Why a Food Forest?

By Lianne Downey

Since Joseph is busy working, I decided I’d interrupt and ask him to explain—oh, Taurean gardener—why we have embarked on this experimental “urban food forest” in which we live and work.

Now, if you’re picturing ancient elven forests—that’s lovely. But it’s not what we have. Even old-growth woods in Michigan is more woods than food. Nope, not it.

What we’ve got here is a tiny, dry backyard strip of decomposed granite in semi-arid San Diego county that bore a few fruit trees and grapevines when we moved in. Into this mix of oranges, lemons, Red Flames, and figs, we added a few more trees (Surinam cherry, Royal Crimson cherry, loquat, longan, and Reed avocado).

We have also incorporated the techniques of permaculture. In practical terms, that means we are building “guilds” around every food-bearing plant containing “companion plants” that nurture one another by their variations and specialties.

For instance, beneath the Meyer lemon tree, a circle of yellow and orange calendula blossoms now offers (in our climate) a year-round preferential treat for pests, serving to distract them, while also attracting the beneficial insects that destroy them.

After a year of this experiment, the tree produced more fruit than the year before. So many lemons, we can’t give them away fast enough and now we’re battling a problem of lemon-chewing rats! (We did say experimental, right? And challenging.)

Everywhere we can keep the baby rabbits from gobbling this favorite, we’ve planted flowering lupines, which add nitrogen to the soil as well as a delight to the view. We tried borage near the avocado but it grew taller than the fledgling tree, although its nodding blue flowers attracted plenty of bees that are out there right at this moment, pollinating the avocado blooms as well.

“When you create guilds around fruit trees, which work together to attract beneficial insects, pollinators, and return nutrients to the soil, beauty is a delicious side effect,” says Joseph. “We are surrounded by flowers and food year-round.”

He also claims that the chores will lessen as the food forest matures, requiring less water because the plants will shade and nurture the ground, and fewer insects and diseases will trouble us as the companions do their work and the forest grows healthier.

For now, it’s still a baby that demands attention without delay. Though I love gardening and watching the baby bunnies, lizards, birds, hawks, owls, coyotes, and even a tarantula (from a distance), the food forest sometimes pulls me away from my beloved publishing tasks. So I asked, “Why are we doing this again?”

His answer went right to the objective: “Studies have shown that the longer the time elapsed between when a fruit or vegetable is harvested and when it is eaten, the less nutrition it has.”

I probed deeper. “How do you feel while working on it?” He thought for a moment. And then this rolled off his golden tongue, which I promise I have not edited:

“I think humans have left scars upon the earth. The first thing to grow on a scar is a weed. And the weeds will heal the scar eventually and create topsoil, which can be used to grow foods. I want to heal the scars in the earth because I want to give back because the earth has given me so much food and nurturing that it’s the least I can do.”

How could I argue with that? So he went on.

“It’s an ongoing, endlessly fascinating experiment, through which we learn about the flora and fauna in our climatic zone and feel more a part of it because of the reciprocity that I just mentioned.”

I believe that’s my cue to go out and do some watering, prune some grapevines, and use the fresh results to make a favorite Lebanese recipe: stuffed grape leaves. Yum.

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