Community Forest Gardens

Food security is a growing concern. And not just over access to food, but access to healthful food. And rightly so. Global food systems are once again feeling the tremblings of supply interruptions stemming from grain export bans in Russia and poor harvests due to drought and floods elsewhere. Similar to the international price shocks, hoarding and limited rioting that occurred in 2008 in the face of wheat and rice shortages, we may be in for another round of inflation in food costs and heightened food security awareness this quarter.

Few things can provoke a stronger instinctual response than the prospect of food shortages. So it is not surprising that many people are becoming cognizant of how vulnerable our food systems are to the interruption of global supply chains. Price inflation and growing concerns about the quality and safety of our food supplies have also been motivational for a rapid expansion in community gardens all around the globe. Not only do these co-operative projects provide the landless and land-poor (though not necessarily lacking resources) with an outlet for a great outdoor activity with mental health benefits, it also helps to reconnect an increasingly urban populace with food production, and the opportunity to supply themselves with nutritious food of their choosing.

Building capacity and access to community gardens is of benefit to everyone. To be clear, I don’t think they’ll contribute greatly to global food supplies in the short term. But the individual and social benefits of participation, however small, in sowing, tending and harvesting some of your own food are immeasurable. And I also believe that agroforestry, specifically through forest gardens, has tremendous potential to complement the community garden movement.

I have previously extolled the virtues of forest farming, and firmly believe it will be a production system of prominence in the future. Within the family of forest farming practices, forest gardening can best be described as food systems replicating the patterns and processes of natural forest ecosystems. Forest gardens are a structured polyculture of food plants combining multiple canopy layers of fruit or nut bearing trees, and shrubs, herbs and vegetable beds into synergistic and sustainable production units. Utilizing applied ecological principles to minimize competition and promote facilitation through companion planting, forest gardens are efficient, productive outlets for inter-cropping.

The potential benefits of incorporating forest gardening into the community garden movement are many fold: enhanced productivity, conservation and aesthetics, and all within confined spaces.

Many community gardens are located in small urban spaces and expanding production vertically with shrub and tree canopy layers makes good sense to maximize the efficiency of food production per area.

Trees and tall shrubs can also function to mitigate some of the less pleasant aspects of city life. They dampen noise, trap pollutants, dust and odours. Trees cool and moisten the summer air and, when of sufficient size, will shelter adjacent buildings from hot and cold, decreasing the need for air conditioning and heating, respectively. And forest gardens also can serve as functional park and conservation areas; giving refuge to small birds, butterflies and other wildlife, building soil, and adding positively to the visual landscape while still contributing to local food production.

Community forest gardens can therefore fulfill the all the roles of community gardens in reconnecting urban residents with food production and contribute to community food security, and they also make the best use of available space and can be a source of ecological goods and services and visual aesthetics in the concrete jungle.

I’d love to hear from anyone who already participates in a community forest garden program or is planning one. Please share your story in the comment form, or send me a note via my contact page or Twitter.