The city embarks on an ambitious plan for an urban forest, with free food for all.

Even the name sounds impossibly idealistic: the Beacon Food Forest, an experiment in urban planting planned for land adjacent to a Seattle city park. There, at the top of a hill, the project’s organizers hope to create the country’s largest food forest on public land. If the effort succeeds, dozens of fruits and nuts will be available, free of charge and largely without conditions.

Two acres of the site will be planted later this year, thanks to a $100,000 city grant. The first phase of development will include an ‘edible arboretum’ of unusual fruit trees like persimmon and medlar, about 50 community garden plots, and a nut grove with six types of tree nuts.

Once the project’s seven acres are complete, the food forest could be home to as many as 200 different types of edible and useful plants, says Jenny Pell, the team’s permaculture expert. Pell plans to include native edibles like salmonberry, culinary herbs like mint and sage, natural dye plants, and fruits ranging from the familiar, like apples and raspberries, to the exotic, like goji berries and jujubes (though not, as has been reported elsewhere, pineapple).

In recent weeks, the plan has attracted plenty of media attention. But is a food forest practical in Seattle’s climate, not to mention on city land? How can the cornucopia be distributed equitably?

Many of the species the team plans to include are already available at regional nurseries and are even cultivated by gardeners in the surrounding Beacon Hill neighborhood, home to a large population of Asian immigrants. "The palette in this climate is really diverse,” says Pell. Despite Seattle’s famous rain, both summer and winter temperatures are relatively mild, and a large variety of plants can be coaxed to thrive.

Some fruits, like Brazilian feijoa and Southeast Asian loquat, will push the boundaries. But on the balmy March day when we visit the future food forest, Pell points out a shrub in the yard of a nearby house. "There’s a loquat right there, and it’s flowering right now," she says. The tricky part is getting the plant to set fruit in this climate. “I think it’s because it flowers really, really early in the season, and the pollinators aren’t out yet."

Permaculture techniques might help overcome such hurdles. In that system, companion plantings of herbs and groundcovers underneath fruit trees help enhance the soil, ward off pests, and attract pollinators.

But making permaculture compatible with a city park is not without its challenges. "Food forests can be kind of wild and messy and organic places," says Eric Higbee, a landscape architect in Seattle, who is not involved in the project. And the city wanted a space that would look recognizably like a park.

The Beacon Food Forest is part of P-Patch, Seattle’s popular community gardening program, which has 75 sites throughout the city. “The P-Patch program is one of the major ways the city has of putting land into food production,” says Sharon Lerman, food policy advisor in the city’s Office of Sustainability. “The food forest has the potential to provide a big public benefit, lots of excitement, and more healthy food to more people.”

A few P-Patch sites have experimented with similar models of communal management and free-to-all food commons. For example, the Howell Collective Garden has been entirely communally managed, without individual garden plots, and is heading into its second growing season. Members mostly grow annual vegetable crops, rather than the perennial edibles planned for the food forest. And about a mile and a half southeast of the Beacon Food Forest site, the Brandon Street Orchard has about 2,500 square feet planted with fruit trees, which passersby are encouraged to sample.

But the food forest is an undertaking at a much larger scale. “What P-Patch doesn’t have are protocols for perennial harvests that are basically open to the public,” Pell says.

The project team, in collaboration with Friends of Beacon Food Forest and the Beacon Hill community, is currently busy hammering out how to coordinate management of the site. One possibility is to require gardeners to help with food forest perennials in order to get a community garden plot, or to move up on the waiting list. Or, the food forest might be organized into ‘tree-patches,’ with individuals responsible for specific trees and then entitled to first pick of the fruit or nuts.

Eventually, Pell thinks, paid staff might be helpful to manage such procedures—though that has to be approved by Seattle Public Utilities, which owns the land. The involvement of multiple city agencies, including the Seattle Parks Department, the State Department of Health, and others, has made for a complicated process so far.

And there remains the issue of how to encourage the public to sample the food forest’s bounty without taking more than their fair share. “People do, I think, have concerns about how are they going to decide who gets the fruit and things like that,” Lerman says.

Here again, the P-Patch umbrella comes in handy: people working the site’s traditional community garden plots will provide “eyes on the park,” project organizers say, discouraging people from carting off, say, the entire apple crop.

Such problems haven’t materialized in Todmorden, an English town of about 15,000 where for the past several years volunteers have planted vegetable gardens in public areas with produce free for the taking.

“What we found was that in the first 18 months or two years nobody picked anything,” says Pam Warhurst, originator of the Incredible Edible Todmorden project. “We had to keep saying to them, go on, it’s fine, you can help yourself. Eventually people got the knack of it.”

“There’s no reason not to have permacultural food production in cities,” says Branden Born, professor of urban design and planning at the University of Washington. "This is not necessarily a place where we need government or even an NGO solution, but perhaps just a slight cultural shift" to ensure equitable sharing. 

In any case, there’s time to sort out food forest distribution issues: many of the trees put in this year won’t yield a crop for several seasons. That’s another challenge of the project—it’s an exercise in delayed gratification. The food forest’s organizers will have to sustain interest, in the form of both volunteer hours to tend the plants and financial contributions to develop the rest of the site, with relatively little reward to offer at first.

Still, Margarett Harrison, the project’s landscape architect, is optimistic about the long view: “A lot of the fruit and nut trees don’t even start producing for three to five years,” she says. “But in 20 years we could be producing a lot of food.”

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