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Starting a community food forest entails a lot of research, consideration, and coordination from planning to the day of planting. Beyond the day of planting, someone or a group will have to maintain and nurture the young plants to ensure successful establishment. After a few seasons, maintenance will become less over time. As production begins, harvesting becomes the new (but fun) part of maintenance!
What is a community forest garden?
A community forest garden, also known as a community food forest, is a piece of land with a forest-like layout of edible plants established by a group of people for sustainable future harvests.
Community food forests are typically created with the intent to provide the community with free food to harvest once it grows to maturity. This can take 5-10 years to establish.
The process of starting a forest garden for your community can happen in many different ways. This post is to give you some pointers on how others have started public community forest gardens and how we obtained the resources to start a food forest with the intent to provide for our community.
From these details and real-world examples, you will be able to gather serious enough insights on how you can go about assembling your own project. Work through this blog slowly and take it one step at a time to avoid getting overwhelmed.
Related post: How much does it cost to grow a food forest
Related post: 7 ways community gardens make your life more sustainable
Create a project proposal to prepare for a presentation
First, you’ll need to create the project proposal. The purpose of a community project is usually to solve a problem.
The goal of the proposal is to get as many people in your community interested in supporting the project or being active participants in some way.
What essential information is of interest to everyone in your community?
Here is what an outline could look like for your proposal.
- What is the problem that they will care about? In this case, examples could be; rising food prices and increasingly unaffordable living circumstances. It’s crucial that you tailor this to your audience! If the people of your community worry less about money and more about food quality or their children’s futures; there could be more suitable places to start. For more ideas: What are the benefits of edible forest gardens
- Focus on the solutions! What would everyone love to see and why? Of course, everyone would love to freely pick fresh food instead of lining up at the grocery store. Share all the direct benefits you can think of, including how money really does grow on trees!
- Have a clear statement of what success looks like. What is the end goal of the project? For example; in 10 years’ time the food forest could produce enough food for everyone to freely pick in-season fresh groceries as they please.
- Break down the plan and how meeting your goal could be approached. You could create a timeline of how the project goal can be assembled and what you might need from everyone during each stage. Include costs, tools, the time needed, and stages of maintenance. Include an image of the area you are proposing to use. How and why that area would provide more value to the community from the results of this project.
- Summarize and invite questions
When we presented our forest garden project to the land owner where we live, we included the showing of this three-minute video. We also have Martin Crawford’s book: Creating a Forest Garden.
This book was handy for the sponsor of our project to flip through and gain confidence in the potential outcome of our project.
In our case, we didn’t use a slide presentation to get the people we needed to be involved. In your case, it might be helpful! I found this sample presentation made available for free by the Hawae forest garden project. You can amend this template or create your own from scratch using your own photos, diagrams, and further details of your project proposal.
To show our project proposal, we took an overhead shot of the space we are suggesting to use. You can do this with a drone or via a screenshot from google maps. Open up the image in an editor such as Canva and make rough forest garden plans!
Contact your community to acquire a committee
Now that you have the materials prepared to present to people, you need to find the people!
If you already have a relationship with a few close neighbors it might be easier to form a core group for the project.
To find a core group and other participants; decide on a date and time for your presentation and inform people to show up to the important gathering:
- Using the Next Door app can be a useful and timely way to get in touch with more neighbors.
- If you live in a condo setting you could speak to your property manager about setting up a date and time to present your project to the community. You can host the event in a community building or your own space if needed.
- To further attract interested people to the presentation; post a notice on your community center, local grocery store, or library bulletin board. Maybe you have a community newsletter where you can place an ad about the project so people can contact you about it.
Essential things to include in the event invite: how much time the presentation will take, an incentive to show up, and the time and place it will occur. Perhaps an appealing picture to lure as many eyes as possible!
If on an extremely slim chance there are no interested neighbors where you live there are still other options! Reach out to other community groups of people who gather at churches or schools.
After you present the project to a community make sure you have a way to keep in touch and contact them again. You can collect emails, hand out a card with your contact information, or hand out a paper with more visionary details about the food forest garden.
Within a week you’ll be able to follow up for answers from people about their thoughts on the project and what kind of involvement they are able to commit to.
From here you can gather again with the most interested people and create a more solid plan.
Determine available resources and assign roles
Make a list of everything you are going to need to complete the project from start to finish. If you decided to create a timeline for your presentation you can build off of that to create a detailed list of items you’ll need and factors to consider.
You’ll need people, secured land space and licensing, tools, possibly fencing, tree saplings, seedlings, and seeds.
Once you know what you need, find out the best ways you can obtain all requirements and make a budget. This is a sample budget sheet from the Hawae community forest garden project. This is where you can divide responsibilities.
Explore options and choose a suitable location for land
I spoke to a few community forest garden organizers to see how they secured land for their projects. I’ll also talk about how we have land for our food forest project because any one of these options could be a viable option for you!
Private land license agreement
Pevensey & Westham Community Forest Garden is coordinated by Andy During, who was granted a license agreement by a water company that owns the land. When they found out about the land having no current value to the business operations, they approached this company to negotiate a license agreement and have been successful in setting up their community forest garden project.
Ensure any land licensing acquired doesn’t conflict with any of your rules or freedoms with creating or expanding the forest garden in the long term.
Whether you are part of a church or have a church in or near your community; this can be a very simple option.
St. Mary’s Community Food Forest was planted at the back of St. Mary’s Anglican Church in New Brunswick, NB Canada, and organized by Andrew who is part of the church. The project was of the church’s interest so the land was free, no legal formalizations necessary, and the volunteers were abundant! More than 36 people came together on planting day.
They even had volunteers from Permaculture Atlantic volunteer, a resource for anyone starting community forest garden projects in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. If you live elsewhere, you could do some research to find local organizations for extra helping hands to get the job done.
Churches often pay for the expensive upkeep of a pristine lawn. All it takes to know that is to look! Why not offer to lead a project such as this for a nearby church with the incentive that their financial maintenance costs and fuel consumption for mowing would be reduced? With the work and volunteers of church members or nearby residing communities; the people would be interested to provide free maintenance to the church.
At St. Mary’s Community Food Forest; anyone is welcome to harvest food when it’s in season. The garden is not restricted to any certain group of people.
School-based gardens versus school gardens
A school garden would be managed by people associated with the school.
A school-based garden would be managed by anyone in the nearby residing community, students, staff, or parents. It would also be open to everyone and be more appropriate for larger food forest projects.
School-based gardens could be approached the same way as the church situation. Another simplified option, however, there could be more factors that need to be considered regarding public accessibility of school grounds. If you want to go this route; read this short post from Kids Gardening.
City or Town Hall for public spaces
Contact the local municipality and ask permission from the land department. Look through the website for your area to find the appropriate department contact.
Ask about what they require from you so they can arrange appropriate public land use. Knowing this is important so you can make it happen with success!
Once you complete and prepare for their requirements; arrange a date and time to propose the project. The community-interest proposal was just the practice round! Include details of the project, long-term outcomes, interests of the public, and what you require for success in regard to land location and conditions.
To preserve sustainability benefits, it should be no further than a bike ride or walking distance away from the contributing community.
To ensure the food forest doesn’t conflict with the future development plans of the area, ask for the development plans.
If there are any larger spaces available you’d be able to have plenty of room for ongoing expansion.
If there are only small spaces available, consider coordinating multiple smaller projects!
For example; Nature Wise Community Forest Garden got their land by creating a Community Interest Company (CIC). The governing bodies of their area have secured public land for their initiative indefinitely for the benefit of the community and environment.
They invested in public land for the security of the food forest in the long term. In their story, they shared how private land ownership was transferred to someone new and this event ended their successful 10-year old forest. Since 2019 they have started anew on public land.
Homeowners association for managed communities
Contacting a Home-Owners Association would only get you as far as communal support for your project. Ultimately you’ll need to contact your local council which is in charge of coordinating development plans with the use of land in the area.
Family-owned land and private funding
While private land may not be available for public freedom to leisurely pick; privately owned food forests are still beneficial to neighbors. Choosing to grow a food forest on your own land or the land of your family is still an improvement for the community as a whole.
Whether you decide to sell your fresh fruit or host free harvesting dates (or both!); you’d be providing sustainable opportunities for your neighbors to partake. Either way, it turns more useless lawns into productively beneficial landscapes.
This is how we have been able to build a forest garden. Once mature, we hope to offer fresh food for sale to neighbors and provide other communities with plant propagations to grow their own for free.
Since the owner provided the land and funding, we did all the work; selling food will help us compensate for the cost of the project, its ongoing maintenance, and the effort of harvesting for distribution.
Ways you can get funding for your Project
Ensure you’ve created a detailed budget that accounts for everything you’ll require, including means of protection for the young food forest!
A combination of local or country-wide grants can provide large enough sums to fund the setup of a non-profit public project.
Here is a large list of grants for USA, Canada, and UK.
You can google for specific community garden grants, food security grants, or tree planting grants.
Grants for Canadians
Tree Canada has a grant for edible trees for Canadians.
Toronto website has a grant for stewardship within Toronto.
Forests Ontario has a grant for larger projects of at least 500 trees. (Ontario, Canada)
Can Plant has a library of grants to look through for community planting. (Canada)
Little Green Thumbs provides grants for gardens in Canada.
Grants for USA
Growing Spaces is a USA company offering grants to communities and non-profits.
Intrumentl has resources for finding grants all around the USA.
Food Forest Abundance MN may have new grants in the future that could be applied to.
Grants for UK
An example; UK community forest garden organiser who I spoke with received a grant from their local council to get started and are now self-funding.
Grants around the world
This blog post outlines a few options for grants around the world that may work: USA, Canada, and international
We Forest has provided grants for Brazil, France, Ethiopia, Senegal, Malawi, Tanzania, India, and Zambia.
There are several corporations who provide grants to non-profit community based initiatives. This website has a large list of options.
Nature Wise Community Food Forest was primarily funded by their Eco Shop business. They also received a grant from community funding.
Community and crowdfunding
You can do your own fundraising events, however, this could be time-consuming. Your community may be able to donate or share tools, and skills, and provide some plant donations.
Define the rules and write them in a document
Making rules for the garden space is a great community activity with your core group and perhaps more who might be interested in helping to create the rules. The people who help create the rules are more likely to uphold them.
Community forest gardening rules might not be as long as regular community gardens with individual plots.
An example of an important rule you may want to include could be; not to prune plants for which you don’t have the knowledge of how.
Determine what’s best to grow in your region
For planting options and information use Plants For a Future database. For done-for-you research select the appropriate post below:
- Food forest plant list hardy to zone 4/5 (for each layer) (coming soon)
- Food forest plant list hardy to zone 6 (for each layer) (coming soon)
Prepare the site for planting day
Eliminate grass and weeds. Determine an appropriate ground cover for your area that won’t compete with your trees or other forest garden plants.
You’ll want a ground cover that grows well in your climate, can smother weeds, tolerate moderate walking traffic, is low-growing, fixes nitrogen, is edible, and is pollinator friendly!
A popular choice is clover because it’s easy to surface sow and has all of the above qualities. There are many clovers to choose from.
Densley sow the ground cover and allow it some time to establish before planting day.
Most clovers are short-lived for only a few years. After planting day you can begin to do research on more suitable long-term ground covers to diversify your space.
You could diversify your ground cover over time with things like strawberries, thyme, wild garlic, ramps, sorrel, or purslane. These are some of the most common ground covers used so you might want to search for options that are a bit different! Do a filtered search on Plants For a Future database for all the possibilities. You can do a search by height; plants between 0-50cm to search for ground covers.
You’ll also want to put up a deer fence if necessary for your area. Otherwise, you’ll likely need other means of tree protection for the time they are young. If you use chicken wire to protect young trees, consider donating this material to new forest garden projects when you no longer need it.
Coordination for a smooth planting day
Before distributing trees, going out, and planting; provide an explanation on how to properly plant the trees for the type of soil conditions you have. Most nurseries will have instructions to follow.
Start with having everyone place their tree stakes in the ground with measured ideal distances for the specific trees ordered.
Provide a viewable map of plant placements and start from one end, measure the distance for the trees, and work your way through the whole design.
Get the trees in first, then work everything else around them at appropriate distancing.
Mulch soil around trees to retain water.
Maintain the garden and community between participants
The forest garden won’t take a mad amount of maintenance in general. Maintenance tasks will decline with maturity.
- The most you’ll have to do in the first 3 years is weeding to ensure your desired plants mature and take up space.
- Most importantly, don’t let unwanted annual plants go to seed in the community forest garden. Something it can be tricky when they seed as very small plants!
- Ensure all fruit trees get adequate watering during seasonal droughts.
- Ensure mulch is not blocking airflow to the base of the tree trunks
- ensure trees are loosely tied to their stakes with plenty of room to grow
- Keep the forest garden free of plastic and other garbage
- Do not be alarmed about pests or use any chemicals. By not taking action, you will allow your forest garden to take its own action with time. This is the whole idea of a self-sufficient food system is taking less work upon ourselves; let nature restore balance.
- Do not remove fallen leaves, consider replenishing mulch after a couple of years for a boost to the soil
- Avoid unnecessary pruning after plantation
A large reason to create a community forest garden is to create and maintain a community of people!
Maintenance and harvesting are good reasons to create communal events to keep the community together. But what else can we do to get together?
Creating a contact “tree” on a shared document or paper can be useful for everyone. You can also post a waterproof bulletin board at the forest garden so contact information is accessible to any visitor.
On that board, you can also post seasonal and upcoming forest garden events to get everyone together!
Seasonal community forest garden event ideas:
- Create a weekly day and time for harvest, hangout, and weeding. Typically could be an hour-long meetup time slot.
- Springtime seed swap
- Forest garden annual “birthday” or “plantday” celebration
- Observation & educational workshops about plants in the garden
- Schedule community maintenance work days; provide a maintenance checklist to everyone involved as described above with your own relevant additions
- Hands-on pruning & clean up education events
- Apple pressing day
- Forest garden tours
- Communal harvesting days; harvesting for food, or compost material!
STEP 11: the most important!
Lastly, document your whole process
Starting a community forest garden can be a big undertaking. The more forest gardens we can get planted, the better our future will look!
By documenting your community forest garden journey; you will help make it easier for others to pursue their own forest garden projects.
From start to finish keep an organized folder on your google docs or computer about the processes you went through for the project.
Record the details about how you successfully got your land, what kind of land, and what formalities you had to go through to obtain it. Same with funding!
Record notes about how planting day went, perhaps ask your community how they felt about the whole process too! Gather these notes and reflect on what you might do differently next time. Share these insights publicly on a website or social media page. Email bloggers like me (zone5food[email protected]) to post about your project to reach more eyes!
This article was originally published on foodforestliving.com. If it is now published on any other site, it was done without permission from the copyright owner.
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