Tips on Starting an Urban Permaculture Food Forest
A visit to a permaculture food forest and p-patch, how it works, and realistic tips for starting your own urban food forest. A food forest is a place where food plants are grown in layers that simulate the layers of a forest.
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Four or five years ago I came across something amazing on the web: news of an urban food forest in my home city of Seattle. Seven acres of land were given to a group of people who planned to turn it into a permaculture food forest open to anyone who wanted to grow and pick homegrown fruit. It seemed almost too good to be true and since then, I’ve heard very little of what was happening at the Beacon Food Forest. While I was in Seattle I decided to find it and then find out how it all works.
With permaculture and food gardening now becoming more mainstream, more of these types of projects are springing up across the globe. The reality of how it functions, potential challenges, and how to start a permaculture food forest are rarely discussed. That’s what I wanted to find out in my visit to the Beacon Food Forest. What is was it, how did it work, and how did they get the project off the ground?
The Beacon Food Forest
We took the light rail from downtown Seattle to the Beacon Hill station and walked to the site from there. It took about twenty minutes walking down Beacon Avenue S but it was relatively easy to find. Up through Jefferson Park and along a paved bike path and we were there. It’s on the lee-side of a hill and is a green oasis in a sea of sun-scorched grass. Trees dot the lower part of the land and above the bike path are terraces where beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and other annual crops are in full production.
What is most striking about the gardens is that it’s completely surrounded by urban development. Homes, businesses, power lines, and the Seattle skyline to the north. It’s not the typical place where you’d expect to find an edible food landscape. There were also few people there. It was open to anyone, including us, to walk in, look around, and maybe pick some veg.
The Beacon Food Forest Project
The project planted its first trees in 2012 and worked to develop the first area into a food forest, p-patches, and a food bank garden. Seven years later, and a few years after my visit, they expanded the growing space into a further 1.5 acres. Then in 2020, and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the project focussed on food production so as to support local food banks and food insecurity in the community.
In all of those years, they’ve received a great deal of support from the community, and the public model of trust and giving has worked. They say that they have not had any instances of anyone visiting and taking all of a crop. On the contrary, keeping parts of the site open to public picking helps eliminate waste, thus reducing pests. This aspect of achieving balance is part of the permaculture planting ideology.
Permaculture Planting Using Forest Layering
Amazingly the project has cataloged over 350 different trees, bushes, plants, and vines in the food forest. It’s grown in ‘guilds’ which is a permaculture idea that aims to provide food for people while naturally replenishing the soil and caring for the perennials growing in an area in a sustainable and organic manner. In a permaculture food forest, you have different layers of vegetation that work together to support a system. You have taller trees that provide shelter and places where other plants can climb. You have a lower level of fruit bushes under the trees, and then under the bushes you have ground cover and shorter beneficial plants and crops.
When choosing your plants for an area you also need to think about which plants grow well together, can discourage pests, open up the soil, and provide nutrients for people, soil, and other growing things. A food forest is a people-made edible ecosystem. Another idea that is really pushed in permaculture gardening is maximizing yield while minimizing effort, external materials, and energy. Growing perennial crops (plants that re-grow every year), composting, keeping bees to help with pollination, and mulching the soil are some of the ways this is done.
Mixing a Food Forest with a P-Patch
When we arrived it wasn’t clear how the garden was organized and we were surprised to see some signs saying “Stop picking my beans” and the like. Wasn’t this supposed to be a public pick-your-own? Further down one path, we came across an official sign that told us that the terrace we were on was part of a p-patch. If you’re familiar with allotments in Britain, this is what a p-patch is. Public, and sometimes private land, is divided up into parcels of land that individuals can rent to grow food.
It’s not clear from some of the press that the Beacon Food Forest has received, but the project is not entirely food for the taking. Though it isn’t a widespread issue, they do deal with people visiting and taking from areas that they shouldn’t be. It’s an education issue rather than ill-intent.
A Communal Food Forest is public food on public land
While wandering the site, I was fortunate enough to meet Julie Haack, a coordinator at the site. While she picked raspberries, letting me try a few, she filled me in on the concept of the site. The main idea is to create a forest garden filled with food free for the people. Organically grown fruit, vegetables, and even donations to help bring this lower-income community together.
Those involved in the gardens, as well as visitors, are very much encouraged to pick fresh fruit, berries, and vegetables from communal areas. What some people aren’t aware of though is that if you do pick you should also help out in return. You could do a bit of weeding and there’s also a way to donate to the project through their website.
The other side of the project is to partner with the p-patch program in Seattle to provide areas where individuals can grow their own gardens too. There’s a clear division between the public food growing areas and the private veg plots. In these plots, most people grow annual vegetables rather than plant in a perennial permaculture style.
Finding the Permaculture Food Forest
The boundary between the p-patches and the permaculture food forest is a wide bike path. Below the bike path is the public area where you can pick raspberries, apples, and even the quince which will be ripe in October. Above it are areas that individuals can rent out to grow their own produce.
Julie says that because of the publicity that the food forest has received they get a lot of people coming into the p-patches and helping themselves. The food forest is only part of their permaculture project though and each of those areas on the terrace is rented and tended by individuals.
Tips on starting a Permaculture Food Forest
The gardens will eventually cover seven acres of land, currently owned by a public utility company. So far they’ve cultivated 1.75 acres out of the seven but expansion is being planned. [a further area was developed in 2019.] The area that they hope to fill is currently just a sea of yellow grass just beyond lush green plantings. A blank slate just waiting for its time to bloom. Their current set-up includes:
- A P-Patch, where families grow their own crops, mainly annual vegetables
- An urban food forest, a place where mainly perennial edibles are planted using the permaculture guild system. It’s here that open harvesting, or “ethical harvesting” can take place.
- Demonstration Area
- Gathering plaza
- Food Bank Garden
- Children’s Garden
- Fenced off beehives
- Communal composting area
- Various planting schemes, including a herb spiral
Grants and Permaculture Volunteers
The idea and growth seem idyllic from an outside perspective and there are surely a lot of folks who walk away feeling inspired. Perhaps, with the idea of creating an urban food forest in their own community. I asked if Julie had any advice for people wanting to start a similar project and she was very clear about one thing: get everything on paper. It’s not just the hard work of volunteers that makes it happen. It also takes support from the community, the city, donations, design work, and paperwork.
To expand the gardens into the grassy unused areas, the project will need a great deal of donated money. The first grant to get them started was for $100,000 and they’re in the process of requesting a similar amount. What was all of the money being used for? Volunteers keep the gardens physically going by weeding, planting, composting, and the like. However, there are costs for building, design, accounting, admin, and payroll too.
It all adds up over time, and would not be possible for the average person or group without donations. I think that if you were interested in starting a similar urban food forest, it would also be wise to review the Beacon Food Forest’s annual reports, which they freely make available. The image above is taken from a recent report and shows the bottom line after expanding the site in 2019.
Running a Permaculture Food Forest
The work the project has done is astonishing, considering that it’s run mainly by volunteers. Members of the committee keep the site running and there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Amongst things that need organizing are work parties, working with the unaffiliated beekeeper, and permaculture enthusiasts showing up to help. We even met a university student who was looking for native bees in the garden for a research project.
Aside from that, there are day-to-day costs, publicity, fundraising, social networking, and so much more. Helping to keep the site running smoothly is a seldom-realized labor of love. One that must be considered if you’d like to start your own project. The benefits of an urban food forest are priceless, but it’s important to understand the realities in order to get a new project off the ground. Watch the video below to learn more about the Beacon Food Forest and the incredible enthusiasm and support they have for their project.