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Planting a community food forest

Food forest in Luverne, MN planted along a street. Plants with mulch piles protected with chicken wire.
Food forest in Luverne, MN

A food forest, also called a forest garden, contains a variety of food plants with the goal of replicating the ecosystems and growing patterns found in nature. Food forests are food production systems that use perennial plants combined with annuals in a multi-story cropping design.

Communally established and managed food forests are a sustainable way to address the increased need for urban food security, resilient communities and productive public land. They can help people learn about and care for plants that produce edible fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Establishing a food forest

Food forests can be established on public or private lands. For community food forests to be successful, the key is collaboration and partnerships with committed community members who will manage the plantings once established.

Volunteer groups, youth and civic organizations, or nature and gardening clubs may be vital to establishing and managing a food forest in local communities. The people involved need to create policies on care, management and harvesting.

In 2018, a property owner in Luverne, Minn., established a community food forest with the assistance of Project Food Forest. This food forest was planted and maintained by many community volunteers and garden groups. University of Minnesota Extension was a partner in this project.

While the food it grows is central to its purpose, the most important yield from a community food forest is education. The forest can serve as a tool for learning about ecology, sustainable food production, food literacy and civic engagement in community initiatives. It can also provide an introduction to cultural practices such as foraging and gathering non-timber forest products.

What to grow in a food forest?

A food forest is typically comprised of three to seven layers, which allow a small space to be used at multiple levels.

  • The uppermost layer, or overstory, contains larger food-producing trees.
  • The understory contains small trees and shrubs.
  • The floor is home to herbaceous plants, root crops, ground cover crops and vines.

A three-layer system might include apple and cherry trees, hazelnut and Juneberry shrubs, and herbaceous plants such as asparagus and rhubarb.

Perennial trees and shrubs can be planted in both food forests and private backyards to provide food for local families.

Perennial plants suggested for Minnesota food forests:

Author: Gary Wyatt, Extension agroforestry educator

Reviewed by Catherine Bukowski, Kim Rockman, Veronica Shukla, Hannah Hemmelgarn and Kate MacFarland.

Reviewed in 2021

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