environment food

The Case for Your Backyard Food Forest

It is projected that the current trend of urbanization is to continue and according to the UN we’ll have 68% of all people living in urban environment by 2050 compared to the current 55%[14]. One of the challenges this brings to overpopulated cities is a threat to green spaces and food distribution. As more and more apartment complexes pop up around a city such as Austin, TX they are bound to encroach on parks and green belts within the city but also on the wilderness around the suburbs. Trees, shrubs and riverside spaces help clean the air around us, provide habitat for urban fauna and have plenty of mental health benefits.

This is why in a city like Austin, the city[1] itself plants trees throughout to create an urban forest and places like Jester King Brewery[2] purchase swaths of land in the suburbs to preserve as natural spaces. This is very important all over the world to preserve spaces that have tremendous benefits for us but also preserve biodiversity. I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire[3] and Chris Thomas’s Inheritors of The Earth[4] and one of the points that both authors make is that preserving and creating places with high biodiversity is critical to the future of humanity. Pollan gives the example of Johnny Appleseed[3] who spread thousands of apple seeds all over Ohio’s wilderness and that allowed different varieties to hybridize and acclimate to the local climate. This eventually helped create the vast diversity[5] of apple varieties in in the American North East.

This brings us to the connection between urban forests and food. As cities grow, it becomes harder to grow food on the outskirts of the city and therefore much of food is grown far from the cities in other states or countries and shipped in. This is a massive carbon footprint, especially for perishable goods such as fruits and vegetables which have to be shipped in air conditioned containers[6] and then ripened in special rooms. Although there have been great advances in urban indoor farming, success is limited to annuals such as spinach and lettuce and might not be possible for more complicated produce such as peaches or bananas[7]. They’re also good for Cannabis[3], but you can’t exactly eat that for dinner.

Food Forests[8] are a solution to not only increase urban forest biodiversity, but also provide fresh produce of herbs and fruits for all denizens. Also known as Forest Farming and Forest Gardening, the concept is simple and ancient. Think of agriculture in 3D instead of 2D and grow your cereals and other smaller crops under the shade of canopy trees and understory trees, all of which producer something edible. It has been practiced in the tropics of India, Mexico and Indonesia for millenia[9]. The best part is that just like a forest, once established these can be low maintenance and productive for years.

I am part of an ambitious project in Austin called The Festival Beach Food Forest[10] that aims to create a Food Forest in an arid climate, outside of the tropics. We have seen much success so far with a variety of plants that include both natives and immigrants. This serves as a template for anyone living in a similar climate to create a tiered Forest Garden in their backyard. For example, in the center of our Food Forest we have massive Live Oak and Pecan trees that provide shade for smaller fruit trees such as Red Mulberries, Kumquats and Apples. These then provide shade for Goji berries, Strawberries, Turks Cap, Agarita berries, Mexican Oregano and Pequin Peppers. Beneath these, grow Red Clovers. Each of these plants provides something edible for us and other city animals. As explained by David Attenborough[11], our cities are home to an array of birds and animals who will find refuge in our Food Forests too.

So go forth and grow some food in your backyard instead of ornamentals like Bradford Pears[12] that can destroy the ecosystems and landscapes around you because we don’t eat their fruit. Also, while you’re at it, get your soil tested[13].

Panorama of The Festival Beach Food Forest


  1. https://data.austintexas.gov/stories/s/2017-State-of-Our-Environment-Report-Urban-Forest-/mquz-kyrj/
  2. https://jesterkingbrewery.com/blog/jester-king-purchases-107-acres-event-center-stanleys-farmhouse-pizza
  3. http://www.pbs.org/thebotanyofdesire/lesson-plans.php
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/29/books/review/inheritors-of-the-earth-chris-thomas.html
  5. https://gastropod.com/bite-forgotten-fruits-future-food/
  6. https://foodandcity.org/how-the-bodega-gets-the-banana/
  7. https://foodandcity.org/urban-agriculture-can-feed-cities/
  8. https://permaculturenews.org/2011/10/21/why-food-forests/
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_gardening
  10. https://festivalbeach.org/about/
  11. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0861m8b
  12. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/how-we-turned-the-bradford-pear-into-a-monster/2018/09/14/f29c8f68-91b6-11e8-b769-e3fff17f0689_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.41f36c55c139
  13. https://deciphercity.org/2018/07/15/urban-farming-and-soil-testing/
  14. https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html

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