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A forest for food

Tom Banse, SeattleOctober 7, 2013

An unusual edible arboretum grows food and community in Seattle, the largest city in the Pacific Northwest region in the US. The urban gardeners express confidence their unfenced bounty won't be abused.

Volunteers work on planting the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, USA (Photo: Tom Banse)
Image: DW/T. Banse

Over the past year, volunteers in Seattle have been clearing grass next to a city park and planting all manner of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and vegetables.

It's a social experiment, where the eventual bounty from this public "food forest" will be open for anyone to forage. But can respect and sharing triumph over hunger and greed in the edible arboretum?

There's something so compelling about the idea that it attracts as many as 100 volunteers at a time to scheduled work parties.

Planting favorites

Gustavo Martinez wields a pick axe to break sod. Like other volunteers, he's eager to see a favorite seedling mature.

"I like fig trees because they're big and broad and they make shade, and also because I love figs," he says. "I really can't wait to sit in the shade of a fig tree and read a book and eat some figs."

It'll be a little while yet before Martinez can realize his dream. The groundbreaking for the Beacon Food Forest happened about a year ago. The edible botanical garden will be developed in phases across a seven acre (3 hectares) terraced hillside. It's located in the ethnically diverse, Beacon Hill neighborhood - in view of Seattle's downtown skyline.

Project co-founder Jacqueline Cramer says the plan is to recreate the kind of diverse, productive forest in this urban environment that probably sustained many prior civilizations.

A diagram of how an edible food forest works (Diagram by Graham Burnett, Wikimedia Commons)
The layered nature of a "food forest" is key to its successImage: Graham Burnett via Wikimedia Commons

Emulating the forest

The food forest Cramer envisions has many layers, starting with a canopy of tall nut trees. Planted beside them, shorter fruit trees - now just saplings.

"We have pear trees in a pear guild, a variety of plums, apples," she explains. "Then we are starting to put in an understory to emulate the forest instead of being an orchard of rows of trees."

Cramer shows off blueberries, a gooseberry bush, currants, kale and lettuces. "The ground has strawberries as a ground cover," she says. "There were strawberries here. The school kids enjoyed them with us."

A pumpkin (Photo: Tom Banse)
Pumpkins are among the first vegetables to be harvested from the Beacon Food ForestImage: DW/T. Banse

The city government in Seattle has chipped in more than $200,000 (148,000 euros) to cover expenses and keep the project moving forward.

Cramer's group can almost be seen as a modern "tribe" that's come together to grow its own food. This isn't just being done out of a motivation to sidestep the world's growing mass food industries though. What the people here are doing resembles what villagers and extended families from Morocco to India to Vietnam have done for centuries - up to the present day: namely, producing food cheaply and locally.

But Cramer says what makes this food forest different is that it's open to the public. Anyone can walk in and graze on whatever is ripe - such as the heirloom broccoli recently. It tasted a lot nicer than store-bought broccoli. A patch of plump, orange pumpkins will tempt next.

"The communal, open harvest piece is really uncommon," Cramer says. "That is probably why we're getting a lot of attention. It ruffles people's feathers. We'll learn as we go. We don't know how it will work."

'More nuts than anybody can eat'

Volunteers Peter Lang and Giovanni Dellino say they attended many meetings where the neighborhood discussed human nature and the likelihood for abuse of the scheme.

"Sometimes with a garden you plant some plants to let the bugs eat," Lang says. "So we might have to do that, plant some trees just for people to eat. And hide some others somewhere or something!"

Sunflowers in the food forest (Photo: Tom Banse)
Organizers are confident the garden will be respected by the communityImage: DW/T. Banse

"We kind of hope for the best in people's nature and that there is respect and that people will not necessarily abuse that," Dellino says. "Somehow we hope for the abundance that when some people do sometimes, we'll be resilient and work through that."

Lang adds, "When we eventually - in 50 years - have huge nut trees, there will be more nuts than anybody can eat, I think."

Lang and Dellino say another reason they are confident the project will succeed comes from the respect shown at existing community gardening areas. These are common in the US and other parts of the world. Gardeners typically cultivate individual plots, which they rent in a public area. Theft and vandalism happens, but it generally stays at a low level.

This Seattle project includes some individual plots too. But what really brings the community together and ignites imaginations is the process of cultivating the region's first public food forest.