Monday, August 22, 2011

Turning NYC yards into food forests

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.

Post your comments, suggestions, and improvements!  


  1. Nice post Dan. There are indeed lots of ways to incorporate food into the city. Back, side and especially front-yards are crucial in raising awareness and understanding of the issue. Larger common spaces such as coop and apartment complex landscapes, church and community center grounds are also integral. Not to be looked over are the smaller interstitial spaces such as tree pits and street medians. Rooftops are yet another, much more expensive, option. There is great interest within the city to have more access to community gardens, especially since so many, like myself, do not have a yard or any other small piece of land.
    I have some very developed ideas on how to incorporate edibles into the community fabric but it is extremely hard to find funding and/or property owners willing to switch their mindset.
    I recently endeavored to start my own landscape design, build and maintenance company in Queens focusing on edible, remediative and other performative landscapes in Queens but somewhat dropped the idea when I was hired full time to install greenroofs with a firm in Brooklyn. I am now revisiting and revising my business plan but my major stumbling block is the business side of things. I am encouraged by the interest that is being generated by major news sources such as NYT and engaged individuals such as yourself.

  2. Come with me to this Meetup for The New York Permaculture Meetup Group!

    For this meet up we will get together to go on a little nature walk in Central Park and talk about potentially doing a Permaculture Design for NYC. It would be great design practice and if it was done right it could potentially be something that we could bring to local representatives.

  3. I like the green aspects of growing your garden.