood outreach through local middle and high schools, involving students in projects such as watering in hopes of sparking interest that will spread to their parents. But in Seattle –– home to Microsoft, Amazon and Expedia –– many volunteers discovered the project via social media.

"I heard about this project through Facebook from a friend in Sweden who told me I had to check out the Seattle food forest," says Bradly Nakamara, who transformed his diet after watching the documentary Food, Inc. "And I'm like, 'OK, where is it?' And he says Beacon Hill, and I'm like, 'Oh, my God, that's where I live!' "

Master gardener Deborah Lloyd, an African-American, has been involved with the food forest from the start. "I am concerned about the fragility of our food system as it depends on transcontinental transportation and oil," the Beacon Hill resident says. "A big part is food access and nutrition issues; African-Americans are plagued with diabetes."

Tracy Yeung, in her 20s, has volunteered every month since the groundbreaking. "I love the idea of having a more local and very sustainable food source that is grown in the ground here and doesn't just appear in boxes at the supermarket," she says.

Forging that connection between people and food is one of the main goals, food-forest proponents say. "There is the whole idea of creating a local food source as a resiliency to any kind of change that may happen," Herlihy says, but adds, "It won't do you much good in an apocalypse. It's mostly about education on the idea of food – how to grow food, where food comes from, how to eat more nutritious food."

Food forests are being proposed for city parks in places like Basalt, Colo., Helena, Mont., and Spokane, Wash. Organizers agree that education and inspiration are their goals. Lisa DiNardo, Basalt's horticulturalist, is helping to transform a triangular city park into a food forest and seed-saving garden in partnership with the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute. The plant list includes apple, pear, plum and cherry trees, and grapes, hops, hawthorn berries and wild roses. A 6,000-square-foot seed-saving garden was planted last summer for vegetables adapted to the mountain valley's short growing season.

Helena, meanwhile, may not seem that green. "We're not a Seattle. We're not even a Missoula," says Jessica Peterson of Inside Edge Design. But the small city has a long history of community gardens and agreed in 2011 that an underused acre of 6th Ward Park can be the site of a food forest.

Food forests come with caveats, of course. Dave Jacke, co-author of the movement's bible, the weighty two-volume Edible Food Forestry, follows food-forestry experiments on public land with interest – and some trepidation – from his home in Montague, Mass. In 30 years of working in permaculture and edible forestry, he's observed many failures.It's never because the gardens fall apart; rather, the people do. The social interactions need every bit as much thought as the plant groupings, he says. What if unpicked fruit falls to the ground and draws hordes of yellowjackets? What if the group loses interest or burns out? A city department is then stuck with something it doesn't know how to maintain. If these experiments go bad, they could set the movement back, he says.

"I think people are jumping into public food forests, thinking, 'Oh, we can make self-maintaining gardens,' " Jacke says. "In about 200 years, we'll actually know what we're doing. We are in the very infancy of developing food forests as ecosystems. There is so much to learn about how to design herbaceous polyculture so you don't get weeds, how to design systems that manage their own pests. We know so little."

At the Beacon Hill work party, volunteers touched on a delicate topic: On public land, anyone can pick the apples from the tree that volunteers spent three years sweating to fruition, and some are bothered by the idea of "takers."

"Frankly, if homeless people need to come in here, and they're hungry and we're feeding them, that's what we're here for," Herlihy says. "The people who have worked hard on this – we have to learn to give it away. We have to be humble and we have to say, 'OK, we need to share.' "

And if the project falls apart? Lisa DiNardo doesn't share Jacke's worry. "I like the question, because there is a little fear factor in it. But we have to do it," she says. "If this doesn't work, I would make an arboretum with a walking tour. I'm a plants woman. If something morphs into something else, we need to go with it."

Kevin Taylor writes from Spokane, Washington, where he dreams up elaborate traps for the people who keep stealing spaghetti squash from his community garden plot. This is not in the spirit of edible forest gardening.

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