Planning Your Community Food Forest

Take a moment to plan through all the phases of starting your own community food forest project: from initiation to maintenance, to planning for the future.

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by Catherine Bukowski
At the Fargo Forest Garden in Portland, Oregon, mounds of soil were constructed across the site to replicate forest floor terrain, as well as to create microclimates and soil conditions favorable for selected plants. The mounds also help direct water runoff into pathways engineered to channel water to a gravel patio.

Our experience studying and leading community food forests taught us that starting with the basics and seeking to understand fundamental management phases leads to effective planning. This is true whether the food forest is an independent project or part of a larger community initiative. Thinking about phases helps leaders identify and plan for when, where, and how to direct precious resources instead of trying to do everything at once. The Community Food Forest Handbook provides a general overview of the following five main phases associated with project management and relates them to community food forests:

  • Initiation
  • Planning
  • Establishment
  • Monitoring and maintenance
  • Closure

The phases are listed in the order they occur when applied to projects that have a linear timeline. However, we found that these phases often did not occur in a linear fashion for community food forest projects. For example, one section of a site might be in the establishment phase, while another previously established section is in the monitoring and maintenance phase, while yet another area is being planned for a future planting. These phases do not only apply to the installation of plants either. Volunteer education could be in the planning process while another is currently being implemented. At the same time, the steps to close down and document a recent workshop might be taking place while future visioning is happening for the next. Soliciting feedback from participants and deciding whether or not to offer the same or a similar workshop in the future is part of closure. The information gathered provides direction for planning the next volunteer education phase. Let’s take a look at the initiation phase:


Initiation is the origination and early evolution of an idea. It starts when the idea is born and gets underway when the thought is shared with others to test the potential. With positive feedback, excitement begins to build. This is typically the phase when people reach out to those they know could be interested in the idea to gain support and encouragement. This is an exhilarating time for a community food forest project. Brainstorming is a great and exciting way to generate ideas and start working on details such as what species will be desirable. It is tempting to start on a detailed food forest design, but typically a full design is a product of the planning phase due to the importance of first acquiring land and seeking community input. While visiting food forests across the country, it became evident that it is next to impossible to predict how many people may be involved when initiating a community food forest. There may be scores of people involved or just a handful and it is best to prepare for both.

Identifying your initial objectives is helpful to avoid a sense of being immediately overwhelmed by the overall scope of what needs to be accomplished. Let us break down some of the initial steps of initiation and consider how they relate to community food forests.


One of the first details to consider is space. Is property easily available? If not, what will it take to locate an appropriate place and negotiate a lease or tenure? At this stage, it may be helpful to seek advice from professionals. For example, an urban forester could specify green spaces where increasing canopy coverage is possible, or an urban planner may know of suitable land where future development is unlikely. The owner of a vacant lot may be able to be contacted by checking a city’s vacant property registry. Finding the best location and securing permission can be a lengthy process. It is best to start early as the space selected will influence the participants involved, the planning process, and dynamics with the broader community.

Community Context

Initiation is also the ideal phase in which to think about historical and contemporary issues in a community and the role a food forest can play in adequately and fairly addressing both. Is there a historical context that will provide cultural meaning to the design? Is there a history of neighborhood divide to be bridged through careful planning? Or is there strong unity in a neighborhood that will support the project and make selecting a location easy? These types of questions are critical to early success. Another detail to reflect on early is whether enough people have the time, energy, and interest to pursue a community food forest and take it to the planning phase.

Mission and Target Audience

While brainstorming about your community food forest, an important early step is to ask yourself this question: Why this project instead of another? Critical reflection is helpful for this type of discussion. There are multiple ways to increase food security in a town, build community, or act on behalf of social justice. Because of this, it is worthwhile to explore questions such as: Who will the community food forest serve? Why is a community food forest the most appropriate solution for the people it will serve? Systems thinking, community capitals, and critical reflection are helpful in these brainstorming sessions. After identifying why a community food forest is the most appropriate project, leaders can go on to identify the scope.


Scope sets limits around what the project can and cannot address. Scope focuses a project by recognizing it cannot be the solution to every problem. Important when defining scope is to revisit project vision and objectives. The vision will go through multiple stages of development and the first iteration is one that gains peer approval to pursue. During the pursuit, there is a need for collecting feedback and opinions from others about the vision. Future iterations should then be collectively developed and shared so that everyone sees their part reflected and are willing to work together toward making the vision a reality.

Setting the scope of a project also makes it easier to identify who should be involved and define their roles and responsibilities. Once you have a better idea of who will be involved, you and fellow leaders can form an organizational structure or decide on a decision-making process. Because decision-making often needs to begin almost from project inception, it is better to agree upon a decision-making system well before the planning phase.


Lastly, as part of feasibility discussions, leaders need to consider risks, assumptions about a project’s aims, and other issues that potentially will affect the community food forest. Being realistic about these components allows the group to plan for how to avoid or deal with them if encountered during the project. For example, with any community food forest, there is a risk that the organization or group of people who initiate the project will either dissipate or move on. In The Community Food Forest Handbook, we describe how this happened at the Dr. George Washington Carver Edible Park in Asheville when the founders of the organization moved from the area. Because Asheville agreed to share responsibility early in the process, the park was able to weather the transition to a new caretaker organization under the oversight of the municipality. This is an example of how site continuity can be preserved through planning with a public partner who agrees to share some of the risk.

More From The Community Food Forest Handbook:

This excerpt is adapted from Catherine Bukowski and John Munsell’s book The Community Food Forest Handbook: How to Plan, Organize, and Nurture Edible Gathering Places (Chelsea Green, 2018) and is printed with permission from the publisher.

Food Forests

Food forests can help increase biodiversity, protect valuable habitat for beneficial insects, and promote food security and resilience, all while providing an abundant harvest The Food Forest Handbook is a practical manual for the design and management of a home-scale perennial polyculture garden. Order from the Mother Earth News Store, or by calling 800-678-4883

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