ACTrees Interview: Eric Toensmeier Opens Up on the Role of Urban Food Forests

Washington, DC (September 9, 2013)

Eric Toensmeier has studied useful plants and food forests since 1990 and is the author of Perennial Vegetables and co-author of Edible Forest Gardens with Dave Jacke. Eric’s current research is on perennial farming practices, including agroforestry, that fight climate change by capturing carbon. In our interview, Eric shares his insights on the value of fruit and nut tree as part of a community garden, the role of urban food forests, and the impact of trees and urban agriculture on communities. Learn more and get resources to establish a food forest in your community from ACTrees Community Groves program. Here’s our interview:

eric toensmeier photoACTrees: How do you describe permaculture? What does that mean in the context of urban agriculture?

ET: My favorite definition these days comes from Rafter Ferguson who believes permaculture is a movement, a set of best practices, and a design system for meeting human needs while improving ecosystem health.

In the city, that can mean tapping the waste stream as a feedstock for compost, mulch, and food for livestock and microlivestock. Utilizing waste heat for greenhouses and rainwater runoff for irrigation are also key.

It also often means connecting people with land to grow food in the city, particularly immigrants with agricultural backgrounds. That’s what I’ve spent a lot of my urban permaculture time doing.

Finally it can mean highly diverse, intensive, productive gardens that help heal bad soil and thrive with more shade than you might like. My home garden is like that.

ACTrees: What are the benefits of fruit and nut trees as part of a community garden and the urban tree canopy?

ET: Along the borders of community gardens, and at the north edges particularly so they don’t shade the veggies, they can increase food production but also provide shade and some habitat. In some areas they can create a mess of rotten fruit or nut husks, so urban food trees work best when they have specific people or community groups signed on as stewards.

eric toensmeier action photoACTrees: How can urban agriculture, and specifically fruit and nut trees, help with issues of human health and food security?

ET: It’s nice to have perennial food plants that bear harvest even if you didn’t have time to get your annuals in the ground in any given year. The fruits and berries in particular are extremely nutritious and very popular with children. Nuts can serve as a perennial staple though almost no one eats them like that at this point in cities.

ACTrees: What’s the role of urban agriculture as part of the larger ecosystem services in a community?

ET: We put waste to productive use, turn abandoned sites into beautiful green spaces, and create some oxygen-producing plants. My own food forest seems to have much better habitat value for urban birds and insets than annual vegetable production.

ACTrees: How can food forests help to empower people and neighborhoods?

ET: By providing an excuse to organize a community. By feeding people. By educating people about ecological food production. I often think that the food produced by community gardens, for example, while important, is secondary to the value of the leadership and community building that emerges. Urban food forests can do the same thing.

Eric Toensmeier has spent twenty years exploring edible and useful plants of the world and their use in perennial agroecosystems. His books have received multiple awards, including the American Horticultural Society Garden Book of the Year and ForeWord Magazine Home and Garden Gold Medal Book of the Year Award, Garden Writer’s Association Silver Medal and American Library Association Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title. His current project is promoting perennial farming systems, including agroforestry and perennial staple crops, as a strategy to sequester carbon while restoring degraded lands, and providing food, fuel and income, and ecosystem services. Learn more about Eric.