Usually, when we think about eating our way across the city, we think about restaurants, not gardens – but that could change. If the Leaf Ninjas and other food forest proponents have their way, Calgary will become a city dotted with green oases filled with edible goodness: pears, cherries, apricots, plums, grapes and more.
Food forests make up an essential part of permaculture, a holistic design system integrating food, water, shelter, energy and waste systems into the design of sustainable human habitats, emphasizing the creation of beneficial connections between a diversity of elements.
“Food forests are really important, because they provide an avenue for anybody with a garden or landscape to develop a meaningful connection with nature,” says Luke Kimmel, a designer with the Leaf Ninjas, a Calgary-based edible landscaping service focused on food forestry and ecosystem restoration. “Whether you’re doing a complete yard transformation or planting a single tree or shrub, food forestry is really an approach that can be used by anybody.”
In a food forest, you’ll typically find an arrangement of perennial plants – including trees, shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants, groundcover and edible flowers such as daylilies, pansies, marigolds and hostas – representing all the layers in a natural forest and providing food.
In emulating a natural system, food forests are inherently lower maintenance; most plants are hardy perennials requiring less replanting, and filling every space with desirable plants means less weeding.
“[Food forests] are beneficial, not only for humans for producing food, but also for the entire ecology, by creating oxygen and pulling carbon out of the atmosphere,” Kimmel says.
Adrian Buckley, who co-owns reGenerate Design with Lindsay Meads, says a food forest allows people to start “to become at least partly responsible for our food, and the nutrients in that food. We can grow some of the things that can help us with our health, and that of our children. Food forests are really beautiful places.”
For her part, Meads advises those new to food forestry to start small. “Get something in the ground and you’ll start reaping the benefits,” she says.
Finally, a food forest can provide far more than a bounty of fruit, herbs and vegetables, Kimmel says. It also offers rich cultural opportunities to plant, harvest, learn and grow food together. “All of those activities are community-building things,” says Kimmel.