Jenny Pell and her son Sacha. (Photo: Michael Suzerris)
Plans are underway to establish a seven-acre food forest in the heart of Seattle. The forest will feature a variety of food-bearing trees, shrubs, and vines, and be free and open to the public. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with permaculture expert Jenny Pell about how efforts like this one can change the landscape and culture of American cities.
GELLERMAN: And today, city dwellers in Seattle are likewise spreading the word, and preparing to plant seeds and seedlings to create an urban food forest. In the Beacon Hill neighborhood, overlooking the Seattle skyline, Jenny Pell is helping residents of the community convert a seven-acre plot of city grass into a forest Johnny Appleseed would eat up, and if things work out, so will a lot of locals. Jenny Pell is a permaculturalist, specializing in creating sustainable community landscapes, and designer of the Beacon Hill Food Forest. Welcome to Living on Earth!
PELL: Thanks, great to be here!
GELLERMAN: So, what's a food forest?
PELL: Well, a food forest is a system that we designed to mimic a natural forest ecosystem. So, we’re trying to fill in those same elements of a natural forest with things that are edible, useful… we’re looking at big overstory canopy trees, smaller trees that fit into that going down into sort of a shrub later, down to sort of a herbaceous layer and ground cover and all the way down into the rizosphere and into the root zone.
GELLERMAN: So, things like mushrooms, vines, herbs, berries, nuts, that kind of thing?
PELL: Absolutely, yes. In this project, in this food forest, when we met with all the different people from the community, what they wanted actually was fruits and berries and big nut trees, that was their biggest request. So, we’re looking at paths with berry bushes on both sides, and we’re going to have mixed fruit orchards, and big nut orchards.
And one of the nut orchards that I’m designing has a very specific Asian tilt to it. So, it’s going to have big overstory sweet chestnuts, and the understory will have persimmons and mulberries and Chinese haws, and then the, going down into the lower zone will be where the familiar herbs and lower plants from the Asian palate.
GELLERMAN: How do you design, how do you mimic a forest without turning it into something that Disney would like?
PELL: (Laughs.) Well, I don’t know that it would be bad if Disney liked it!
GELLERMAN: Can you design something that’s natural?
PELL: You can. We’re really good at picking things that are going to play well together. So, we’re going to see that the overstory canopy trees are going to let in a little bit of shade which is going to allow this next thing to grow, and on the edge you’re going to have a whole lot of sun, but the larger trees are going to shade from aggressive winds and things like that. And when we step back, those things are going to grow in their own relationships, nature kind of takes over at that point.
GELLERMAN: This seems as much philosophy as farming.
PELL: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Permaculture, it’s an ethical framework with a lot of principles that give us a design methodology, really trying to get to sustainable, resilient human communities. And also embed the skills from the community - invite people back into that process, getting people back into learning skills.
GELLERMAN: In terms of the one in Seattle, what kinds of skills will these people need and who are they that are going to build this?
PELL: This area is really fascinating. It’s one of the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the United States. And so we have folks who are Latino, we have folks from many different Asian countries, we have African Americans, we have recent African immigrants, really, really different folks living there.
GELLERMAN: Can anybody walk in and feast on your forest?
PELL: For the private garden plots, those are really people’s individual vegetable gardens, and, no, we don't want anybody helping themselves to those. But for the rest of the garden, the invitation, again, it’s going to be - this garden takes work, and you are certainly welcome to help yourself to some.
And if you want to get involved in bigger harvests, come on harvesting and help out! That will be pruning the trees, mulching the trees, that will be propagating from some of the plants, so we’re hoping that some of the people will come in and for example help cut the raspberries back and then take home five or ten raspberry plants to put in their own backyard. People have been signing up by the score with comments like, put me to work - I can’t wait to get my hands dirty, let me know when I can show up with my wheelbarrow.
GELLERMAN: Now as I understand it, this is going to be the largest food forest of its kind.
PELL: That’s not entirely true. It will be the largest food forest on public lands in the United States. So, food forests are not new, there are really large food forests in other parts of the world, there is one I’ve seen a video on that's in the Middle East that’s a 2,000 years old food forest with overstory date palms and bananas and persimmons and citrus and it’s pretty amazing.
But it’s been continually managed over time for 2,000 years. So, I think what’s captured people’s imaginations so much about this project worldwide is that it’s so solutions oriented. And it’s so accessible.
GELLERMAN: So, Jenny Pell, fast forward 2,000 years, you come back to the Beacon Food Forest, is it still going to be there?
PELL: Jump forward 2,000 years? Let's jump forward 20 years first. What I’d like to see there is that this food forest - I’m going to call it one of the living genetic banks of really valuable material in the Pacific Northwest. And what I’d like to see that is kind of a seed nursery or a plant nursery that’s going to propagate and spread well beyond the borders of that food forest - that I can imagine just sort of blossoming all across the Seattle landscape.
Also, in a lot of ways this park is intended to serve the local neighborhood, but we already recognize that it’s going to become a destination for people. Other people are going to come and want to come look at it and maybe replicate it, so what pieces of this are going to inspire people to come and take it and make it their own?
GELLERMAN: Jenny, you’ve got a forest your back yard?
PELL: I’m renting a house right now, but what I do have is a young food, kind of mixed annuals and perennials, garden in the parking strip. Seattle, a couple years ago, had the year of urban agriculture. And they gave up all the parking strips - if you want to grow food in them, you can grow anything you want. So, I put in berries and fruit trees and you name it, I’ve got it growing.
GELLERMAN: I’m coming to your house! Sounds great!
PELL: Yeah, we grow a lot of food. We grow food year round in my garden here in Seattle.
GELLERMAN: Permaculture expert Jenny Pell is designer of the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, Washington. Well Jenny Pell, thank you so much.
PELL: It's been a pleasure!
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