My Edible Forest Garden Year: Community, Learning and Food for the Future

edible forest garden, food forest, polycultureWhy do I love these gardens? Why do people love these gardens? There is something empowering about many hands transforming a lawn into a productive food garden. There is something magical about cardboard, compost and woodchips as the main ingredients for soil fertility. And there is something promising about planting trees, shrubs and perennial food plants, which will potentially provide abundance for years to come.

This year, I've had the joy of being involved in four different edible forest gardens.

The first was hosted by The Table Community Food Centre in Perth, Ontario. We started in the winter, facilitating a series of design-coaching sessions with a team of community members. It was a dynamic process that provided us with learning opportunities at every stage. The participants ranged from a seasoned permaculturist to beginner gardeners. Our site conditions included well over two feet of snow in the winter, followed by over a foot of water with spring thaw and flooding. In the end, with the help of 20 people on planting day, we planted over 60 different species and varieties of useful perennial trees and plants to provide food, medicines and plant companions.

In mid-spring, I attended an Edible Forest Garden intensive with Eric Toensmeier at Petit Boisé in Dunham, Québec. I was delighted to join the support team, and along with a group of over 25 workshop participants, design and install a 1-acre food forest. Imagine this (which sounded crazy to me beforehand and seemed miraculous on hindsight): 30+ people, some of them beginners, in a six-hour design process; several design groups coordinating their ideas on paper, and then navigating from theory to tree placement on site the next day; and planting over 75 trees and shrubs in one day. It was a whirlwind of creativity, enthusiasm and hard work!

edible forest garden, food forest, polyculture

In our region, I find the projects at Heron Park's Community Orchard in Ottawa and The Table in Perth to be particularly ground-breaking, since they are on city and town land respectively and thus represent cooperation with municipalities. At Heron Park, the fruit trees that had been planted two years ago and the polycultures that went in this year were initiatives of community members. The new polycultures were planned by Hidden Harvest Ottawa and Permaculture Ottawa (the latter of which we've been a part for several years). Plants were donated by the community; soil was purchased with funds raised from community events; water was provided by the park and a neighbour; the installation and ongoing care is provided by volunteers. It was exciting to design the polycultures as a small team of three and then see the planting unfold with the help of a larger group (sadly, I was out of town for the planting day, so I witnessed it in photos). This is the power of sharing the surplus: gifting plants, water, time and knowledge, to potentially give back to the community for years. I love to be reminded of what a small group of engaged citizens can accomplish.

edible forest garden, food forest, polyculture, Nishnawbe Aski Nation, First Nations, cold climateIn late summer, we had the privilege of travelling to Thunder Bay to lead a workshop at the 5th annual Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Food Symposium. One of the most satisfying fruits of my “food forest year” was designing and, with the work of many hands, transforming a patch of grass into a young edible forest garden at the foot of Thunder Mountain at Fort William First Nation. Participants included community food champions, beginner and seasoned gardeners, nutritionists, diabetes prevention coordinators, grandmothers and grandfathers. Almost everyone came from First Nation communities in Northern Ontario, with plant hardiness zones 3 and lower. (To put this in perspective, we live in zone 4-5 in Perth. For friends in Massachusetts or in Haiti for that matter, Perth, Ontario is cold; however, for Northern Ontario, where we are is quite balmy.) The NAN Food Symposium was rich with learning and exchange. I particularly enjoyed our exploration of how traditional plants could fit into designing an edible forest garden. This prompted me to learn more about how to grow and propagate the traditional medicine plants – sweetgrass, cedar, tobacco and sage – in colder areas.

To top it all off (with a beautiful layer of mulch in the garden or icing on the cake), we had the pleasure of visiting the Eric and Jonathan's edible forest garden in “Paradise Lot” and Tripple Brook Farm in Massachusetts. What a joy to imagine the gardens we helped plant, growing into mini food jungles in 10 or 20 years.

So to all our teachers, helpers, friends and allies – the plants, the pollinators and soil life, the animal inhabitants, the human gardeners and eaters, the soil, water, air and fire – I give thanks for all of this sharing and all of these communities working together to help restore the life-giving capacity of these places. I dedicate this learning to all our relations.
edible forest garden, food forest, polyculture, Paradise Lot

Above: "Paradise Lot"

edible forest garden, food forest, polyculture, Tripple Brook Farm

Above: A massive hardy kiwi vine growing on an old sycamore tree at Tripple Brook Farm.

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