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Freedom Gardens

Exploring the Possibilities of Food Forests in the Urban Context

by Julian DelBosque

photo credit: Kris Krüg / flickr
photo credit: Kris Krüg / flickr

Also posted by julienlalonde:

A week ago in Vancouver I visited the Purple Thistle Community Food Forest. This is a project of the Purple Thistle Community Centre, a collective that focuses a lot of its efforts on guerrilla gardening. The group describes the project as follows:

“The Purple Thistle Community Food Forest is…. a huge, oddly shaped remediation project that hugs a cul-de-sac at the junction of Charles St. and Vernon Dr., by the train tracks.  This is an ambitious permaculture project involving creating a self-maintaining polyculture of perennial fruit and nut trees, native berries and medicinals, and perennial and annual vegetable crops, as well as remediating a trashed wetland and building a community gathering space.  It’s in its first year and flourishing, but there is much still to do and much to contribute,… so do come on down and get your hands dirty with us!”1

For those not familiar, a permaculture food forest “mimics the architecture and beneficial relationships of a natural forest…”2 Typically a food forest has seven layers. First is the Canopy layer which consists of large fruit and nut trees. Second is the Low Tree layer which is smaller dwarf fruit trees. The third layer consists of shrubs, typically currants and berries. Then the herbaceous layer, followed by the Rhizosphere or Root Crops. Then the soil surface composed of ground cover crops. And finally, the Vertical Layer of climbers and vines. Under the canopy layer, the plant groupings that work well together and compliment each other are known as guilds. The Permaculture Institute writes that “guild design follows the classical approach of creating a maximum of beneficial relationships between every element of the guild.”3 The Food Forest is a self-sustaining living ecosystem that features “properties and attributes that are not present in agricultural systems”4

What is so fascinating about the Purple Thistle food forest project is that it is transforming urban desolation. It is reclaiming an otherwise lost and forgotten industrial area and bringing it back to life. One of permaculture’s key principles is to take the most devastated areas first, the areas that are most in need of reclamation and revitalization, and turn them into something dynamic, vibrant, and productive. Take the most lifeless areas and give them life. This strategy speaks to imagination, creativity and resourcefulness, and to an endless array of possibilities in the urban context. There is an abundance of wasted ugliness in the city that is waiting to be transformed.

We know that cities will be the most challenging to refurbish and to turn into sustainable closed-loop systems. But it is encouraging to walk around cities and to see all the potential spaces that could be transformed and reclaimed. Almost everywhere you look, on every street, every corner, every block, grassy areas, elaborate ponds and fountains that could be made into aquaponics systems and chinampas, sparsely-planted garden areas, the immaculately-groomed landscape designs in front of buildings that serve no purpose other than the artificial esthetic. There is potential everywhere in the city, so maybe we’re not that far off.

What if we put out a wide-spread call-out, one day for everybody to go out into their city and just plant vegetables and shrubs and fruit trees everywhere, on every open patch of grass and soil? If we all went out at the same time, hundreds and thousands of us, everywhere all over the city to reclaim the wasted spaces, and just started mixing up the soil, tearing out the sod and laying down the mulch, planting food forests everywhere. Would they be able to stop all of us, or even most of us? Probably not.

Now imagine a future where those food forests have had time to mature and to come into themselves. Then families would have free, healthy, local, organic, accessible food for their children, and not have to deal with the armed guards at the grocery stores when the trucks stop coming. Doesn’t that sound much better than paying for unhealthy food we don’t have control over, unhealthy, genetically modified food that is killing us AND the planet?  

There is a famous passage from Starhawk’s futuristic Utopian novel The Fifth Sacred Thing that embodies and embraces the not-so-distant possibility of transforming our urban reality. She writes,

“Maria gathered together with her neighbors, Alice Black, Lily Fong, and

Greta Jeanne Margolis, four old women with nothing to lose… they marched

out into the dawn with pickaxes over their shoulders, straight out into the

middle of Army Street, and all traffic stopped… Maria raised the pickaxe above

her head, there came a silence like a great, shared, indrawn breath. Then she

let it fall… They tore up the pavement, blow by blow, and filled the holes

with compost… And planted them with seeds… the word was carried through

the streets, and we rushed from our houses to join them, bringing tools or

only our bare hands, eager to build something new… Many of us were crying,

with joy or with fear…. But Alice raised her hand and she called out in a

loud voice. ‘Don’t you cry,…. This is not a time to cry. This is a time to rejoice

and praise the earth, because today we have planted our freedom!’”5

If we think this sounds like a stretch of the imagination, consider this. Slavoj Zizek writes that "an act is more than an intervention into the domain of the possible--an act changes the very coordinates of what is possible and thus retroactively creates its own conditions of possibility."6 This is what we must do, and we can do it simply by going out and doing something that people normally wouldn’t do. Smashing up the asphalt to plant seeds is a great example, and it is an interesting thought that pushing discomfort has the potential to change the world in the blink of an eye.

The last line of The Fifth Sacred Thing passage above is particularly important because it is critical to understand exactly that: that planting our own gardens and food forests doesn’t simply mean healthy food and cheaper grocery bills, it means freedom. The day we manage to put control of the two things we absolutely can’t live without, food and water, into the hands of communities, we will have become the architects of our own freedom. 


1.     (

2.     (Permaculture Institute, Permaculture Food Forest:

3.     Ibid.

4.     (Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, Why Food Forests?:

5.     Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, Bantam Books: New York, 1993.

6.     Slavoj Zizek, A Permanent Economic Emergency, New Left Review 64, July/Aug 2010, (London: 2010).

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