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.

About Matt Power

A member of the Resilience Hub Board, Matt is an environmental journalist, videographer and dedicated gardener. A founding member of the Tiny House Industry Association, he is Editor-In-Chief of Green Builder magazine. He lives and works in Portland.

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