What is a Food Forest? Ecological, Community Design in the City of Atlanta

We were just hired by the City of Atlanta Mayor's Office of Resilience to lead the design of the Brown's Mill Food Forest.  Our design team also includes Clara Kwon with STAND Landscape Architecture and Tradd Cotter, Mycologist with Mushroom Mountain.  At 8 acres, this will be the largest municipally-funded food forest in the nation, promising to bring local residents access to fresh organic food and medicine more sustainably and in a much greater diversity than can be found in any market.  So how does this happen?

What is a Food Forest? Like any ecological landscape solution, a food forest aims to improve the health of the earth and people.  It's a more resilient and sustainable approach to food growing for so many reasons (builds soil, withstands affects of climate change, needs less resources as inputs, grows a large diversity of food...)  It's a permaculture concept (permanent agriculture), where perennial plants that produce fruits, nuts, roots, leaves and medicine for food all grow into a forest system.

In the Southeast, we are still working on refining what plants are best adapted to a Food Forest.  Typically, nut trees like Pecan and Chestnut and some fruits like American persimmon provide the over story canopy, fruit trees and shrubs like serviceberry, pawpaw and blueberry are the mid-canopy and understory and then herbaceous perennials, like wild ginger, black cohosh and ginseng provide food and medicine at the ground layer. Plants which provide nutrients for other plants are also a part of the mix, like comfrey and yarrow and black locust that fixes nitrogen.  Of course, not all plants that are valuable food-producing plants are shade loving.  We have forest edges with more available light for plants like sumac, the superbly medicinal, native elder, with boneset, echinacea, sochan at the herbaceous layer. We also commit full-sun areas to grow plants like Nanking cherry, more traditional fruits and also sun-loving flowering perennials that provide medicine and support pollinators.  Important annual herbs like milky oats, calendula and hibiscus are grown in rows among sun fruit trees. Also grown among fruit trees are plants that deter pests, like nasturtium, oregano and chives or walking onion..... this is a really basic explanation.

Im writing this without my plant list in front of me- and the list is extensive. The system is complex. Sun-shade is just a beginning of the mircro-climate discussion.  Soil moisture levels and water flow through the property are critical, but who reads a long blog post anymore? 🙂 Fundamental considerations for a Food Forest today also include implementation and maintenance!  Who and how will the site be cared for??  City of Atlanta is overseeing the project as fiscal agent, and plans are being made with the US Forest Service and Conservation Trust (the land owner of the Brown's Mill site) for local job training programs.  How will the local residents be able to maximize use of the site?  Partnering with amazing organizations like the Herbalista free clinic, to host workshops on the site to teach residents to identify, harvest and prepare homemade medicine is an important part of design. Like the forest itself, plans are necessarily multi-layered and multi-functional...... we'll post updates as things progress. The final plans are set to be presented at the end of August and again in September, 2017.

[If you want to know more about Food Forests from another source in the US, Beacon Hill Food Forest in Seattle WA has been in the works for a decade.  Here's what their website says about a Food Forest.]


Pictured: Native Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis fruit setting, June 2017)


1 Response

  1. Proud of this ambitious project! Atlanta greatly benefits from your hard work and knowledge, and heart.