How to Grow a Food Forest

Food & Drinks /

Eventually, she said, she hopes the fruits of the food forests can be used in the school cafeterias. In the long run, that can persuade kids to eat a more varied, more nutritious diet, she hopes.

Food forests are no walk in the park.

They don’t need a lot of land, but they need that land for a long time, long enough for trees to grow and mature. They also need to be weeded and mulched — a lot, especially in the beginning — and then, trees need to be pruned to keep fruits within reach. They need caretakers. And managers to figure out who gets to harvest, how to staff, whether paid or not.

Nature can impose its own limits. Jose Ramirez, a Los Angeles-based artist and gardener, has devoted his yard to fruit trees — mango, avocado, fig — with some perennials in the understory, like nettles. But it’s Los Angeles. The earth is dry. There’s not enough water to mimic a forest of the tropics.

There are many models. Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest is open to public picking. The Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill is owned and managed by the city of Atlanta. The Philadelphia Orchard Project works with community groups to manage each orchard. (Some are designed as food forests, while others contain only fruit trees.)

They can be hardy.

Rockwell, the professor who studies food forests, says they are especially well-suited to a climate-changed era, including in Miami, where she lives, where early summer can be scorching hot and dry.

In her own yard, she has 10 edible species in a six-square-foot patch. There’s taro in the ground, longevity spinach close to the ground, passion fruit vines that climb up a trellis, shrubs of mint and chaya. She allows herself one annual crop: collard greens. A mulberry tree filters the sun. On the edge of the yard is a star fruit and a dwarf mango. Both provide shade. Compared to a row of annuals, a food forest like hers can withstand higher temperatures and longer dry spells. “For providing protection from heat, it’s really a no-brainer,” she said.

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