Feeding on ‘food forests’ Idea of crops raised in public spaces growing

Germaine Jenkins, director of the nonprofit Fresh Future Farm in North Charleston, examines apples on trees planted in the “food forest” around the perimeter of the urban farm’s property.

Imagine planting a pecan or hickory tree instead of a magnolia, and orange, lemon or banana trees instead of crepe myrtles and oleanders, and blueberry and blackberry bushes instead of Japanese pittosporum shrubs, and strawberries and other food-bearing ground covers instead of lawn grass.

If homeowners and other property owners did this, in patterns similar to a forest, yards, school grounds and parks would be filled with such an abundance of free, local and fresh food that supermarket produce aisles, featuring produce grown thousands of miles away, could become virtually obsolete.

As people understand the importance of eating locally produced foods, the idea of “food forests” is spreading across the world, the nation and South Carolina. Food forests, aka forest gardens, are popping up in public spaces in the United States in cities ranging from Seattle to Tulsa, Okla.

In a nutshell, creating a food forest involves mimicking nature’s climax ecosystem — the multi-layered forest, with its canopy, understory, vines, ground cover and fertile soil and root system below — with plants that provide food primarily for humans and other animals.

“It’s not gardening in the forest,” says Nick Tittle, the farm manager for the nonprofit Fresh Future Farm in the Chicora neighborhood in North Charleston. “It’s gardening like the forest.”

“(Creating a food forest) is taking the patterns and relationships of how nature works and applying human-centric plants to that: putting in food crops. We often say the yields of a food forest are food, fodder, fiber and pharmaceuticals. It’s literally everything you need out of a one living system.”

Germaine Jenkins, founder and director of Fresh Future Farm, added another “f” to that list: “And it’s fun!”

Jenkins and Tittle have created a food forest around the perimeter of the urban farm, which is less than an acre, that includes pecan, hazelnut, citrus, apple, pear, fig, banana, persimmon and plum trees, along with bamboo, muscadine, blueberries, blackberries and other lower-growing, perennial herbs and fruiting vines.

“People know rows,” says Jenkins, referring to planting annual food plants in rows, “but they don’t know about mixing different bunch of polycultures (using and mixing multiple crops in the same space) together. This is a way to demonstrate a food forest. Once you land on the property, this is the first thing you see.”

Creating perennial food forests is a cornerstone of the growing permaculture movement in the United States.

That movement is taking root in the Lowcountry, where 17 people recently passed a 12-day course (taught by Tittle) and received the first-known permaculture certifications granted in the state. The Charleston Permaculture Guild also meets on a regular basis.

Next weekend, permaculture expert and author Wayne Weiseman will be in Charleston for a free lecture at 7 p.m. Friday at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Baruch Auditorium, 284 Calhoun St., and for a two-day “Forest Gardening & Permaculture Design Workshop” at the College of Charleston. The latter, which cost $120, takes place 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Weiseman, who was certified in permaculture in 1999, is the co-author of “Integrated Forest Gardening: The Complete Guide to Polycultures and Plant Guilds in Permaculture Systems” and can attest to the increase in interest in permaculture and food forests in recent years.

“There’s been a very large uptick in interest. People knew about it in the Northeast, Northwest and California, but in the last seven years, it’s picked up in the Southeast and Midwest, too,” says Weiseman.

He says the increase in interest comes at the same time as people’s interest in the quality of food dovetails with concerns about the environment. Increased access to information via the Internet and social media, he adds, is adding to that awareness.

Weiseman knows first-hand the benefits of a food forests. He claims to get 80 percent of the food he needs for his family, including his wife and daughter, from his yard that lies on a mere one-sixth of an acre in Carbondale, Ill. On it, he has 250 species of plants. During the winter, he grows some food indoors.

And, he adds, it’s not a lot of work, due largely to the perennial nature and design of food forests and permaculture.

“I spend about eight days a year (working) in my garden,” he says. “It’s not a lot of work because it’s all about fertility and diversity of plants.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.