Food Forest Agriculture: Seeds of Change

Food Forest at Clear Sky Meditation Centre, BCI recently gave a presentation at Montana Native Plant Society’s Flathead Chapter on Food Forests and other sustainable thoughts. My talk focused on a project in South Eastern British Columbia which I have been involved with for 7 years. It really has been a special project for me as a Landscape Architect. I have taught courses on native plants, native seeding and wildlife buffers. I have helped Clear Sky develop a master plan for their community that looks at the 25 year vision. I have also designed the site plan and planting plan for their latest sustainable building. But lately, my involvement in a Food Forest project has spurred my thoughts in different directions.

I grew up with a family that always had vegetable gardens, and yards that incorporated native plants and other interesting sedums, bleeding hearts and other cool plants that a kid can discover. My favorite was making bleeding heart blooms turn into dancing ballerinas and learning to flick maple seeds. We always had a compost pile and picked apples from our trees at our Slocan valley property. I pretty much took this all for granted, as do many kids raised outside. As an adult you realize the seeds that have created the adult.

Later I went to school in a remote community at the north end of Kootenay Lake. I lived with several families over the few years that I was there. I learned to pick corn when it was ripe, milk cows and goats, tend vegetable gardens and chickens, make applesauce, bread and sauerkraut. Organic gardening and composting were just part of life.

A few years after that I lived in Seattle; our house was an old Ballard truck farm proving vegetables for early Seattle. We had six feet of topsoil. I had a huge urban garden with raised beds and lots of organic vegetables. My favorite book was “Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades” by Steve Solomon. I remember testing my soil and making up custom mixes of organic fertilizer. Boy we ate well.

Calgary was my next destination, where I had a house with Italian plums, crabapples and lilacs as my foundation plants. Luckily an Italian gardener had cultivated those wonderful trees and they were well established when I arrived. I added a pear tree that my cousin grafted a male branch on it, so that it would pollinate, and I planted three types of saskatoons, two types of grapes, kiwis, herbs, rhubarb, and as usual had a compost pile and a vegetable garden. I seemed really important that my yard was an edible landscape.

That house got sold and I ended up with a Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture, funded partly by that house. Native plants became my forte as a Landscape Architect, but along the way I helped design raised beds and pick trees for a few traditional orchards. But I hadn’t really considered this as my focus as a landscape architect. For the first time ever, I have a yard without a good compost pile or garden, because I haven’t wanted to fence the deer, bear, cougars or turkeys out. I have tons of saskatoons, herbs and rhubarb but I hadn’t thought of it as my edible landscape.

Last year I became involved with helping to design a Food Forest at Clear Sky with Richard Walker, a food forester from Osoyoos, B.C I had no idea what a food forest was, but the project intrigued me and I jumped in, but still had questions. I soon learned that a food forest mimics the horizontal and vertical structure of a forest, and like a forest had guilds of plants that form micro communities. What does this really mean? A forest has overhead structures – canopies, shrub layers and forbs – perennials and ground covers, with groups of plants that like living next to each other – a guild of plants. All of these elements are part of food forest – just different species – edible ones. In a forest, leaves drop, compost, and form the organic matter that is so important to the forest soils. Pollinator species – ants, beetles, bats, birds, flies, moths, wasps – are key to creating the diversity of species. These are the same concepts in a food forest.

The skeptic in me struggled with a few concepts. If we are working on native restoration at Clear Sky, how does a food forest with fruits, nuts and shrubs from all over the world fit into my native world? We try so hard with native species to replant with local plants or plants from an adjacent region with similar biological, geological conditions. If we are smack in the middle of a wildlife corridor with elk and deer, should we be planting a food forest? How can I possible grow all of these trees in the cold mountainous region of South Eastern B.C. that has a short growing season from June to September, maybe…longer if we are lucky.

How have I resolved most of these issues? Well, I worry about our food supply, that we ship fruit and vegetables thousands of miles and till our best agricultural land into housing developments. I worry about the genetic modification of foods, and the Round-up resistant crops. I worry about aerial spraying our food crops. I worry about the lack of engagement of young people in the outdoors and gardening, preferring the violent video games of their culture. I think about living off of the land and that our native plants can’t provide enough food to supply out growing population. I think about my life of organic gardening and the seeds of growth that my mother instilled in me 45 years ago with our gardens.

The skeptical mind has shifted. Now, I think about a former deserted playground in a city transformed into a community food forest. The young mom helps her young child plant the first tree. The retired Italian gardener laughs with the young women and child as they discuss kinds of plums and the methods of growing the best basil. The teenager thinks about the vision of a more sustainable world and helps to dig the first hole. Fast forward three years, five years, picking fruit, playing music in the interior courtyard of the food forest, warm and happy, protected form the cool winds, and surrounded by birds, butterflies and the drone of other pollinators. Paradise within the cityscape, community involvement, and, equally important, healthy food hand crafted. Why would I question a Food Forest? So that I continue to learn and share.

–Leslie Lowe L.A, Registered Landscape Architect