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Food Forestry: A Growing Idea

From beans to bananas, expert describes a layered landscape, where a vertical variety of carefully selected plants provides maximum abundance.

July 18, 2013
Janet Six , Maui Weekly

It takes a community to build a food forest. That was the message delivered by Paul Massey to a receptive crowd of both seasoned permaculture enthusiasts and self-proclaimed "greenhorns" at a recent talk at the University of Hawai'i Maui College.

The director of Regenerations Botanical Garden on Kaua'i, Massey's presentation was jointly sponsored by the Maui Farmers Union United (MFUU), the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui (SLIM) and Upcountry Sustainability.

Established in November 2009, the Kalihiwai Food Forest and Seed Garden is the result of a successful partnership between Regenerations Botanical Garden and a private landowner on Kaua'i.

Article Photos

Paul Massey recently shared information about food forestry.

Massey said the landowner has graciously given his group a 25-year lease on four acres. Once the land was in hand, Massey conducted a community visioning process to gather input from a range of stakeholders.

With the community on board, they had a traditional Hawaiian blessing of the site, and his group of volunteers began terraforming landscape. Using a backhoe, they created a series of berms and basins to capture Kaua'i's legendary precipitation, thereby lessening the need for outside irrigation.

This type of technology has been employed successfully in the past on Maui. Look to the ingenuity of the Native Hawaiians and the extensive dry-land field systems created to grow sweet potatoes ('uala) in Kaupo to see a similar form of berm and basin technology.

Massey's group also actively transforms waste into abundance. Utilizing discarded cardboard boxes--flattened and then tiled to serve as a weed-suppressant--Massey admitted that in the beginning, the food forest did look a bit like a shantytown. However, in no time, the food forest gobbled up the ugly trash, transforming it into a fecund field of food.

So what exactly is a food forest? Massey said the concept is somewhat ambiguous, and thereby, hard to define. It is, as the name implies, more than a merely a garden or an orchard; rather, it may be best described as the artful marriage of the two, emphasizing verticality, which increases volume.

A food forest implies a layered landscape where a carefully selected understory provides nutrients for the canopy and vice versa. In addition to providing a wide variety of food--from nitrogen-fixing legumes, such as pigeon peas, to traditional canoe plants, such as bananas--the food forest also feeds a seed bank.

The mission of Regenerations Botanical Garden is "To support the conservation, cultivation, and distribution of plant diversity through seed banking and community-based stewardship activities." At present, the seed garden has produced over 100 collections of seeds and cuttings.

But there's more to this story that just stocking the seed bank. It was abundantly clear to those in attendance that Massey's food forest also provides much-needed sustenance for the soul for many of its participants.

What his presentation may have lacked in specifics, it more than made up in context, showing how a group of people came together with a common vision, and in the process, formed a "tribe" of like-minded individuals--a community deeply rooted in the 'aina.



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