Feeding ourselves – food forests and guerrilla gardening

There are all kinds of gardens, and all kinds of deserts. Including ‘food deserts’ – places where it is so difficult or expensive for people to buy fresh food that they are forced to eat fast food or processed foods that are linked to diseases such as diabetes.

But as ‘guerrilla gardener’ Ron Finley says in a marvellous 2013 TED Talk, the answer lies in the problem. And in many ways, it is an answer that links us with our early ancestors and how they used to feed their communities.

Finley began converting the small strip of grass by the road in front of his house into an edible garden that anyone could harvest. At first, although he was required to maintain the grassy strip, Los Angeles didn’t like his approach. The city tried to force him to remove his garden; he refused; it turned into a cause celebre, and he won.

He was part of a group known as Los Angeles Green Grounds, founded in 2010 by retired botanist and gardener Florence Nishida, whose retirement project was to set up gardening classes in the city.

If you Google the term ‘guerrilla gardening’, you will find examples from all over the place of people turning neglected or abandoned land into mini-gardens. Slowly the idea that gardens could become a public good has caught on. Several years ago, in its quest to end food insecurity for residents, the city of Atlanta purchased a seven-acre ‘food forest’ in the city’s southeast that is expected to be the largest in the country.

The city’s goal was to make fresh food available to people living in areas considered urban food deserts, like the Lakewood-Browns Mill community in southeast Atlanta where the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill is located. There is both a community garden, full of corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers, and an orchard with apples, pears, pomegranates, hazelnuts, and other trees. Public education and volunteer involvement is part of the ethic.

The Bloomington Community Orchard, which grew from an idea presented in a 2009 thesis that caught the community’s imagination, makes the principles explicit. Everyone should have access to food; local food is a key element of a sustainable future; and community is built through sharing space, food, and resources. “What started as just a seedling of inspiration, quickly became fertilized by both local and global need, and soon became one of the most fruitful volunteer-driven sustainability initiatives of its kind,” says its website.

Similarly, Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest grew out of a class project and has thrived with volunteer participation. The idea has caught on in Canada, too.

But the sustainable community food forest is not actually a new concept. Geoff Lawton, who is now busy greening the desert in Jordan, accidentally wandered into a 65-acre ancient version in Inraren in Morocco in 1975. The community garden was managed without industrial irrigation, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or mechanization. Rather than focusing on growing just one crop, Lawton explains, ‘farmers focus on the yield of the overall system’ in order to give families a rich, diverse, year-round food supply. Everyone contributes, and everyone benefits.

Lawton is in many ways the father of today’s community food forests. Jacqueline Cramer, who helped found the Beacon Food Forest, credits Lawton’s work in Australia and in the Jordanian desert for popularizing the concept. ‘What Geoff did was take this fantastical, abstract concept and transform it into an achievable reality,” she says. Showing his documentary Greening the Desert to city planners made “installing an edible forest ecosystem here seem like a piece of cake”, she told Atlas Obscura.

And there has been a sea change in how historians look at food forests. Now they are being recognized, not as oddities, but the way agriculture used to be done before people began exhausting the land by growing the same crop in tidy rows on the same ground, over and over again. The future of agriculture, Lawton and others argue, is to integrate forest gardening techniques – like planting nut trees between rows of corn so as to provide shade and groundcover, lessen the need for irrigation and pesticides, provide habitat for birds and insects, and produce additional income streams.

A food forest ‘flips our agricultural model on its head”, says Mike McCord of Trees Atlanta. “Unlike with commercial farming, we’re growing food on multiple layers. A forest has canopy trees, small trees, bushes, ground covers, vines, fungus, things going on in the root zone. The idea is to mimic our natural forests and grow productive things on all seven layers.”

In other words, community food forests are helping us return to how we used to feed ourselves sustainably in the past, and helping restore a model of community working together to feed one another. Who really needs a lawn when you can grow a food store, and help children learn that food comes from the land and not the produce section at the local supermarket?


Ron Finley – A guerrilla gardener in South Central LA

The Moroccan Forest that Inspired an Agricultural Revolution

How Urban Forests can Provide Fresh Local Food

Why cities are planting more food forests

Geoff Lawton

‘It’s like a place of healing’: the growth of America’s food forests. Guardian, May 8, 2021

These cities turned parks into orchards where anyone can pick for free. Washington Post, Oct. 10, 2022