Starting a public food forest

ever heard of sylmar california? it’s famous for…? not sure, but i’d like it to be famous for a tropical fruit forest. the goal is to provide the public with the wonderful opportunity to taste fruits that can grow here but are unlikely to be found in a typical local supermarket.

the area i started guerrilla gardening a couple months ago is a drainage ditch just outside my friend’s community. throughout the year there’s always at least a trickle of irrigation runoff that supports an overgrown thicket of willows, fan palms, a chinese elm tree, tamarix and other weedy plants. outside this area is a no man’s land of castor beans and off-road vehicles. there’s also a “river” if it rains enough, as it has this year. the other day i found an old but small mulberry tree growing literally in the river. there’s unripe fruit on the tree that is very small so i’m guessing it was planted by a bird. what other fruit trees could grow in the seasonal river?

i just used a map tool to estimate the total possible area for the food forest… and maybe it’s around 300 acres. most of it is river wash area so i’m pretty sure it’s safe from development. but it’s probably not safe from people who feel the need to remove non-native plants. admittedly, i’m not sure about having castor bean plants growing everywhere in a food forest. right now there’s also trash everywhere. in theory i could spend all my time removing trash and castor bean plants. but so far i’ve just spent all my time planting fruiting trees and plants…

black sapote*
capulin cherry*
carica cubensis (papaya)*
catalina cherry*
dragon fruit
elaeagnus latifolia
elaeagnus pungens
ficus pumila
fig panache seedling
guava banana
guava mexican*
guava lemon
jelly palm
monstera deliciosa
pereskia aculeata
psidium longipetiolatum*
psidium sp prayer*
psidium sp red*

*fruiting size

you can obviously find things like blueberries and blackberries in local markets. they were my friend’s overstock plants and i was too curious how they would do in the overgrown ditch.

the list doesn’t show quantities. so far i’ve planted over 20 small jackfruit seedlings that have survived at least one winter outside. the more jackfruit seedlings i plant, the closer that 1 of them will be to local conditions/climate. i can never word this concept right. the average yearly high temp of sylmar is 77, but the average year high temp preferred by jackfruit is 84 (guessing). however, jackfruit seedlings are all different, so they don’t all have the same exact temperature preferences. if they did, then they’d be wiped out by even the smallest climate change. out of 20 jackfruit seedlings perhaps 1 of them prefers an average temp of 82. all else being equal, this seedling will do the best in the food forest. out of 100 jackfruit seedlings perhaps one of them prefers an average temp of 81, and so on. i have no idea what the actual numbers are, but the concept is basic adaptation. @a_Vivaldi is better at words than me, i nominate him to put this concept in words.

the trade-off with planting small seedlings is that they can be gobbled entirely by a hungry rabbit. ideally the seedlings should be grown in a nearby nursery, but this requires a lot of fenced in space, which i certainly don’t have. in the area i see fenced in empty lots but no signs that say “call this number if you’d like to use this space to grow fruit trees for public spaces.”

my planting method is to crawl into the thicket while trying my hardest to avoid copious amounts of rat poop and slugs. once i find a space where i can just barely stand up, i dig a big hole and then cram a bunch of plants into it. not only is this economy of scale, and a hedge of bets, but it facilitates an exchange of resources, thanks to fungi, among the plants.

resources are never equally distributed. a surinam cherry seedling might have access to a big pile of possum poop while its neighbor, a guava seedling, might have access to more water. the cherry trades some of its nitrogen for some of the guava’s water, and they are both better off. as an aside, i don’t understand how possum poop is so big.

ever heard of the miyawaki method of forest planting? the main tenet is to plant the trees and bushes very closely together. studies have shown that this method results in faster growth than traditional methods. proponents attribute this to greater competition but in reality, greater productivity depends on a better distribution of resources, which is the very point of markets. miyawaki forests basically make it easier for plants to trade resources with each other. however, since miyawaki proponents don’t understand economics, they only plant natives. the chances that any given country has the best nitrogen fixing plant in the world are just as slim as any given country having the fastest running person in the world. no country has a monopoly on all the best things. therefore, every country is better off by trading with the rest of the world. this is just as true for plants as it is for people.

visitors from around the world can trade their money to help the south coast botanic gardens grow. imagine if there was a 2nd donation box… “help our garden grow… fruit!” would you put your money in the 1st box or the 2nd box? does it matter? if it does matter, then why is there only 1 box?

how many fruit trees are in your closest public park?

have you ever written or called your city to request that more fruit trees be planted in public spaces?

have you ever guerrilla gardened fruit trees?

do you want more fruit trees in public spaces?

what’s the demand for fruit trees in public spaces?

in theory i could walk around asking people to sign a petition for more fruit trees in public parks. what percentage of people would be willing to sign? 75%? i’d collect more than 10,000 signatures which i’d take to the city council. and voila! 200 fruit trees planted in a park! leslie knope would be so proud!

signing a petition isn’t demand. writing your congressperson isn’t demand. voting for a mayor who promises to make your city greener isn’t demand.

demand is putting money into a donation box for fruit trees. demand is growing jackfruit from seed and planting the seedlings in an overgrown ditch. demand is donating money to this forum for a category dedicated to planting fruit trees in public spaces.

right now we don’t have the opportunity to use demand to determine the supply of forum categories. we don’t have this opportunity for the same reason we don’t have the opportunity to use demand to determine the supply of fruit trees in public parks. most people think we’re better off without these opportunities. but we’re never better off being ignorant of each other’s real and actual and true preferences for fruit trees. here and now is the time for humanity to finally leave the cave of delusions and walk out into the real world with fruit trees growing everywhere.


First of all, kudos for the initiative and dedication!

We are lucky that the attitudes towards fruit trees in public parks are changing here in Slovakia. It used to be a common thing that fruit and nut trees or lindens used to be planted along roads and some parks (like the one in my village) used to serve as public orchards/grafting libraries. After WW2 the comrades worked to “optimize” everything and suddenly fruit belonged into gardens and public trees were supposed to be esthetic and as little hassle as possible. Where there is fruit, there are bees, fallen fruit, wasps, fermentation, slippery leaves, you name it…
Nowadays, at least in larger cities, where people don’t have access to gardens, more and more fruit trees are planted in larger parks as community orchards. And also most of the trees planted are old or regional varieties which are gaining more and more popularity. Sometimes the initiative comes from the magistrate, but often it comes from NGOs or a civil association or a community. The planting as well as harvesting is often a community event (with the benefit of minimizing the hassle perceived by notorious naysayers).
Other places, like my village in the last 30 years, go for a no or little fruit approach. But we have several sweet chestnuts growing in the park that anyone can harvest.
If your community is open to the idea, I would get them involved as much as possible to build a sense of ownership and care towards the food forest. Even in planning the plantings and resting / interest areas and selecting fruit that they like to eat, maybe bringing grafts or seedlings from their favourite trees. Like a bit of an edible conservation arboretum.
If there are hostile people around, perhaps consider planting for concealment and “less hassle” on the perimeter.


do you ever watch “all the fruit” on youtube? your post reminded me of his video that i watched a year ago… Fruits you can forage in the suburbs of Sofia / Bulgaria. seems like when the people themselves were responsible for planting trees they planted edibles. i’d sure love to walk around the suburbs eating cherry plums.

a few videos prior, he posted Parque de Malaga Botanic Garden with many rare Fruits. that’s a public park in southern spain with a nice collection of subtropical fruit trees. it really opened my eyes to what parks can and should be like. i emailed the video to the los angeles parks department and received a form response. the idea of trying to wade through red tape was not appealing.

eventually i figured that i’d just start planting fruit trees in the drainage ditch near my friend’s place. i like the idea of community involvement and ownership but it’s not my forte. that being said, i’ve already told a handful of friendly people in the neighborhood about the food forest project and they like the idea.

a month ago i watched this video Growing an Urban Food Forest in a Public Park to Feed the Community! – The City Food Commons. a group in australia went all out making a park way more useful. lots of community involvement and support. but one crazy guy chopped down some of the fruit trees. most of the fruit trees i’ve planted are small enough that they could be cut at the base with hand pruners. the larger the trees grow the safer they will be from random crazies.

so far the only “exposed” trees i’ve planted are the capulin cherry (near-native) and catalina cherry (native). neither looks out of place so i doubt anyone has noticed them even though dozens of people walk or ride past them every day. the rest of the trees that i’ve planted can’t be seen from the trail. for example, here’s a fruiting size lemon guava that i planted yesterday right next to a willow tree…


even from a few feet away it’s hard to see. the trail is around 20’ away. in the same hole i also planted several seedlings…

aeonium cyclops
aloe vera x camperi
cocktail grapefruit
epiphyllum (mother had large fruit)
fig panache

which one will be the happiest in that particular spot? hard to say, which is why i hedge my bets.

so far the fig panache seedlings have grown the most. the weather’s been pretty cool though. this week it’s supposed to warm up with a high of 85f. the jackfruit seedlings will start trying to catch up to the fig seedlings. then it’s just a question of water.

the fruit trees are planted on a moisture gradient based on distance from the ditch. the furthest is the catalina cherry. the closest is maybe the lychee. there are jackfruit seedlings all along the gradient. it will be interesting to see how they do. maybe they will grow really long tap roots that can reach water. if not, then ideally they will trade with their neighbors for water.