By Justice Marshall • Photos By Reine Mihtla
Is Vancouver ready for the food forest movement?
Imagine munching Asian pears and cracking hazelnuts with friends while basking in the fragrant, healing aromas of the herbaceous understory. The kids chase butterflies and explore edible plants. You relax and graze. Everyone goes home with a bundle of mint or rosemary, a few berries, and maybe some tasty rogue greens for the pot or salad bowl.
Welcome to the food forest, a multi-purpose edible green space that might just redefine urban gardening.
Designed to mimic the mixed canopy of a natural deciduous forest, a food forest (a.k.a. forest garden) substitutes—or combines—oaks and maples with pears, hazels, and other fruits and nuts. The understory and margins are planted with edible berries, herbs, and vegetables. Even mushrooms, like shiitake and oyster, can be included—inoculated into logs and wood chips, protected by the tree canopy.
Unlike a conventionally designed garden where you have herbs and vegetables here, a berry patch over there, and fruit trees off in their own area, a food forest attempts to integrate these different categories of plants into a shared, symbiotic system. As the system matures, it theoretically provides for humans and wildlife over many years, with progressively less input required. It’s an appealing prospect for urbanites who long for green spaces that provide community hubs, healthy creative outlets, and nourishment for body, mind, and spirit.
Slowly spreading in the North American psyche (and landscape) since the 1960s, food forests are rapidly gaining traction in the Pacific Northwest, thanks in part to the growing permaculture movement (an ecologically based design approach that works with natural systems, favouring perennial polycultures over conventional annual cropping). Seattle recently announced plans for a sevenacre food forest in a public park, perhaps the largest of its kind on the continent. Victoria has several smaller food forests, including Spring Ridge Commons, which began in 1985 and boasts over 100 plant species. So what’s up with Vancouver?
My research uncovered a few relatively new local initiatives like the Cedar Cottage Food Forest (Hull Street and Victoria Drive, close to 20th Avenue) and the Purple Thistle Food Forest (Vernon Drive and Charles Street). The twenty-something-year-old Cottonwood Community Gardens in Strathcona is arguably one of Vancouver’s best examples of a mature food forest, boasting mulberry, kiwi, bamboo, raspberries, currants, cherries, and artichokes as well as raised vegetable beds.
When EYA (Environmental Youth Alliance) project coordinator Jodi Peters took me on a tour of Cottonwood recently, I was reminded of how different it feels to be in a garden that has a mixed canopy, compared to a more traditional garden where I’m typically one of the tallest inhabitants. There’s something comforting and beautiful about having all that lush growth and abundance overhead. It’s a nice place to be, to hang out and socialize. Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so. Jodi has run into some community resistance to conventional community garden designs. “Some people don’t like how community gardens typically look: rectangle boxes all lined up. Maybe food forests offer an alternative, the best of all worlds, a more natural-looking, edible mixed-use area.”
Jesse Lemieux, a Vancouver-based permaculture design consultant, sees financial savings for Vancouver Parks Board if they would convert grassed areas and bare-soil garden design into food forests. “City experiments with boulevard fruit trees have actually resulted in higher maintenance costs. That’s because they’ve used a conventional orchard approach, where you have basically two species: a tree and a grass. But a food forest is much more bio-diverse, dynamic, and resilient. As it matures, it requires less and less input, eventually needing virtually zero maintenance.”
I wondered if all this bio-diversity might end up being a little too ... messy for urban sensibilities. Lemieux doesn’t see a problem. “Overall, it doesn’t look a lot different from a native plant garden or English cottage garden. It’s full. There’s no bare soil. But rather than being purely ornamental or purely native, it’s mostly edible.”
A conversation with parks board representative Daria Wojnarski confirmed that food forests are being considered as part of Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, although nothing on the scale of Seattle’s project is in the works. Here’s the key point: Proposals that are championed and stewarded by community and non-profit groups have the highest chance of success. City hall is unlikely to spearhead public food forests on its own, or as a result of isolated requests. It takes organizing.
To get started, talk to your neighbours and find out which groups are active in your neighbourhood, join a neighbourhood network like Village Vancouver, or call a citizen service representative at the city’s information hotline—just dial 311.
Of course, you can always design and plant your own food forest in your backyard, if you’re fortunate enough to have one. Watch for local workshops and use the resources below to guide you.
Whether it’s a food forest commons or a host ‘n’ harvest backyard, consider this adaptation of an old proverb: “The best time to plant a food forest was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”
Justice Marshall is a communications consultant, permaculture enthusiast, and organic educator. He loves both food and forests.
REINE Mihtla, Photographer/Creator: “When life is at its fullest, beauty is plain to see.” artpowerhouse.com
How to Make a Forest Garden by Patrick Whitefield
Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier
Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford
West Coast Food Forestry by Rain Tenaqiya