Why cities are planting more ‘food forests’

Many of us see forests as places to walk, hike and enjoy nature. But more and more cities are planting “food forests” — not just for strolling through, but for growing fruits and veggies.

At the Cowichan Green Community Food Forest in Duncan, B.C., visitors can amble along green microclover pathways in the shade of big-leaf maple trees to pick herbs such as rosemary and savory, vegetables like asparagus, as well as fruits, including salmonberries, grapes, plums, kiwis and figs — for free.

“It’s quite the jungle right now,” said Janice MacKirdy, who runs the garden for the non-profit Cowichan Green Community Society, an environmental group focused on food security.

The roughly one-acre plot attracts families, who fill their baskets during berry season, and is a refuge and quiet thoroughfare for workers in the city centre. The community group also uses the harvest in its Meals on Wheels program for seniors and sells some at its “reFRESH Store,” which rescues surplus and potentially wasted perishable food.

Similar edible landscapes are popping up across the country, from Hay River, N.W.T., to Sudbury, Ont.

Red Deer, Alta., has no fewer than eight community orchards and food forests, planted since 2011, where the public can harvest nuts such as hazelnuts and walnuts and fruit such as haskap berries, cherries, apples and plums.

“This is an amazing activity to get people interacting with nature,” said Trevor Poth, parks superintendent for the City of Red Deer.

Both Poth and MacKirdy say urban food forests tend to be more appealing to people who might not normally go hiking or use community gardens, which require more work and personal commitment.

While Red Deer’s primary goal is to create a sustainable source of local food, these forests have other benefits, too, such as attracting and supporting birds and pollinators.

The city tries to plant them in partnership with schools or community groups to maximize opportunities to educate the public about where their food comes from and what can be grown locally.

“You teach kids … what berries they can eat off what tree,” Poth said. “Those kids go home and they tell their parents, and then the parents plant cherry trees in their backyard and they plant haskap and they plant apple trees. So we’re really trying to be the driver of change.”

He said that while many cities quietly put edible plants along roadways, Red Deer is “quite pushy, in fact, about sharing our knowledge of what we can grow.” It provides detailed maps showing exact locations and varieties of edible plants.

Poth said access to this fresh, local food has had a positive impact on people’s physical and mental health during the pandemic, which has forced many to look for outdoor activities close to home.

“People are happy or they feel more self-sustaining, and it’s been an excellent thing this year. It’s been one of the great positives, I think, that’s come out of coronavirus.”


— Emily Chung

The Big Picture: The 7 layers of a food forest

In order to maximize the amount of food that can be grown in a certain area, food forests are often designed to mimic a natural forest, with similar “layers” of plants that serve different roles in the ecosystem.

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