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Earth Notes: Food Forests

Yellow flowers and green and red tomatoes hang from a vine
Melissa Sevigny

What makes up a forest? Most people might say “trees,” but the answer could be “treats” as well. That’s the magic of “food forests,” which have begun to grow in popularity in Europe and the United States, including on the Colorado Plateau.

Food forests have roots in tropical and subtropical Indigenous cultures. They consist of complex multi-layered plantings, dominated by food-producing plants such as apricot trees or hazelnut bushes. They can also include medicinal plants and species that fix nitrogen or attract pollinators.

Food forests are often small, backyard- or community garden-sized affairs. In urban settings like Phoenix or Albuquerque, the shade provided by leafy plants can combat the brutal heat. The many different plant species attract diverse insects and birds, while the dense planting structure and rich soils sequester carbon.

Then of course, there’s the fresh fruit, nuts, and vegetables produced by these elaborate forests. Best of all they can be fed with little to no drinking water, by harvesting rainwater or repurposing grey water.

The benefits of food forests aren’t just ecological. Tending a forest gets people outside and builds community. Literally harvesting the fruits of your labor creates a unique connection to nature. Some Indigenous organizations, like the Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Institute, are using them to pass on traditional farming practices to future generations. Advocates hope that food forests will become a cultural staple across the U.S., so that ecosystems and communities everywhere can benefit from these vegetation powerhouses.

This Earth Note was written by Ellie Stevenson and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

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