By Joseph Powell

Each intern in the Nature Academy internship program at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum chooses a summer project to research and report on. The project culminates in a poster displayed in Matthaei’s public indoor spaces. Interns also write a blog post about their project concept or the research they’ve conducted.

Before and after the installation of a food forest

Food forests generally occupy the entirety of a space. Efficient use of space is essential. (Photos by James Prigioni.)

As the Matthaei-Nichols woody plants intern I’ve quickly learned to install, maintain, and identify a lot of shrubs and trees and tend to the natural areas around our properties. What interests me most, however, are the interactions between people and nature. Whether walking through a field of grass, stopping to smell the roses, or eating a piece of fruit, we come into daily contact with the wonders of nature. The life-giving plant processes, such as photosynthesis, flowering, and fruiting, are rightly recognized as central to our health and well-being; but more often than not, we take these natural phenomena for granted.

This is why I believe that knowledge of the environment and how it works is important for people of all ages. In light of this, for my intern project I am researching food forests and their role in the interactions between people and nature.

According to author Sami Grover1, a food forest is an “intentionally planted garden that mimics the natural structure of a forest.” Essentially, food forests are natural but intentional spaces that recreate the setting and flow of a traditional forest, free to go about its own processes and changes over time. A food forest is multilayered, with plants from the canopy to the forest floor producing food. Each layer interacts with the others to create a diverse system. Grover describes this idea in greater detail in his article, introducing such key food-forest concepts as nonuniform plant placement, avoidance of monoculture plantings (areas populated by the same species), and the efficient use of all gardening space. Additionally, the food forest should be open to all, whether they use it as a source for food, to contribute more plants, or even as a place for a walk. Ideally the food forest would act as a unifier, not just for local green-thumbs but for the surrounding community as a whole.

Fruit trees and plants in a food forest

A variety of fruits and vegetables is often grown in food forests. Monoculture is discouraged in order to mimic the growth patterns of typical forests. (Photo by

Food forest garden design

Although food forests are meant to grow without supervision, planning is still required in the beginning phases. (Illustration by Ned Tilev, Urban Food Forestry.)

The creation of food forests sounds simple in theory but there are many challenges. One of these is time: fruit and nut trees may take years before they yield a crop. Another challenge is square footage. It’s often the case that home gardeners lack the space to plant multiple trees, even small ones, on their property. Local rules and zoning may also impact the planting of food forests. Los Angeles resident Ron Finley discovered this when he was ordered to remove his 10-by-150-foot food forest from a sidewalk median near his home.2 Ultimately Finley was able to save his project with the help of locals who valued his garden as a community asset: a gathering place, a source of food, and a unifying element that inspired people to embrace the value of the garden.

Every day at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum our interns, staff, and volunteers strive to fulfill our mission of caring for nature and enriching life. Growing food forests would be one more part of a larger effort to fulfill that mission and build awareness and appreciation of nature and a valuable first step toward persuading people to understand and care for natural spaces, not just for the sake of humans, but for other organisms as well. As my internship experience continues, I hope to continue my research on food forests for personal knowledge and for possible implementation. Perhaps the old food forest area near the Campus Farm could even be revitalized at some point, bringing the idea and its benefits to fruition.

Joseph Powell

Joseph Powell, from Detroit, is the woody plants intern at Mattheai Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. Joseph is looking forward to learning the names and features of a multitude of herbaceous and woody plants, and would also like to learn more sustainable planting and growing processes so he can start his own successful garden in the future. Joseph’s internship is made possible by a gift from Marge Alpern to promote and support research in botany and related studies that will enhance the scientific basis for wise management of the environments of the earth.

Works Cited

1Grover, Sami. “What is a Forest Garden.” Tree July 1, 2015. Web. June 21, 2018.

2Gonzalez, Ramon. “How a Fashion Designer’s Food Forest is Changing his L.A. Neighborhood.” Tree May 28, 2012. Web. June 21, 2018.