Why we should plant food forests instead of gardens

In Tel Aviv, locals are turning edible plants into self-regulating ecological forests that require less upkeep than gardens.

Ilana Strauss
June 14, 2017, 9:33 a.m.

A food forest is exactly what it sounds like: a forest full of plants that grow food like eggplants, lemons, pomegranates and strawberries.

At least, those were the fruits growing in a food forest I visited in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, where community organizer Nimrod Hochberg is helping to turn part of a city park into a place to grow food.

“Parks need a lot of maintenance,” Hochberg pointed out as we walked around eggplant shrubs and lemon trees. “Food forests are sustainable.”

Unlike gardens, food forests don’t require as much upkeep. They use permaculture principles to grow vegetables and fruits that don’t need to be replanted season after season. The idea is to turn a bunch of edible plants into a self-regulating forest.

You can learn more about the Kidron Food Forest in the video above:

Reducing agricultural problems

Organizers of the Tel Aviv food forest want to show that growing human food can be ecological and, in contrast to traditional agriculture, can support more than just human beings. (Photo: Ilana Strauss)

These forests are springing up around the world, from the United States to England to Japan to New Zealand. They can provide healthy, fresh food for the community, as well as diminish the many problems that come with industrial agriculture. Today, almost half of the land on the planet is devoted to agriculture.

“We are demolishing ecological systems around the world mainly to create food,” Hochberg told me. “We’re replacing them with systems that only support humans beings, and only for one purpose: food.”

In addition to annihilating plant and animal communities, turning natural areas into farmland takes its toll on humans, who depend on nature.

“We need natural systems to support life on Earth,” Hochberg said as we sat under a tent, finishing up a children’s birthday party potluck in the forest. Hochberg wanted to show “how it's possible to create food and be ecological.”

An ancient idea revived

Every Friday, people in Tel Aviv come together and plant or work in the food forest. (Photo: Ilana Strauss)

Food forests might be new to the West, but they’re an ancient idea. Hochberg says that there have been food forests in Asia for millennia. There’s even a 2,000-year-old food forest in Morocco.

When Hochberg told me that, I remembered a conversation I had with an indigenous Waorani in the Amazon rainforest. The Waorani apparently have a story that their ancestors planted the jungle. For them, gathering is really gardening.

Hochberg pointed out that while food forests (especially on rooftops) are a great opportunity for urban farming, their real potential lies outside of cities.

“The countryside is where you can really do it on a large scale,” he said. Hochberg also works in Israeli countryside on the Kidron Food Forest, a 20,000-square-meter permaculture community. But he keeps working on the food forest in the city for one main reason: people.

“Every Friday people come here, get together and plant,” Hochberg told me. “We are creating a community. And people need it.”