Beacon Food Forest: Edible Public Forest Takes Root in Seattle

Aug 30, 2013

A public food forest is taking root in Seattle. Over the past year, volunteers have been clearing grass next to a city park and planting all manner of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, and vegetables for the Beacon Food Forest.

What's different here is that the eventual bounty will be open for anyone to forage. It's a social experiment. Can respect and sharing triumph over hunger and greed in the edible arboretum?

There's something so compelling about the idea of a public "food forest.” It attracts as many as a hundred volunteers at a time to scheduled work parties.

Gustavo Martinez wields a pickaxe to break sod. Like other volunteers, he's eager to see a favorite seedling mature.

"I like fig trees, because they're big and broad, and they make shade, and also because I love figs. I really can't wait to sit in the shade of a fig tree and read a book and eat some fig,” Martinez said.

It'll be a little while yet before Martinez can realize his dream. The Beacon Food Forest will be developed in phases across a seven acre, terraced hillside.

Groundbreaking took place less than a year ago in the ethnically-diverse Beacon Hill neighborhood, in view of Seattle's downtown skyline.

Project co-founder Jacqueline Cramer says the plan is to recreate in this urban environment the kind of diverse, productive forest that sustained ancestral civilizations. The food forest Cramer envisions has many layers, starting with a canopy of tall nut trees. Planted beside them are shorter fruit trees, now just saplings.

"We have pear trees in a pear guild, a variety of plums, apples. Then we are starting to put in an understory to emulate the forest instead of being an orchard of rows of trees,” Cramer said.

Cramer shows off blueberries, a gooseberry bush, currants, kale, and lettuces.

"The ground has strawberries as a ground cover. There were strawberries here. The school kids enjoyed them with us,” she said.

The city government in Seattle has chipped in more than $200,000 to cover expenses and keep the project moving forward. Cramer says what makes this food forest unique is that it's open to the public. Anyone can walk in and graze on whatever is ripe, such as the heirloom broccoli right now.

"They're getting a lot of water. They taste sweet,” said Cramer of the broccoli.

They do taste sweet—I tried some. And they are much nicer than store-bought broccoli, I have to say.

"The communal, open harvest piece is really uncommon. That is probably why we're getting a lot of attention. It ruffles people's feathers. We'll learn as we go; we don't know how it will work,” said Cramer.

Volunteers Peter Lang and Giovanni Dellino say they attended many meetings where the neighborhood discussed human nature and the likelihood for abuse.

"Sometimes with a garden, you plant some plants to let the bugs eat. So we might have to do that, plant some trees just for people to eat. And hide some others somewhere or something,” Lang said.

"We kind of hope for the best in people's nature and that there is respect, and that people will not necessarily abuse that. Somehow we hope for the abundance that when some people do sometimes, we'll be resilient and work through that,” Dellino said.

"When we, eventually in 50 years, have huge nut trees, there will be more nuts than anybody can eat, I think,” Lang said.

"There are a lot of us working here. There's a lot of people coming, and we're here to steward the land,” Dellino said.

Lang and Dellino say another reason for their confidence comes from the respect shown at existing community gardens, which are common around the Northwest. Theft and vandalism happens, but generally stay at a low level.