“Urban food forests are a growing sustainability trend where people are incorporating low maintenance outdoor designs and natural food sources such as vegetables, fruit, herbs and other food sources in urban areas,” says Bruce Kay, owner and chief inspiration officer at OnGrowing Works. “They allow people to harvest their own food and decrease reliance on traditional supermarkets.”
Giving back to our planet
Urban food forests have many benefits. First, they are an ideal way to give back to the planet, while allowing you to be active and enjoy the outdoors. They also allow you to be less dependent on external food sources and emphasize healthy living. In addition, urban food forests help bring our city spaces one step closer to how our natural environments were hundreds of years ago without requiring a lot of ongoing maintenance or water. Finally, if you don’t eat all the food that is grown, birds, critters and insects (including pollinators) benefit from it.
OnGrowing Works built a food forest in their outdoor office space (check out this case study to learn more) and encourages anyone interested in gardening and giving back to the planet to do the same. So if you’re like us and want to grow your own food, how exactly do you create an urban food forest?
Seven simple steps
We’ve put together seven simple steps to kick-start your own urban food forest creation.
Step 1: Set your intention
The first thing you will want to do is develop a plan for your urban food forest. What do you want to achieve? Do you want to produce healthy food and increase your self-reliance on fresh food sources, educate your neighbours, create a fun project for your family to enjoy or make money selling your fresh products? Whatever you desire, your plan and design must align with your goals.
Step 2: Observe and interact with your future food forest space
This critical step lets you get to know and interact with your space. As you conduct your research, look at what your space is doing naturally before copying it into your design. What do you notice already growing in the space? How can the space be damaged by weather conditions? Where do people walk in the space and how else do they interact with it? Once you have your research, you can begin your plan and design.
Step 3: Create your plan and design
Whether you hire someone to create your design or develop it yourself, keep in mind that for an urban food forest to thrive, it should mimic the seven layers of forests (check out this awesome book for more information on forest layers, or check out for more information). Remember that you will install hardscapes first (any man-made features) and then plant materials after. In this step, it’s also ideal to consider the types of soils, mulches, cover crops and plants you will use.
Step 4: Prepare your site
In this step, you will get your space ready for the plants. Begin by manipulating the site, as necessary. For example, there may be unwanted materials, like trees and rocks, that need to be removed. Next, shape the earth to passively collect or slow water when it rains. Passive water harvesting techniques, such as berms and swales, are ideal to help food forests thrive. Once passive water harvesting techniques are developed, install your hardscapes. This could include pathways, irrigation pipes, water harvesting tanks or sub-surface collection crates. Finally, make sure your soil is ready for planting by incorporating amendments such as organic matter with soil microbes, or additives like compost teas and worm castings.
Step 5: Source and install your plants
This step is where the real fun starts and you see your food forest come to life. With your site prepared by the work you did in Step 4, you can begin installing the plants that you want in your food forest. This could include a combination of food sources and other native plant materials – many people enjoy having a combined food forest and garden. We recommend using plants that are native and hardy to your region. In Alberta, some great prairie hardy fruit sources include saskatoon berries, sour cherries, prairie hardy cherries, haskaps, strawberries, rhubarb and raspberries. For veggies, consider asparagus, dill, cabbage and kale – not only can you eat these, but they will make wonderful ornamental additions to your garden. We encourage you to be as thoughtful as possible in your plant choices and choose plants that do well together in one space (these are known as companion plantings).
Step 6: Give your food forest time to grow and conduct light maintenance
One of the great things about food forests is that they require minimal maintenance. Because food forests are meant to mimic natural forest environments, mowing, weeding, spraying and digging isn’t required. Also, thanks to your well thought out plan and the water harvesting techniques mentioned above, minimal municipal water will be required to help your plants thrive. All you have to do is watch your food forest grow.
Step 7: Eat, freeze and share
With an abundance of fresh food available, you and your family will be able to enjoy the food forest all summer long. Consider incorporating your fresh food into your meals. For example, berries make great snacks or are a nice addition to a salad, and fresh greens are delicious with any meal. Depending on how many plants you incorporated, you may find that you can’t eat the food as quickly as it grows. Don’t worry – none of the food has to go to waste. You can preserve or pickle the food, or freeze it for later use. Also consider inviting friends and family over to enjoy the food with you. Another great option is to donate any leftover food that you won’t use. Organizations like Leftovers have teams of volunteers who harvest excess food from fruit trees and vegetable gardens, ensuring nothing goes to waste.
Want to chat about starting your urban food forest? Chat with us now.