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Put the food back in the forest

If you look at the manicured parks and trees lining the streets around your city, you may notice that these trees are not typically fruit bearing. While we have addressed some of the reasons this is the case in this article about allergies, there is a recently growing movement to plant trees and plants that bear fruit in public spaces. A sub-movement within this is the one promoting planting not only fruit bearing trees, but entire ecosystems called food forests. This article will explore some of the basics of food forest, how to get started with your own, the benefits they provide, and some real-world examples.

A food forest is just as the name suggests: a forest that’s purpose is also to produce food. Food forests serve the dual purpose of restoring areas to a more natural state (especially when native trees and plants are used) while also providing food for the community to forage. In general, a mixture of nut trees, fruit trees, plants, herbs, ground cover, and mushrooms are used to form a function forest.

Your first step is to select a site. Many factors go into site selection, such as ownership. Once the site is selected, your next step is to put together a plan to figure out what plants to purchase. When determining site design and plants there are several factors to consider, such as soil conditions: nutrients, organic matter, pH, moisture, etc. This information can be gathered through doing soil tests. Another factor to consider is shade/light amount. The site should also be laid out to mimic a forest’s natural function. There should be trees in stratification to form the upper story and under story, as well as plants and mushrooms to form ground cover and lower story. Once you have your plan together, the final step is to select start planting.

In general, reforesting has many benefits. It adds habitat for local fauna, sequesters carbon, helps regenerate depleted soils, and provides pollinator habitat. In addition to these, the most important part of the food forest though is the fact that it provides for the community. This can be especially impactful in urban areas that have become food deserts. In these areas food forests can supplement food for families as well as provide a healthy alternative to the processed foods that are typically available in these food desert areas.

Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District was awarded a grant by the National Association of Conservation Districts to implement two food forests in the greater Cleveland area. The first food forest was installed in Garfield Heights near Garfield Heights High School. This site was chosen because of the ability to build programmatic capacity with the high school as well as the proximity to an existing community garden. The second site is at the Coit Road Farmers Market. This site was chosen due to its location in an urban center as well as it being an historic market place.

If you would like more information about food forests, Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District’s work to install more functional restorative trees, or the National Association of Conservation Districts, please contact Jakob at jhamlescher@cuyahogaswcd.org.

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