by Chetanya Robinson
Kenji Nakagawa fell in love with the Beacon Food Forest when it was still a distant vision, deeply rooted in people’s imaginations rather than the soil. On a Saturday in mid-April 2013, Nakagawa was set on visiting his mother in Beacon Hill. But five blocks before arriving at her home, he met a group busily working on a grassy slope of Jefferson Park’s western edge.
They were volunteers laying down the foundations of the Beacon Food Forest, an ambitious permaculture project which is now one and three-quarter acres of edible crops. At the time, the project was just an expanse of grassy hillside partly covered in wood chips.
Nakagawa joined the work party then and there, putting his intended visit off for hours.
Now in its second phase, the Beacon Food Forest contains fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, plots for vegetables, a garden of culinary and medicinal herbs, a beehive, and even raised beds for wheelchair-accessible gardening.
Its final form will be 7 acres of mostly permanent crops — a huge variety of nuts, fruits, vegetables, herbs and medicines. The project has drawn national attention for one simple reason: much of this natural bounty is free to harvest for anyone. Once finished, it might be the largest project of its kind on public land anywhere in the United States.
But while it still has some growing to do, the food forest already inspires a well of enthusiasm and dedication from the volunteers who tend to it. At least once a month, they appear by the dozens for Saturday work parties.
One work party in mid-April this year marked the four year anniversary of Nakagawa’s introduction to the food forest. Clad in jeans and a sweatshirt, Nakagawa was busy setting up an hour before any volunteers had arrived. He has a wispy black beard, and is prone to deep, philosophical musings about the food forest and its significance.
He was first drawn to the food forest, he said, because he wanted to create change in the world. “Helping heal the earth and helping free humanity was the most important thing on my mind — and those are the first two tenets of permaculture here,” he said. “So when I found this fit here, it was like divine providence. I was meant to be here and help with efforts like this, because we are literally changing the world.”
According to the Permaculture Institute USA, the concept of a food forest was first explored in writing by visionary British permaculturalist Robert Hart in his book Forest Gardening. His ideas were partly inspired by Japanese pacifist and social reformer Toyohiko Kagawa.
A food forest is a permanent garden made up of edible trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals, that mimics a natural forest ecosystem. While food forests are human creations, they’re carefully designed to recreate the symbiotic relationships between plants, animal and insects. Plants are often grouped together in “guilds” that complement each other. Some plants will attract insects that provide pest control or pollination to other plants, for example, or enrich the soil with nitrogen or mulch. An example of this is the ancient Native American practice of planting corn, beans and squash — the “three sisters” — together, with each plant uniquely benefitting the triad.
While permaculture projects exist everywhere, the Beacon Food Forest might be the largest on public land in the United States. While the food forest contains some private P-Patch plots for individual gardeners, much of it is free to harvest for anyone.
Jacqueline Cramer co-founded the Beacon Food Forest in 2009 along with Glenn Herlihy and two others. It began as a final project for a public engineering design class. After a presentation on the project was positively received by Beacon Hill community members, as well as Seattle Parks and Recreation and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), it received a $22,000 grant from the Department of Neighborhoods to hire a landscape architect and permaculture consultant.
At the end of 2011, the project was further helped along by a $100,000 grant from the Parks and Green Spaces Levy (passed by voters in 2008), to construct phase one. The food forest is built on public land belonging to SPU, but it’s managed by the P-Patch program under the Department of Neighborhoods.
For Cramer, building community and educating people about food are key to the food forest.
“I think it started out as a focus of regenerating the land and growing food, and then it was really apparent early on that it was about empowering a community, and then justice around food,” she said.
The food forest is powered by donations and an army of volunteers. Between 60 and 120 of them come out to work on the second Saturday of each month — and according to Cramer, about a quarter of the faces are new each time.
The day before Easter Sunday, the sun shone gently through puffy clouds onto a few dozen workers. Some were regular volunteers who went right to work on familiar projects. Others planted, built raised beds for a children’s gardening area, constructed pea trellises, weeded raspberries, pulled horsetails and made seed balls.
As the day went on, the guitars came out, there was impromptu singing and dancing, and someone passed around homemade pickled cabbage.
Many volunteers have been with the food forest since the beginning. Keith Possee works at the UW medicinal herb garden and has been volunteering at the Beacon Food Forest for three years. What keeps him coming back is “the sense of community, just sort of common purpose,” and also, “the grand idea behind it, which is having a huge landscape full of food plants which anyone can harvest. It’s such a unique thing.”
Reena Marston, who works as a senior supervisor at Starbucks, read about the Beacon Food Forest while she was living in Hawaii, and sought it out when she moved to Seattle. She comes to volunteer believing the food forest is an active effort “to better the world, to fight climate change and everything like that, and to grow things that people who cannot afford to go to farmer’s markets or organic grocery stores…can actually eat for free.”
Elise Evans was at the very first work party in 2012, and has been volunteering regularly ever since. “Every time I come here is a different experience, with new conversation with someone, where I find a connection and something unexpected happens that I leave feeling uplifted,” she said.
She studies public policy at the UW, and finds the current political situation stressful. “I feel like this is another form of resistance to have this here.”
Phase one of the food forest took five years to complete. The second phase — building another one and three-quarter acres on the grassy slope, with more plant guilds, allotment plots, an entry point and more gathering areas — might take another five. And that’s just two out of seven phases. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be finished,” Cofounder Herlihy told Modern Farmer magazine in 2013. But Cramer has a firmer timeline in mind.
“Fifteen years from now we’ll fill it up,” she said. “Small and simple, slow and simple.”
While the numerous species grown in the food forest are often chosen for their symbiotic guild relationships, community interest also plays a key role. Beacon Hill is very diverse ethnically and culturally; around 50 percent of its residents are Asian Pacific Islander, 22 percent are Black and 8 percent are Latino. It also has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents of any Seattle neighborhood, at 44 percent.
As a result, specialty plants like Japanese plum, bitter melon and herbs used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine are sometimes cultivated.
“We ask people what they would like see, especially folks just walking to the site or families here with family allotment plots,” said Cramer. “And then families come along and you see their faces light up when they see it here.”
The Beacon Food Forest has been influential across the country and the world. People have written to Cramer from Olympia, Kentucky, South Africa and everywhere in between asking for advice on building their own food forests.
Cramer hopes the Beacon Food Forest will also have a strong impact locally. She wants children in Beacon Hill to feel like the food forest is there for them, and that it continue to supplement people’s diets in the neighborhood. “I don’t imagine seven acres is going to feed this whole Beacon Hill, but what I want it to do is encourage people to start growing elsewhere,” she said. “You can do this at a school yard or a library or outside your apartment building, or any spaces. Just start growing food.”
On a deeper level, Cramer thinks the food forest can begin to change the systems that are worsening people’s lives. This starts with the volunteers themselves.
“We’re able to step out of those systems and create new ones here, and that’s really inspiring to me,” she said. “It’s very accessible and a very tangible way to make a difference in our lives.”
On his fourth anniversary with the food forest, Nakagawa taught a group of volunteers how to create seed balls by mixing together red clay, compost, and packets of seeds. Throw a seed ball into any patch of earth, and with luck, it will sprout; it’s an ancient technique for re-vitalizing ecosystems.
“Before I found this project I would see a lot of suffering and pain and people knowing we need a better system, and not knowing what that solution is,” he said.
When Nakagawa started volunteering at the food forest, his family was skeptical. They thought, “‘Well if we don’t ransom food to each other, what’s going to be people’s incentive to work?’” Nakagawa explained. “Thinking all society will break down somehow if nobody goes hungry.”
For him, the food forest is the solution, and proof that “we can change paradigms,” he said. “Once we have food abundance and nobody needs to hoard and ransom food from each other, I am very positive everything else will fall in line.”
Nakagawa considers nature a powerful ally for its ability to create boundless abundance. After all, he points out, a single kale plant contains up to two thousand seeds. “That’s an investment that you can’t get anywhere else. You put one dollar in a bank, a year later are you going to have two-thousand dollars in that bank?”
Nakagawa looks forward to when the Beacon Food Forest grows into its full 7 acres. But that’s not all. “I want to see hundreds of other food forests around the nation all bigger than ours, thousands across the country,” he said. “I want to see where there’s nobody that doesn’t know what food forestry is. Right now they come to us because we’re novel. I want four years from now people to come to us to see where it all started.”
In the same way, perhaps, that a single kale seed can sprout a thousandfold.
Chetanya Robinson is a Seattle freelance journalist and an assistant editor at the International Examiner. He was born and raised in Seattle and earned a double major in journalism and Near Eastern languages from the University of Washington in 2016. His work has also appeared in Crosscut, the Seattle Weekly, KCTS9 Earthfix, Real Change News, The Seattle Globalist and more. He enjoys reporting on an eclectic variety of issues. You can find him on Twitter at @chetanyarobins.