For most New Yorkers, food is something grown far away and trucked to the neighborhood supermarket. Occasionally, someone has a garden in their backyard. Recently, as local produce has become popular, neighborhood green markets offer the harvest of farms within the NYC metropolitan area. With NYC food and agriculture policy rapidly changing, we’re sure to see many innovations.
Rooftop farms are newly glamorous but let’s not forget the 52,236 acres of private yards in NYC. [ “Regionalizing the Food System for Public Health and Sustainability,” Columbia U. Urban Design Lab, Nov. 2010, p. 17] Now, they’re mostly planted in lawns and ornamental species. What if we started seeing the food-producing potential of our lawns and yards?
A growing number of landscape designers are planting food forests, which combine fruit and nut bearing trees with lower layers of bushes, vines and groundcovers – all of which have edible yields. Food forestry is a central theme within permaculture, an ecological design movement recently featured in the New York Times.
How might we start food forests in NYC yards? Here’s a few starting points for collaboration between landscape designers, permaculturists, fans of locally grown food, and entrepreneurs.
- Inventory the fruit and nut bearing trees and understory that can make up food forests in NYC.
- Compile a wiki with best practices about their planting, care and harvest.
- Put together sets of marketing materials about food forest options for NYC backyards.
- Create options of various sizes and species customized for space, yard condition, client type, etc. - like a take-out menu.
Who makes it happen?
Anyone who has knows how to apply food forest design principles, and plant trees and shrubs – and who recognizes a new business opportunity. Who’s available to help out? The entrepreneur could put out a call for permaculture design course graduates who want to learn practical skills.
Where does it start?
Go to church groups, environmental justice communities, nonprofits in low income communities, propose a variety of options. Permaculture has a long tradition of permablitzes - volunteer efforts much like barn raisings. Start out by offering permablitzes as long as the recipient raises funds to pay for plants and materials.
Use projects like those to train a pool of skilled participants. Entrepreneurs can take material from the wiki - or the existing books and articles that certainly already exist in the gardening literature - and turn them into open source marketing materials. That sounds idealistic, but only the most enterprising and skilled individuals will actually turn this into a business, so they can earn social capital by adding to the available forest gardening information free to the public - and promote their own services. They could start by promoting backyard food forest makeovers in their own neighborhood, starting with free gigs to raise awareness, leading hopefully to paid gigs.
Raising awareness of urban agriculture benefits
Even where there are active community gardens or community supported agriculture (CSA) group buying services, lots of New Yorkers don’t see the context that makes more urban agriculture not just desirable, but a necessary part of our future. So hosting film screenings on these topics in your neighborhood is a good way of building awareness, and finding out who has some yard they want to turn into a garden. The key is probably making personal connections with leaders of neighborhood civic groups and explaining how they could get their own backyard garden or plant the first food forest in their neighborhood.
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