If you grew up in a rural area — or even if you’ve just spent time in the country — chances are you’ve picked berries at the local patch. In the city, though, where can you find fresh food, free for the picking?
If you’re in London, try a local park or even a neighbourhood boulevard, where free and publicly accessible “food forests” thrive. The first took shape five years ago — with help from community groups and the city — in a riverside park once home to an apple orchard and market gardens. Since then, two more food forests have appeared in local parks, and another three are in the works; meanwhile, countless fruit trees and shrubs line residential streets.
Food forests mimic their wild counterparts, combining different sizes and types of vegetation in a single area. The plants, which can include fruit and nut trees, fruit-bearing vines and shrubs, perennial herbs, and root vegetables, help one another flourish — dill and fennel, for example, both attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs and syrphids, while strawberries draw birds that keep pests under control.
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The idea is to make local fare more accessible to those who might otherwise be unable to find it. “We see it as a way to help achieve our goals” of sharing food with those in need, says Mike Bloxam, community harvest coordinator with the London Food Bank, which will plant 20 trees on its east-end property this fall.
On the boulevard next to her west-end home, Cory Morningstar grows apples, pears, and pawpaws, extending the forest in her yard. Not only have her efforts attracted neighbours in search of something sweet; they’ve also created a home for birds, frogs, snakes, and toads (not to mention shade for Morningstar’s home).
An environmental writer who began “naturalizing” (as she puts it) her property in 2003, Morningstar wishes her neighbourhood's boulevards were as lush as her own. But convincing other residents to give up their manicured lawns can be a tough sell — and planting on boulevards without city permission is illegal. (Morningstar was told to remove some of her trees over concerns they impeded drivers’ visibility; she complied.)
Gabor Sass, who teaches biology and geography at Western University, tried to establish a food forest at Wood Street Park near his home a few years ago. When he went door to door with the idea, many residents were enthusiastic, but not all. One neighbour, whose home bordered the park, worried birds would foul the backyard pool. Another preferred grass to garden.
To gain those neighbours’ support, Sass and a few fellow gardeners adjusted their plan. They reduced the proposed size of the forest and decided to create it in phases. Now, Sass says, “lots of folks come out and help.” Through city grants, the neighbourhood has added a gazebo, bought a cider press, and staged concerts.
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Coping with disease and pests is part of the challenge of maintaining an urban food forest. The Carolinian Food Forest, for example — London’s first, located next to a stretch of wild conservation land — attracts hungry deer.
Volunteers build fences to ward them off and donate new plants. But their efforts bring to light a greater challenge: How to sustain commitment for a long-term project?
“It’s a problem with a lot of community projects,” says Jessica Robertson, owner of Wild Craft Permaculture, in London. She designed the forest as well as the one in Sass’s neighbourhood and has also designed two of the three new forests currently in the works.
The Carolinian Food Forest hasn’t received any major funding in the past two years, and only one member of its steering committee lives in the neighbourhood. Volunteers worked hard to establish the forest, but some of the trees won’t bear significant quantities of food for a long time yet. “Nut trees don’t begin to bear for generally about 10 years,” Robertson explains.
For the Wood Street Park and Food Bank food forests, production won’t take nearly as long. These projects are made up mostly of dwarf fruit tree varieties, which mature quickly and are easy to pick. (Those varieties weren’t an option at the Carolinian Food Forest, due to the steering committee’s decision to use only native plants.)
Still, they face their share of problems. At the Food Bank, the availability of fruit trees come planting time is a concern. Many municipalities have tree-planting programs, Bloxam explains, and demand can lead to shortages of popular varieties. At the Wood Street Park, meanwhile, the biggest issue is deciding how best to share the bounty.
Sass, who has also planted fruit trees on the boulevard by his property, wants a neighbour to nab an apple or two walking by. One person picking a tree clean (as has happened on occasion) is another story. He doesn’t want to see that happen in Wood Street Park. Children should have first dibs for healthy snacks, he says, then those who help maintain the forest — then everyone else.
At another forest he’s developing at West Lion’s Park in a nearby neighbourhood, people in need will be the first priority for receiving the harvest.
Kids are the priority at Gibbons Park Montessori School too, where a new food forest — the first in London to be located at a school — will provide healthy snacks. One of the big challenges, says project organizer Joanna Chin, was determining what plants would produce food through the school year. In the end, they planted apple and pear trees, haskaap and gooseberry bushes, and even asparagus.
Right now, Chin admits, the forest doesn’t look like much. But “it’s going to be amazing when it all grows,” she says.
For Chin, there is no doubting the importance of food forests: “I don’t want my child or any children to grow up in the kind of environment where they don’t know what fresh food tastes like.”
Mary Baxter is a London, Ont.-based freelance writer and editor who specializes in agriculture reporting.