Wild Orchard: A Food Forest Grows in Seattle

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two red delicious apples hang on a tree


Watch out Todmorden, you’ve got some forage-y stateside competition in the fair, plastic bag-banning city of Seattle.

Over the past few days, permaculture practitioners and urban food policy followers not just in the Emerald City but around the globe have been positively abuzz with news that a hilly and undeveloped 7-acre parcel of land owned by Seattle Public Utilities will be transformed into a lush, forager-friendly wonderland called the Beacon Food Forest.

To be clear, the future site of the food forest — thought to be the largest of its kind in the U.S. — isn’t located in some sylvan pocket on the outskirts of town, in a woodsy bedroom community, or in, gulp, neighboring Snohomish County. The Beacon Food Forest will be located less than 3 miles southeast of Seattle’s downtown core in the ethnically and economically diverse Beacon Hill neighborhood (former home of Amazon.com, by the way) adjacent to a large park. It’s very much an urban endeavor that can best be described as a P-Patch (Seattle vernacular for community plot — there are more than 75 throughout the city all overseen by a nonprofit called P-Patch Trust) on steroids.

So what exactly is a food forest, you ask? Here’s how the Beacon Food Forest describes the basics of this permaculture concept:

A Food Forest is a gardening technique or land management system that mimics a woodland ecosystem but substitutes in edible trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. Fruit and nut trees are the upper level, while below are berry shrubs, edible perennials and annuals. Companions or beneficial plants are included to attract insects for natural pest management while some plants are soil amenders providing nitrogen and mulch. Together they create relationships to form a forest garden ecosystem able to produce high yields of food with less maintenance.

Got it. According to a recent article profiling the project on NPR’s food-centric The Salt blog, the Beacon Food Forest's design calls for nut trees and a wide array of fruit-bearing perennials such as apples, plums, grapes, pears, and berries galore. Initially, the bike parking-heavy forest will be a petite one, measuring less than 2 acres. The money — $100,000, to be exact — used to kick start the scheme comes via a grant through the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces Levy, and the operation will be managed by the community gardening overlords at P-Patch Trust.

If all goes swimmingly with the “test zone" and more funding is secured, the entire 7-acre swath of land will be converted into an edible public landscape within a few years. Small, private plots within the forest will also be leased to individual gardeners for $10 a year and a beekeeper will eventually take residence (natch). Community education programs and workshops — pickling! preserving! plant identification! — will also be a key component of the project. No word if celebrity permaculturist Daryl Hannah plans to fly out for the ribbon-cutting.

Like in Todmorden, the small British town where a free-for-all system of community gardening is the norm, there’s the question of etiquette. “Of course, any ‘free’ food source begs the question of what to do with overzealous pickers. No definitive answer on how to handle that predicament has been established yet, though,” explains The Salt. Glenn Herlihy, a steering committee member for the Beacon Food Forest, says that two possible solutions are to simply grow so much fruit that everyone walks away happy or install ‘thieves’ gardens’ geared towards grabby and gluttonous types sporting giant reusable IKEA shopping bags and no regard for sharing the bounty with their neighbors. Or, as, Gawker points out: “Failing that, public executions send a strong message.”

Lots more over at NPR, Grist, and at Crosscut.com where the bureaucratic hoops involved with getting the project off the ground are detailed. Although a bit bare-bones at the moment, the Friends of the Beacon Food Forest website has additional information on the project including the design master plan. And the project's Facebook page seems to be blowing up as of late, which is fantastic.

[Grist], [The Salt] via [Gawker]