The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Introducing The Edible Forest

Introducing The Edible Forest

Garden to Table

April 29, 2012

Once considered novel, community gardens are now an everyday part of the urban food landscape. Mini city farms are flourishing too, popping up everywhere – on the rooftops of business, in backyards, in school fields and in parks. Now, some locavores are taking the concept a step further, planting edible forests in public spaces for all to enjoy.

The Beacon Food Forest is currently being developed in Seattle adjacent to the west side of Jefferson Park. The goal? To grow enough nutritious food for everyone in need, to inspire other urban communities to build food forests, and to empower the community with knowledge by having a shared local food source.

There are many layers to a food forest. The top story is a fruit or nut tree that is surrounded by a shrub layer. The next layer is a perennial layer. The bottom layer is the microsphere below the soil. Each plant and layer has multiple functions to support nutrient uptake, fix soil nutrients and nitrogen levels, accumulate biomass and mulch, attract native pollinators and even attract humans to help maintain the garden. The results are higher yields, healthier soil, better plant diversity and a garden that is more resilient to pests. 

Glenn Herlihy, who helped create the park’s initial designs, say the inspiration for the edible forest came from several sources. One is the growing need for awareness and education on how food is grown, nurtured, harvested, shared and supplied. Many children, says Herlihy, still think food comes from a grocery store and have no idea who their farmer is and what it takes to get food to their tables. An edible forest could help change their perspective. Additionally, Herlihy says that there is a general lack of understanding about the community knowledge of nature.

“Nature deficiency in our society is rampant. By engaging our citizens in soil preparation, plant care and harvest ethics we build awareness to the methods and systems that support our food supply,” says Herlihy.

Yet another source of inspiration for the edible forest comes from a desire to provide an urban food supply to city dwellers. Local organic food sources supply low income populations with fresh, organic, sustainable food at low costs. Herlihy says they wanted to create a local food source on land that could be preserved as a local food source for many years. Further benefits include producing food with a lower impact on climate change, which improves health quality for all species.

In an urban garden, public land is regenerated with both nutrients and ecological activities for the community. The act of gardening is therapeutic, and is a multigenerational activity that can inspire physical movement and exercise for people of all ages. Also, many farmers who have lost their land are now living in cities, and urban farming is a great way for these farmers to educate city dwellers in urban agriculture. 

“It’s essential to keep our citizens aware of food growing practices and how it effects their lives and the planet. Workshops on all topics like soil building, propagation, general plant care, pruning, harvest ethics and more will be held to support the Beacon Food Forest and build knowledge in this area,” says Herlihy. 

Herlihy says that Seattle is the perfect place to host one of the nation’s first edible forests. With more than 70 patches and community gardens around the city, urban agriculture is important here. This is also an issue that public officials campaign on more – and voters want to know how different food systems affect the health of the planet’s ecosytem. And the weather doesn’t hurt either. Located just 2.5 miles from downtown Seattle, Jefferson Park is a unique location with a sloped area and exceptional sun exposure, which stretches the ability to grow foods from other climate zones.

The Beacon Food Forest will eventually serve as a plant and seed bank for stronger local varieties of edible plants. These plants could then be propagated and reseeded throughout the neighborhood and region to increase the food supply and plant resiliency. As more and more edible plants take root locally, Herlihy says the neighborhood could see an increase in available nutrition. 

“Urban agriculture can help to alleviate the pressures on food banks to feed the hungry, cut healthcare costs, curb child obesity, curb diabetes and curb air pollution,” he says. “The Beacon Food Forest will make organic produce available to everyone.”