This spring, America’s first public food forest is rising from seven overgrown acres in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, a multiethnic enclave just outside the downtown core about four miles from the Space Needle. A food forest is exactly what it sounds like — a community of edible plants, ranging from shade tolerant species at ground level to large nut-producing trees in the canopy, and a medley of fruiting shrubs and vines in-between.
“Food forestry looks to create mutualistic relationships between plants, fungi, insects and yes – humans,” writes Glenn Herlihy, co-founder of the Beacon Food Forest. Since the idea hatched nearly five years ago as the final design project for a permaculture design course Herlihy was taking at the time, such mutually beneficial relationships have been developed with neighborhood residents and businesses, city agencies, and a veritable militia of volunteers who have helped to sustain the idea.
Now that the formerly ad hoc coalition has full city support and a steady stream of grant funding, the time has come to focus on the plants, soil, and the array of interspecies interactions that make up a food forest. In Seattle’s cool maritime climate, trees like mulberry, persimmon, and Chinese chestnut are top candidates for the upper canopy, while lower down species like filbert, serviceberry, pawpaw, and pineapple guava bask in the filtered light at mid-canopy. The forest floor is for shade-lovers only, with unusual edibles such as miner’s lettuce, ramps (a type of wild garlic), violets (whose leaves and flowers are edible), and of course, culinary mushrooms.
A food forest is a meticulously arranged garden that mimics a natural forest and aspires for complete self-sufficiency. Plants that accumulate nitrogen and other minerals essential for growth are interspersed to eliminate the need for fertilizer, while the earth is sculpted as a series of rain basins intended to intercept stormwater runoff and store it in the soil for the plants drink from during dry spells. All the leaf litter ensures that the soil is well-mulched and supplied with a steady stream of organic matter to feed the microbes and earthworms that create spongy, rich topsoil.
Many of the plants will take three to five years or more to begin producing, but eventually the forest will be open for public foraging. In the interim, there is a lot of work to do; planting, mulching, weeding, and building paths and steps throughout the sloped site began in the fall of 2013 and is an ongoing effort. Fortunately, there are many hands to share in the labor — the monthly work parties typically attract over 100 volunteers.
Beacon Hill is one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Seattle (the newsletter of the local elementary school is translated into over 50 languages) and many of the residents come from developing countries where edible gardens still substitute for landscaping around homes and public spaces. It’s a fitting community to host America’s first food forest, and if the outpouring of interest and support ladled on it is any indication, it is not likely to be the last.
Photo Credit: Judi Johnson