Food & Drink

Six months after planting, Tacoma’s first food forest at Swan Creek Park emerges

If you wander into Swan Creek’s Food Forest and find it hard to see the food for the trees, that’s OK: Tacoma’s first deliberately designed foraging forest is still very much a work in progress.

And that’s work with a capital W. Since the first stage of planting in February, food forest volunteers have been coming back monthly to hack out the blackberries and other weeds that threaten the new, more sustainable edible plants. But, say supporters, it’s worth it – for the community as well as the environment.

“A food forest is a way that we can design a food system that mimics the natural ecology,” explains William Whitener, a volunteer with citizen group Forage Pierce County that’s behind the one-acre forest. “When you do that (the plants are) more prolific, more resilient, more abundant, and require less input. That’s why I got into permaculture.”

A food forest is just one component of permaculture, a landscape and agriculture design philosophy that integrates people holistically into their environment. Permaculture emphasizes biodiversity, sustainable building and irrigation practices, wildlife habitat and beneficial relationships between species.

Food forests were first articulated by English horticulturalist Robert Hart in the 1980s as an adaptation of tropical-style food foraging to temperate climates. Now a well-defined part of permaculture, food forests are "designed and managed ecosystems" that "mimic the architecture and beneficial relationships of a natural plant/animal community" in any given environment, according to the national non-profit Permaculture Institute.

Thanks to groups like Tacoma Permaculture, the greater Tacoma area has had a steady influx of permaculture design courses and individuals gardening with its principles. But Swan Creek, planted by Forage Pierce County in collaboration with Metro Parks, is something new: a permaculture planting open to the community, for locals to care for, enjoy and – eventually – harvest.

The harvesting isn’t coming any time soon, though.

“OK, everyone, let’s dig some blackberries!” says Renée Meschi in a chirpy voice. She’s standing at the entrance – for want of a better word – to the food forest and addressing a dozen young East Side kids armed with shovels, hoes and clippers. From a seven-week summer camp organized by the Northwest Leadership Foundation to connect youth to their neighborhoods in positive ways, the kids are part of the work party that’s met on a Monday morning to hack out the invasives that once engulfed this section of Swan Creek Park and threaten to do so again.

As Meschi, a FPC board member and student at the University of Puget Sound, gives instructions on how to attack these tough weeds, permaculturist Kelda Lorax – the driving force behind the food forest — gives a rough tour, pointing out the new edible plantings nestled in between existing trees.

“This is a mulberry; it’ll make a sort-of statement,” explains Lorax of a 4-foot sapling near the forest’s entrance.

Beyond, in a sunny patch, Lorax points to blueberries, huckleberries, elderberries; serviceberries, gooseberries, currants and aronia berries shelter in the shade of Douglas firs, cottonwoods and alder trees. There are lesser-known edibles like autumn olive (not a true olive; more a berry) and goumi, which also fix nitrogen in the soil. Around them are supporting plants like yarrow, asparagus, native blackberry and lemon balm – called “companion plants,” these attract beneficial insects and give different nutrients.

Under the trees is a little grove of tree stumps which have been inoculated with mushroom spores: lion’s mane, black morels, king stropharia and reishi, a nonedible Chinese medicinal mushroom.

Further along the rough path are Asian pear saplings and some pawpaws (an Indiana-native fruit), which are the only plants looking a little dry. Whitener and another volunteer trudge along with buckets of water for them: Irrigation is definitely one of the challenges in a food forest so far from human housing.

“We dug the holes really deep, with trenches aligned with the slope to catch natural water,” says Lorax. Each plant, ringed neatly with rocks and identified with a small pink flag, is also mulched heavily with manure to conserve water. Most look like they’re doing just fine in the dry summer.

Another challenge is the Himalayan blackberries, which will need constant ripping out for years to come. Already the work parties have achieved great results: Lorax points out a swathe of native salal and some apple trees planted last century that were completely covered in the weed, and which are now happily bearing fruit.

Those existing edibles, including bracken fern which local families already harvest to steam, are one reason why Lorax petitioned Metro Parks to create a food forest in Swan Creek Park.

“I was walking the site a few years ago and was thinking how cool it was that there were fruit trees here,” says Lorax. “This place is magical.”

As a partnership, the food forest seems to be a win-win for everyone. Metro Parks, which supplies manure, mulch and plants, as well as the tools for work parties, gets help beautifying an overgrown section of park.

“From the beginning it sounded like a great fit,” says Metro Parks’ Richard Madison, who brought the work party’s tools. “There’s a more formal community garden right here, and this seemed a good complement. Metro Parks doesn’t have too many places with fruit trees.”

The community – particularly Swan Creek’s immediate neighbors in the Salishan housing area – benefit from a place to forage for food they may not grow themselves.

The park benefits from having people take care of it and enhance the ecology.

Even the wider community benefits. Meschi’s UPS conservation biology class has taken the forest on as a project to study biodiversity, and Meschi herself has a grant to study the ethnobotany of what cultural food plants the local diverse community would like to see planted there.

Of course, there’s still a lot of work to do apart from the blackberries. Lorax is working on signage and a tool shed, paid for by a recent $2,000 Splash grant from the city. In the future she’s hoping for benches beneath the towering madronas, some Northwest medicinal plants at the back of the forest, maybe more nitrogen-fixing plants. The path will be smoothed out to be ADA-accessible.

But ultimately, Lorax sees a time when the community will take responsibility for the forest, and FPC can create another, somewhere else.

“That’s my goal,” she says. “Maybe in 10 years, or less. A lot of it is communications: what to eat, what not to eat, signage. And trusting that someone won’t come in and eat everything.”

And the forest may also change the way people think about their environment.

“It’s pretty exciting that Tacoma now has a public food forest,” sums up Whitener. “It’s a model for what people can do in their own backyard.”