As a brutal winter retreats into the record books, Bostonians of all species are out and about. “Mating sparrows, wild turkeys, hunting hawks, they’re all around us as we work,” says Orion Kriegman, Director of the Boston Food Forest Coalition. On the idyllic grounds of the Boston Nature Center in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston, neighbors work to prepare the Boston Food Forest for its second growing season. After only one year, the Food Forest is well stocked, boasting 34 young fruit and nut trees, with 45 more to join them in 2015. Though the most plentiful harvests are years away, the Food Forest is already yielding a stronger community and a fine model for economic and environmental justice in the city.

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A food forest is designed and stewarded with an awareness of ecology. Unlike industrial farms that cultivate only one crop or traditional gardens where relentless weeding is gospel, a food forest design recognizes the many layers of a healthy woodland ecosystem. To build biodiversity and resilience, food foresters fill these ecological layers with all kinds of amazing plants, animals and fungus that are often underutilized in the traditional design model.

Take the Paw Paw tree. The largest native fruit in the United States, the Paw Paw is not widely cultivated because its fruit does not ship well. However, in a Food Forest, the shade-tolerant Paw Paw plays the integral role of understory crop beneath larger fruit or nut trees. “I’ve never tried one before, but someday soon, I will,” says Kriegman, referring to the young Paw Paw trees rooted in the Boston Food Forest. The fruit’s flavor is a custard-like mix of banana, cantaloupe, and mango, which the nutritious Paw Paw physically resembles.

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In addition to the Boston Nature Center site, the Boston Food Forest Coalition stewards the Egleston Community Orchard in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. The Coalition hopes to expand to three additional sites in the next year. This growth is fueled almost entirely by volunteers, from master gardeners to first-time growers. Regardless of prior experience, everyone learns something from the Food Forest, which has been designed to both produce and educate.

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“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We want to connect the dots between the many community organizations already doing great work in Boston, and build an educational network in which people can learn how to establish a food forest in their own neighborhood,” says Kriegman.

Best of all, food forestry work is quite enjoyable. “We have a great time at our work parties,” says Kriegman. “Many hands make light work, and working together to build the soil turns out to be a lot of fun.”

Images via Boston Food Forest Coalition