Food Forest Yields Edibles and Environmental Insights

The food forest demonstrates how to obtain a yield while caring for the earth and its inhabitants. (Photo by Nancy McLaughlin)

The red-winged blackbirds are waging a furious battle to keep him away from the pear trees, and the squirrels are already plotting to make off with this year’s crop of hazelnuts, but Tim Sonder remains unruffled and determined to share the bounty of Evanston’s food forest with local food pantries as well as the resident wildlife. “The squirrels are very greedy,” he laughs, “and it is a problem. However, we plant enough to get plenty of food.” Mr. Sonder is co-leader of Edible Evanston, a non-profit organization that oversees the Eggleston Park Food Forest and the thriving volunteer program that has helped it grow over the past five years.

The food forest is a project that has evolved over time much like the plants that inhabit it. The seeds were sown in 2013 when a group of Northwestern University students secured the land to plant an orchard consisting of nearly 50 fruit and nut trees as well as 30 raspberry bushes. After the students moved on, oversight of the orchard passed through various hands until the fall of 2016, when Edible Evanston became involved and began its conversion to a diverse, high-yield food forest. Startup funding for the concept came from the Evanston Community Foundation. Today the food forest is sustained through donations from individual and business supporters as well as grants from various civic organizations.

Small and slow solutions and an emphasis on biodiversity have allowed the food forest to develop in a natural way. (Photo by Nancy McLaughlin)

Chaotic beauty reigns in this verdant corner of the park, but a closer look reveals incredible natural harmony and balance. The forest is organized into seven distinct tree guilds with carefully selected companion plantings occupying the layers below. Well-established fruit trees provide shade and nutrients to an eye-popping array of edible plants, including gooseberry, goumi and currant shrubs, as well as fragrant herbs and earthy mushrooms.

“Everything here has at least two uses,” Mr. Sonder explains. Beneath the apple trees, wild blue indigo provides food for pollinators and a critical source of nitrogen. Bright purple chives and yellow daffodils are a treat for the eyes and also deter rabbits and deer from nibbling at tree bark. Strawberry plants act as a ground cover keeping the weeds at bay and later in the summer will provide succulent fruit.

Showy, fragrant Rugosa roses produce large edible hips. (Photo by Nancy McLaughlin)

Founded on the principles of permaculture, the food forest is modeled after a natural woodland ecosystem. In his writings, permaculture pioneer David Holmgren defines the system as “consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.”

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