Category Archives: food forest

Can Portland Become Food-Forest Friendly?

The edible landscape promise of Portland is ripe for revolution.


Bloom and Toss.
The City pulls short-lived bulbs out seasonally. Why not go perennial? Photo: WENA

There used to be nothing rebellious about planting seeds every which-where.  Remember the stories of Johnny Appleseed, the folk hero who walked across the country, sowing apples for all to enjoy? He wasn’t wearing camouflage and ducking behind trees. Yet somehow the idea of random acts of horticulture has been villainized, so that we now talk about tossing “seed bombs” into barren soil, then skulking away as if we’ve done something wrong.

Why act guilty about doing a good deed? In my experience, few business owners actually oppose the sudden appearance, of plants and flowers on the fringes of their urban lots.  What they oppose are the supposed negative impacts of those little oases of food security. More on that later.

Re-Modeling the City’s Approach

One of the first places to start in changing the conversation about urban “found” horticulture is with City workers. Have you noticed that many of the most prominent small garden spaces in Portland are managed like potted plants? Workers spend countless hours, and countless tax dollars, planting bulbs in the spring, weeding and adding new mulch, fertilizing soils, only to remove them at season’s end and start all over again the following year.

What they’re doing is essentially the opposite of land stewardship and permaculture. They’re ignoring the complex processes that build and repair soil in favor of “quick and dirty” solutions that use the soil as a mere medium to support short-term plant life.

I believe that, given a nudge in the right direction, Portland’s forest experts and horticulturists would be willing to move in a new, more self-sustaining direction.

To that end, I spoke with my friend Kim, who worked in the City’s horticultural dept. for a couple of years. She says that the current practice of planting “ornamental” gardens, and removing the bulbs every year is in response to “what people want.” By people, she means both residents and business owners, and certain garden groups. There have been efforts to plant perennial gardens, she says, but these require regular maintenance during the summer—more so than the bare ground broken only by annual bulbs, and the City doesn’t have the money to pay for the labor. Even with the pulling and planting of the bulbs, she says, it works out to less labor than regular maintenance of perennial patches.

I wonder, however, if those gardens were fully mature permaculture ecosystems, if that would still be the case? In any case, we’d have to overcome objection #3 below to make this work.

“There’s been a lot of turnover in those (horticultural) departments over the last couple years,” Kim says, “But there’s a lot of new blood in there, so things are changing.” Horticulture, she says falls under the umbrella of the City’s forestry division, and Jeff Tarling, the City Arborist, has shown a willingness to try new approaches.

Fears and Fallacies

What’s really needed, to get Portland to embrace a more sustainable use of urban greenspaces as gardens is to address and overcome three primary objections:

  1. Hunger Hangout. I’ve heard from city workers in the past that fruit trees are seen as problematic, because they might become magnets for loitering homeless people. I think this concern is unfounded. I know from experience with our 7-11 Garden Space this summer, that even when the trees were ripe with hundreds of apples and pears, not one vagrant person ever sat underneath them to graze on the fruit. In fact, to our surprise, nobody touched this free food source. Not until we picked all the apples and left them out in a bucket did anyone take them. Honestly we would have liked to see many people stopping by to stuff a few apples in a knapsack.
  • The Rot Factor.  Another concern I’ve heard, which Kim confirmed, is that businesses especially are afraid fruit from trees will fall and be left on the ground to rot. In my experience, squirrels and aggressive sparrows in town make short work of fallen fruit, but to ease their fears, I do think the City’s idea of “adopting” urban gardens may be necessary. Perhaps the Resilience Hub can work with the City on a system for people to sign up for a certain time frame to manage the seasonal bounty, and hand off responsibility after a year or two to other local volunteers. City gardeners have experimented with this a little, but had trouble achieving critical mass.

  • “Out of Control”. This is where subjective taste comes in. Unfortunately, many people have acquired a narrowly defined aesthetic of what an urban “garden” should look like. This look has been reinforced by years of expedient, sterile, but well-intentioned management by the City. What’s that look? Monocultured flowers and shrubs surrounded by a deep layer of weed-free bark mulch. We ran into this aesthetic when 7-11’s marketing guy came to town. He perceives our perennial food forest garden design as out of control. This expectation of a corporate-style landscape is one that only time and beautiful counter-examples can overcome.  For the short term, the answer is compromise. We’ve had to “layer” our trimming of the perennials in the 7-11 garden and repeatedly invest in more mulch. We’ve also had to cut the ground cover artificially short, especially the white clover, to please the corporate sensibilities. It has been more work for us, but has preserved good will with the store owners.

Just a Little Effort

Managing a small patch of beautiful, natural (and partially edible) landscape is not an onerous task. It’s a genuine labor of love. Imagine some barren patch of earth near your house, perhaps the edge of a school playground, or an overgrown alleyway, or a parking lot border, but see it as it could be, humming with pollinators, ablaze with butterflies and berries. Every time you leave your home or apartment, it’s like opening an unexpected gift.

If you’ve been looking for something local you can do that doesn’t involve protest marches in Washington, DC or running for office, planting a regenerative garden amidst the pavement and brick is literally a low-hanging fruit option for you.

Over the next couple years, let’s try to gradually shift the narrative of Portland’s garden scene away from plant-and-pull ornamental gardens, toward longer lasting, less water and fertilizer intensive—and at least partially edible plantings.

The insurgency starts now.

Good Suckers Make Good Fences

Water spouts from apple and pear trees make perfect wattle fences.

Pear tree with water spouts

Haircut Please?
The vertical sprouts atop this pear tree are prime material.

CALL THEM WHAT YOU WILL: Water spouts. Scions. Suckers (although technically these sprout from the ground). Unless you do loads of grafting (a good use for healthy scions), most of the unwanted vertical growth on your fruit trees gets tossed.  Why not “put them Suckers to work?”

Those straight, green shoots make a perfect material for wattle fencing, screens or even low, raised beds.

I learned a few tricks about wattle weaving from an expert while visiting a reconstructed medieval garden in the UK a couple of years ago. He worked primarily with willow, but he pointed out that the staves have to be green when woven, so they will tightens up and stiffens as the material dries.

Weaving wattle is easy, whether you’re a wizened woodworker, or a willing wannabee, so let’s get cracking! Here’s the process step by step, so you can get off the computer and go out and start making wattle.

1. Cut the Spouts. Snip them at an angle, so they heal naturally and don’t collect water. I’ve noticed that trees that have been pruned aggressively in the previous season tend to produce the most water spouts. Any vertical growth that is pointing toward the tree, crossing another existing branch, or simply pointing skyward is a good candidate. If you’re nervous about how to trim an apple tree, watch my video on the topic, filmed locally. As a bonus, there’s a section at the end about how to prune raspberries, hosted by the amazing Laura Mailander of Cultivating Community.

put vertical posts in ground

Ready for Weaving. The earth makes a natural tensioning device.

2. Set a Frame. Once you’ve  collected a sizeable pile, pick four or five of the thickest spouts, and set them aside. Use a pick axe, or a metal spike to pound a series of holes in the ground. Frozen ground actually works great. Put the thick end of the spouts into these holes, and you’ve created the frame for your wattle “loom.”

3. Back and Forth. Start at either end pole, and begin weaving the spouts behind then in front of the poles. Put the thin end of the spout through first. Leave a few inches extra sticking out before the first pole. You will trim all of the spouts later. Now start at the opposite end with your next water spout, weaving in the opposite direction. Between each cours, push down on the spouts, to they are tight against one another.

Tighten Up. You may notice, as you add to the panel, that the outer two poles want to “drift” outward, squeezed by the pressure from the spouts. You have a couple of options to halt this. You could weave a piece of natural twine around the end post,or you could simply choose spouts that have natural branch formations, and use them to “lock” the vertical poles in place. I chose this option because then I could brag about not using any storebought materials!

Out of Material? Ok, so now you’ve made your beautiful section of wattle fencing. If you’re like me, you may run of of spouts and wish you had more. One option is to begin planning for next year’s wattle construction. You can create more raw materials by looking for stumps and fast growing poplar trees on your property. Scrape all of the leaves off the vertical spouts and they’ll keep growing straight and strong and you can add them to next year’s wattle fencing.

Ideas for Using Wattle. To make your wattle last for several years, you need to prevent it from constant ground contact attach bigger stakes to the ends and raise it off the ground an inch or two. Possible uses inclued, trellising, deer fencing, raised beds, or rustic hardscapes to break up a flat garden plot. I’ve also seen people use wattle as a base material for building a low-impact storage shed. You just apply mud and straw to it, and produce a strong, durable wall system.

Now get out there and make some wattle.

Edible Abundance Next to the 7-11 Parking Lot

Three years of strategic planting and coaxing demonstrate that urban food gardens can grow almost anywhere.

If you happened to walk by the 7-11 parking lot at the corner of Dow St. and Congress St. in Portland this fall, you may have seen the evolution of an eye-catching urban garden.

About three years, my partner Melissa and I decided to tackle the only open piece of ground near our house on Dow Street. With permission from the 7-11 owners, we began to systematically apply permaculture strategies to bring life back into soil that looked more like fireplace ashes than dirt. Three previous trees on the spot died long ago, leaving only stumps, and scrub grass and weeds struggled to survive.

This narrow strip of land (mostly hidden by snow at this writing) now includes two healthy apple trees, a pear tree, a blueberry plant, strawberries, along with ample comfrey, several herbs and medicinal plants including yarrow, oregano, thyme, sage and chives. You’ll also find speedwell, daylillies, clover, salvia, and Creeping Charlie as a groundcover.

This garden showcases the power of “permaculture.” We’ve noticed many small pieces of land in the City where harsh chemicals, dog droppings, trash and neglect have damaged soils. We wanted to show that even the worst land may be rejuvenated, if you apply the right techniques and patience.

The process requires a lot of heavy mulching, along with careful planting of different species of plants that assist the trees as they take root. For example, the leafy comfrey plants around the trees are called nitrogen fixers (forgive me if you know all this stuff already). They extract nitrogen from the air and deposit it into the soil, especially if you trim them and let the leaves rot around the trees. Other plants, such as the clover and Creeping Charlie groundcover, keep the soil cooler and allow plants to better respond to drought.

Each year, the amount of work we volunteer in the garden has decreased. We water only about one third as much as we did the first year, and the groundcover is gradually replacing the old scrub grass that was there. We’ve planted sunflowers in the areas that still need work, because they extract heavy metals from the soils, and provide food for birds and squirrels. Later, we’ll replace them with perennial plants like the upper half of the garden. The area is now alive with bees and sparrows again by mid-summer.

We believe a place of peace, beauty and food brings many intangibles to the city. So many cool things have happened since we started the project. Less trash is thrown into the area. People with mental illness sometimes sit among the birds and bees and find a moment’s solace. Older neighbors stop by and ask about the plants and thank us for creating a place they enjoy as they walk home. Someone has put many beautiful painted stones around the trees. We have even had some of the regular alcoholics in the area offer to “guard” the garden and “kill anyone who goes near those trees!” We thanked them for their kind offer and told them that was probably a bit excessive …

This year, our hard work really produced in a tangible way, when the two apple trees actually sprang forth with a couple of hundred delicious apples. Next on the agenda, to identify other properties in the area where magical food forest gardens could appear in coming years, and interest other neighbors in “adopting” a patch of neglected ground.

Matt Power is a West End resident and board member of The Resilience Hub (resiliencehub.org), a Portland-based organization that brings permaculture and community together. He is also the author of “The Tiny House Tactical Guide,” and Editor-In-Chief of Green Builder Magazine.

A Food Forest Emerging in Augusta #Maine

Site of the future food forest at Viles Arboretum

On a hot summer day in 2016, Shana Hostetter (the Hub’s lead designer), Dan Schenk (one of our Advanced PDC grads) and I strolled a grassy savannah-like area of Viles Arboretum in Augusta, Maine.  Dotted with sculpture and surrounded by some lovely specimen trees, the south-facing “bowl” we toured seemed ideal for one of Viles’ new projects:  a food forest!

Tracy Weber, a Viles Volunteer trained in permaculture design, and Mark Desmeules, Viles Executive Director, shared some of their thinking with us:

“The Viles Arboretum wants to inspire people with the possibilities of local sustainable food production, educate our community about how it can be done and then encourage people to replicate this system in their yards and in public spaces. We aim to show that providing food for ourselves does not have to and should not deprive other living things of food and shelter. The Viles Arboretum has a reputation as a destination for learning, respite and connection with the outdoors. This, along with its history as a farm, makes it an ideal location for this project.

The Food & Forest Project will begin as a 1 acre demonstration plot designed with permaculture principles to integrate trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals into a food ‘forest’. Permaculture is a system of design that takes into account the whole ecosystem when designing for food production by harnessing the assets of a landscape such as aspect, topography and water. This permaculture plot will serve as the site of and jumping off point for numerous community collaborations and educational opportunities. We envision a fenced in plot for annual vegetables and additional community garden plots. There will be berry production and an expanded orchard managed organically. A food “forest” of edible shrubs and trees such as walnuts, persimmons, hazelnuts, blueberries and elderberries will provide food for people, pollinators and other wildlife.”

In addition to this great vision from Tracy and Mark, other members of the region’s agriculture, permaculture and “sustainability” community have been involved, including Mid-Maine Permaculture group members and many of our own PDC grads.

The Resilience Hub, having been engaged to help with the design of the site, suggested doing as much awareness-raising and “participatory design” as possible, because our experience suggests that these activities not only strengthen the quality of the resulting design as well as help interested community-members get involved early on.

First draft concept sketch for the food forest at Viles Arboretum

Last week nearly fifty people turned up at Viles for a viewing of INHABIT: A Permaculture Perspective and to hear a little bit about the project.  The first draft of the food forest design was on display as well!  The Resilience Hub is currently incorporating feedback and working on the final drawings to be delivered in a couple of weeks.

If you would like to get involved in this project at Viles Arboretum in Augusta, Maine, contact us and we would be happy to connect you with Tracy or Mark.  First stages of the install are on deck for this year!

Lisa Fernandes, Resilience Hub Founder