FOOD FORESTS, PERMACULTURE, AND THE FUTURE OF SCHOOL GARDENS
Perhaps you’ve heard of David Latimer, the owner (and planter) of a 50-year-old, bottled terrarium. It might bring to mind ideas of sustainability in a microcosm. In the un-bottled world, the ecosystems themselves are the terrarium, and the forests, swamps, grasslands, and deserts are the biomes. Learning to emulate nature—as in biomimicry of forests—is certainly one way to teach people about abundance. High schools are naturally adopting the idea of “food forests” at an increasing rate. Perhaps allowing the students themselves play a hand in the design is the only way to drive home the concept that this earth we inhabit is, afterall, an ongoing lesson.
While it seems everyone is singing the praises of school gardens these days, with the First Lady leading the choir, a niche is growing with the movement for deeper roots and even greater sustainability. School food forests are popping up in my town, and though in the sapling phase, they are sure to become an established part of the schools, an element that makes them enamoring and unique… not to mention green.
School Food Forests
A food forest is a garden made up mostly of perennials and trees. It is a term used most commonly in the system design methodology known as permaculture, the goals of which are to take care of the earth and its people, while providing a fair share to all. Known as an extremely low-input sustainable form of food production, permaculture emphasizes perennials (Ferguson and Lovell 2013). These trees and plants help to build soil through deep roots which host beneficial microorganisms, self-mulch through leaf litter, and provide habitat for wildlife and microclimates for other plants (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Food Forest’ Living Web by Molly Danielsson.
Gocio Elementary in Sarasota, FL has had a garden for quite a few years. Just a year and a half ago, it was replanted in a permaculture keyhole style garden, which included fruit trees like praying hands bananas, citrus fruit, loquat, and papaya and vines such as passionflower, velvet bean, and the volunteer bitter melon vine climb the outer fences. The garden volunteer, Camille, would love to see the food forest ramble outside the tall chain link fence, where some of the fruit trees have already been planted (see figure 2).
Figure 2: Gocio Elementary school garden with loquat and banana trees. Photo by Malory Foster.
Bay Haven School of Basics Plus, a public magnet school in Sarasota, just installed phase one of its food forest in September 2014. As a part of the core planning team, I was amazed to witness the process of planting a food forest from dream to reality and hopefully see it to maturity. After many months of meetings, our small committee hosted a two-day permaculture design charrette (video here) to plan Bay Haven’s new food forest. We felt we had done all our homework through winning the support of the Principal and PTO, garnering input from students, and inviting gardening and design experts in our area to the charrette. Once the beautiful design was complete, the date was announced for the installation (see figures 3). A generous seventy people showed up that day to help cardboard, sheet mulch, and plant trees and other perennials in the new food forest!
Figure 3: Food forest design Sketchup by David Gwatney.
Food forests are a natural progression for school gardens and are gaining popularity all over the country from the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, a community site, to the food forest at Oakland International High School in Oakland, CA (see figure 5). They offer many benefits for school settings such as less maintenance because they do not require repeated annual plantings and weeding. Food forests can offer shade for outdoor learning, increased plant diversity, build soil over time, and create wildlife habitat for students to observe.
Figure 4: Oakland International High School’s food forest. Photo by Brittany Schell.
Even though food forests are gaining popularity, there is a bit of change adversity you may encounter if heading down this road at your or your children’s school. Because food forests allow for natural leaf litter to accumulate to build soil and act as a natural mulch, they may appear (but don’t have to) a bit messy, at least at first before the understory grows in thickly. Some folks may have concerns about pests or rodents when you start talking about planting fruit trees (see Advice section below). It is essential, though sometimes difficult, to keep students involved. At times, adults want to go for a certain look or power through the project without taking the time to ensure students take the lead. When students have a hand in the planning and planting of a garden or food forest, they have much more of a stake in its success; they care.
Here are some pieces of advice I would give to anyone wishing to start a food forest at their or their children’s school.
- Form a strong team. You will need everyone on your side such as the Principal, Food and Nutrition Services, Facilities and maintenance departments, and the surrounding community.
- Involve students in all phases of the garden from planning to planting to maintenance. What’s a school garden or forest without children in it?
- Attempt to staff the garden with a full or part time person dedicated to that task. This can be done by securing funds to hire someone for garden maintenance, but more commonly it is written into the school’s curriculum as a wheel class or horticulture program. Time and time again gardens are planted with full enthusiasm of one teacher or parent and it’s great… until that person moves on and the garden becomes neglected and unsightly. This is the reason for many Facilities personnel’s angst for school gardens. Get them on your side by showing them you have a strong network of support for garden maintenance over the years and…
- Have a written plan for harvest. It might not be much at first, but by the time your fruit and nut trees are a few years old, they will hopefully be cranking out the produce. With a written harvest plan or calendar, you can ensure that the food will be eaten by humans, not pests. This will make your custodians very relieved.
- Make the space accessible for teachers to bring their classes. The more centrally-located and inviting the food forest is to teachers, the more likely they will be to utilize it for class. Students benefit greatly from experiential learning, and any subject can be taught through hands-on activities in the food forest. Shade, seating, and relative seclusion can definitely make the space more inviting for classes.
Figure 5: Outdoor classroom space. https://www.pinterest.com/aml0516/for-the-yard/
- Go for it! If food forests appeal to you, start learning and recruiting interest. Great places to start are listed below:
- Tropical Permaculture: http://www.tropicalpermaculture.com/
- Florida Gulf Coast University Food Forest: http://fgcufoodforest.weebly.com/
- The Permaculture Research Institute: http://permaculturenews.org/category/plants/food-forests/
- Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren
- Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier
Danielsson, Molly. “Food Forests’ Living Web Poster.” Accessed January 7, 2015.http://www.mollydanielsson.com/?product=food-forests-living-web-poster
Ferguson, Rafter Sass and Lovell, Sarah Taylor. 2013. “Permaculture for agroecology: design, movement, practice, and worldview. A review.” Agronomy for Sustainable Development 34:251-274. Accessed January 7, 2015. http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/448/art%253A10.1007%252Fs13593-013-0181-6.pdf?auth66=1420653249_660a08fe3322034b587458709242c6b4&ext=.pdf
Schell, Brittany. 2012. “At Oakland International High School, an edible forest begins to bloom.” Oakland North. Accessed January 7, 2015. https://oaklandnorth.net/2012/08/24/at-oakland-international-high-school-an-edible-forest-begins-to-bloom/