Seattle’s Beacon Forest is the health nut’s equivalent of the chocolate waterfall room in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: Everything from the forest’s canopies to its roots is edible, fresh, and free. The food forest, sitting two miles from the city center, boasts seven acres of urban garden oasis, and the project is every bit as much of a social experiment as an agricultural one.
Forest gardening is nothing new; the practice dates back to prehistoric times, in the foothills of monsoon regions and in tropical rain forests. Forest gardens are still common in tropical regions, but it wasn’t until the early 1960s that Brit Robert Hart pioneered the practice for temperate climates. Hart cultivated a 500 square meter orchard on his farm at Wenlock Edge in Shropshire, England into a model forest garden. The British horticulturist mapped out a seven-part blueprint for his garden, and envisioned his model in more urban environments, writing:
“Obviously, few of us are in a position to restore the forests. But tens of millions of us have gardens, or access to open spaces such as industrial wastelands, where trees can be planted…and if full advantage can be taken of the potentialities that are available even in heavily built up areas, new 'city forests' can arise.”
More than 40 years later, Seattle adapted Hart’s model from top (a canopy of large fruit and nut trees) to bottom (a vertical layer of climbing plants and vines). Beacon Forest draws from the concept of permaculture: an agricultural school of thought that the forest will be both self-sustaining and perennial. The project, first drawn up in 2009 as the Jefferson Park Food Forest, earned $100 thousand from the Department of Neighborhoods in 2011 before the forest’s groundbreaking was greenlighted in 2012.
Phase one of the project keeps the experimental forest at 1.5 acres, but with Seattle Public Utilities sitting on 5.5 more, the farm may blossom to its full 7 acres. Right now, it’s the U.S.’s largest food forest on public land, though there are other like-minded projects at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt, Colo. and in Northampton, Mass.
With free fruits and veggies abounding for free picking, developers don’t have an answer for foragers who get a little too eager. But Glenn Herlihy, a Beacon Forest committee member, told NPR the plan is to produce an abundance of fruits so there’s enough to go around, and plant “thieves’ gardens” with a few extra seeds.
Beacon Food Forest grows everything from garden-variety apples and berries to more exotic crops like pineapples and guava—reflecting the neighborhood’s diversity. Organizers looked to the community for input: The locale’s Asian community offered the idea of Asian pears and honeyberries, and European members suggested planting medlar trees.
Eventually, garden plots in the forest will be leased out to local gardeners at ten bucks a year, and organizers plan to offer classes on basic gardening skills for the price of a few hours of volunteer work. But the idea of free, fresh food is something everyone can still get behind: even late night pundit Craig Ferguson riffed on the idea in a monologue back in March of 2012. “In downtown L.A., they are talking about building a forest like this one in Seattle," he said. "But instead of looking for berries, it’s kind of like a petting zoo: you get to hand feed Kardashians.”