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Planting a food forest to invest in the future

Updated: Apr 3, 2021

Written by Michael Chen, April 1, 2021

During the stay-at-home restrictions in August 2020, a group of young professionals in South Markham joined together to solve two main problems: rising food costs and social isolation due to COVID-19. They met over Zoom and discussed the idea of setting up a community garden in their neighbourhood to solve these problems. As a founding member, I encouraged our group to seek unconventional solutions to solve our climate and community concerns. During the second meeting, I shared a CBC article about the success of existing Canadian food forests. Over the next few months, the team members wrote a proposal detailing the many benefits that a food forest could bring. Our team re-imagined how our public parks could look like with a food forest.

A food forest, also known as an edible forest garden, has 7 layers of plants that mimic a natural forest. Photo from Wiki Commons. Retrieved Mar. 15, 2021.

A food forest is a naturally occurring and self-sustaining ecosystem where the native plants all support each other. There are seven layers, including a canopy (large fruit and nut trees), a low tree layer (smaller fruit and nut trees), a shrub layer (berries and currants), an herb layer (e.g. lavender and rosemary), vertical layer (e.g. grapevines), root vegetables, and groundcover (e.g. mushrooms and strawberries). In theory, the seven layers of trees and plants would support each other’s growth. (In reality, this can happen after humans successfully establish and care for it in the initial 2-3 years.) Across Canada, there are successful food forests from Nelson, British Columbia, to Sackville, New Brunswick.

Food forests can bring benefits to the environment and humans. They are also known as “edible food gardens” but they serve much more providing food. The environmental benefits include carbon sequestration, increased habitat for wildlife, increased biodiversity and soil erosion prevention. Transporting food takes a long time. By growing food locally, the carbon emissions that would have been emitted from air and ground are reduced. The sociocultural benefits include opportunities for intergenerational gardening, community building and accessing culturally-specific food. The educational benefits include learning about organic growing methods and sharing gardening knowledge. Food forests present residents with opportunities to connect back to nature (resulting in lower stress levels), access healthier food, and improved physical health. These are a sample of the numerous benefits that food forests can bring to communities across Canada and globally.

Cherry trees are planted alongside Richmond Green Sports Centre & Park. While a food forest sounds easy to implement, fruit trees require maintenance and pruning in their first years before becoming self-sufficient in the ecosystem. Photo/Michael Chen.

Since January 2021, my group, called the South Markham Food Security Initiative, has been working with our neighbourhood groups, Markham councillors and city staff to start our own local food forest. There are obstacles related to choosing the right location, funding, and garnering support. However, we continue to meet via Zoom to eventually start a food forest as a pilot project.

In February 2021, I competed in a climate change hackathon and worked on a platform with other students from around the world, about food forests. The idea is to create an online platform where individuals could connect with existing groups to start a food forest, thus minimizing the barriers that I faced with regards to political, community and funding support. Our solution received the best in category prize. However, while the hackathon is over, climate change still affects us all.

Throughout this process, I’ve learned that many people haven’t heard of a food forest. I’ve learned that patience is important, and starting small is very important. To successfully establish and plant a food forest, there are steps to be taken before the shovels even hit the ground. I’ve also learned that starting a food forest movement requires relationship building with local residents and the cooperation of community groups and city staff. The journey isn’t over yet. There is more work to be done for our food forest to come to fruition.

If you would like to learn more and get involved with the Food Forest pilot project for South Markham, please visit @FoodForest.SouthMarkham on Instagram and on Facebook Groups. You may also visit for more information.

About the Author:

Michael Chen is a teacher and writer based out of Markham, Ontario. He is an alumnus of the Canadian Conservation Corps programme. He is passionate about growing native plants, helping pollinators and now exploring food forests as a way to combat climate change.

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