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Volunteers move mulch at the Beacon Food Forest project in Seattle on June 15, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Volunteers move mulch at the Beacon Food Forest project in Seattle on June 15, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Food forest takes shape in Seattle Add to ...

Around noon on a hot Seattle day, Jeff Wright pauses shortly before lunch to survey the team’s progress. In a garden plot, developing before him, dozens of volunteers shuffle about, pushing wheelbarrows of mulch, prepping planter beds and chiselling away at cement blocks to make retaining walls.

At completion, the seven-acre Beacon Food Forest site – the largest of its kind in North America – is expected to produce a bounty of fruits, vegetables, nuts and herbs, entirely free for the taking. It is the primary reason Mr. Wright moved across the country to Seattle from Orlando just two weeks earlier.

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“Everybody here embraces this kind of stuff,” the 33-year-old said. “It’s not just the food forest, it’s the community gardens; it’s the fact that, in the space between the sidewalk and the road, you have people growing raised beds and fruit trees.” In Orlando, city codes prohibit such measures, he said.

“You could lose your house if you don’t clean it up.”

The food forest is a significant step for the urban agriculture movement, which in recent years has seen a rise in grassroots approaches to food production. A growing appetite for locally sourced foods combined with environmental and economic concerns related to food security has spurred many to take food production into their own hands, through front-yard vegetable gardens, backyard chickens and farming in urban locales, including roof tops and parking lots.

On this day, about 100 volunteers have turned up at the food forest, which sits adjacent to Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill in southeast Seattle, for its monthly “work party.” The site is just four kilometres from the city centre. The downtown skyline, with its iconic Space Needle, reaches up from beyond the trees.

After project leaders give a quick pep talk and direct a series of stretches, the volunteers start on their tasks. The main goal of the day is to create a wide path through the eventual “forest,” which will give it an inviting and park-like atmosphere. Children have been assigned to harvest strawberries, plant pumpkins and collect rocks to line the paths. Mr. Wright removes tape and labels from old cardboard boxes, so they can be used for sheet mulching, and then moves on to planting herbs and pollinator plants. By lunch, his hands are stained from the soil.

“Sure, it’s always a good idea to wear gloves when working in the garden,” he says later, “but I live to get my hands dirty. I feel connected with the ecosystem in a meaningful way when I can play in the dirt.”

The idea for the Beacon Food Forest began in 2009 as the final project for a public engineering design class by student Glenn Herlihy and several others. Mr. Herlihy, a member of the Jefferson Park Alliance, which advocates for the park, had lived in the area and was well familiar with the grassy slope of land just off Interstate 5, owned by Seattle Public Utilities.

The project quickly gained traction with members of the community, who took the proposal to city council. The city approved, investing $100,000 (U.S.) from a fund set aside for community gardening expansion. In 2010, Seattle’s Department of Neighbourhoods awarded the project $22,000 to hire a design consultant and, in 2012, another $86,295 to create a gathering space, tool shed and watering system. The first “work party” was held in October.

It is an “amazing thing” to see the idea become reality, Mr. Herlihy said.

“I don’t make any money on this project – we’re all volunteers – but the payback is when people agree with you, and see the positive side of what this group is trying to do, and they show up and do the work,” he said.

The food forest will mimic a wild forest to create an “ecosystem of food,” Mr. Herlihy said. Fruit and nut trees will form the upper level while berry shrubs and edible perennials and annuals will make up the lower level. Companion and beneficial plants will attract certain insects for natural pest management and soil amenders will provide nitrogen and mulch. Two beehives will provide pollination. Among the crops already planted are Italian plums and Asian pears – to reflect the neighbourhood’s diversity.

Perhaps the most common question volunteers have received is: “What if someone just steals it all?” At this, volunteer Frederica Merrell throws her head back and laughs.

“That is our favourite question,” she said. “People are so hung up on that, that we are giving away free food. It’s such a funny thing. It’s a capitalist world, right?”

The team is not at all worried at the prospect, she says. “We are going to grow so much food that one person wouldn’t even be able to haul it out of here. We’re going to have so much food that we’re going to be happy if people haul it away. We’ll just grow more.”

In fact, there has even been talk of having a “robber’s garden,” she says with a laugh. “We’ll say, ‘If you want to rob food, come here. This is ripe and ready for robbing.’ ”

The City of Vancouver currently has three public fruit tree orchards, located at Falaise Park, Ross Park and Memorial West Park. Planted between November, 2010, and May, 2011, the three projects are in line with a recommendation by the city’s Greenest City Action Team to plant 150,000 more trees by 2020 – including seven more such “urban orchards” – as well as a park board commitment to sustainable practices in urban agriculture.

A report on the city’s urban forest management plan going to both council and the park board this summer will explore ways to increase the number of fruit-bearing trees and create a more cohesive system rather than just “a patchwork of plantings everywhere,” said park board commissioner Niki Sharma. However, space constraints make it unlikely Vancouver would have anything comparable in size to the Beacon Food Forest.

“When I found out about that Seattle park, I was so excited about it,” Ms. Sharma said. “We’ve been having conversations with the local food task force about a project like that [but] there are challenges when it comes to doing that in the city. Seven acres is a huge space and we have a lot of competing needs for our green space.”

The local food task force is also expected to release a report this summer.

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