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Ottawa Community Urban Food Forest
Ottawa Community Urban Food Forest
Last updated:
Mailing Address (off site): 326 Unicentre, Carleton University, 1125 Colenel By Drive, Ottawa, ON, K1S 5B6, Ottawa, Ontario, CA
Climate zone:
Cold Temperate

Anastasia Sylenko Chris Lawson Cory Price Danielle McKenzie Darren Shield Dietmar Benedetti Jay Cuthbertson Ron St. Louis Shannon Franklin
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Ottawa Community Urban Food Forest

Project Type

Urban, Community, Philanthropic aid, Permaculture Local Group Transition Town Permablitz

Project Summary

The Community Urban Food Forest (CUFF) is a not-for-profit and community-engaged project of Permaculture Ottawa. In conjunction with Just Food Ottawa we are creating a Food Forest to act as a demonstration, education and propagation site. This project is a pilot project determined to see what potential there is for more city-wide edible spaces projects.

Project Description

Community Urban Food Forest (CUFF) Project Overview

Permaculture Ottawa is a volunteer-based group that promotes permaculture—an ecological design discipline—within the Ottawa region, and offers hands-on workshops, panel discussions, information sessions, movie nights, plant and seed swaps, work bees, and other permaculture-related activities. The Food Forest project differs from both a wild forest and an orchard in that it aims to combine elements of the two: it will be a perennial polyculture modeled after a forest ecosystem. The Food Forest will provide ecosystem services (such as erosion control, on-site water retention, wildlife habitat and fodder, soil fertility building, and native species conservation), while also providing useful edible, medicinal, and commercially valuable products for human consumption. The goal of the Food Forest is to demonstrate that environmental conservation goals can be reconciled with agricultural goals, and that human needs can be met in sustainable ways. This project seeks to adapt innovative ecological agriculture models that are currently being promoted in other parts of North America, and demonstrate the feasibility of the Food Forest model for the Ottawa region. 

Community Partners

The Food Forest will be planned and coordinated by Permaculture Ottawa, who will work with Just Food to coordinate the Food Forest as one component of the Just Food’s Community Food Hub Project. In addition, the Food Forest project is part of ongoing research on permaculture and urban food systems by a Masters level student in Carleton University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. 

What is a Food Forest?

A Food Forest is an intensively designed polyculture system, where diverse plant species are arranged in such a way that they benefit one another and serve a range of ecosystem needs. Food Forests differ from wild forests in that they are designed to optimize edible species for humans. However, unlike orchards, which tend to rely on monocultures, Food Forests are also designed to mimic the diversity of wild forests, as each species fulfils a variety of functions within a self-sustaining ecosystem model. Such systems involve the successional growth of various perennial species in ways that mimic the development and appearance of a woodland area. The effort needed in the production and maintenance of a Food Forest is predominantly in the design phase and early implementation of the process. Food Forests are designed so that different elements in the system all contribute to its healthy functioning and in comparison to conventional agriculture, over time food forests demonstrate improved soil fertility, fewer pest problems, erosion control, and rainwater retention. This eliminates the need for chemical agricultural products, tillage, or heavy machinery. They are also less work to maintain as their long term requirements include occasional mulching, pruning and harvesting. Because they are composed of deep-rooted perennials, rather than annuals, Food Forests are more resilient to extreme weather events and climatic changes. Additionally, they provide many ecosystem services such as water retention and filtration, provide wind breaks, act as sound buffers, and are aesthetically pleasing. 

Finally, this method of ecological agriculture builds soils, prevents erosion and sequesters carbon dioxide. Cities and campuses around the world are adding food forests to their landscapes to demonstrate sustainable and resilient means of food production. They are also incorporating food forests into local plans to reduce their urban carbon footprint. 

Wider Context For the Project

The appeal for such a project comes as Permaculture Ottawa is faced with increased public demand for education, demonstration and implementation of sustainable and local food production. Furthermore, there is growing public interest in innovations that promote sustainability, and improve quality of life in urban environments. The Food Forest will provide an example of how carefully designed agricultural systems can provide ecosystem services while also feeding people, and relying on fewer energy and material inputs than conventional agriculture. The Food Forest demonstration project is also meant to inspire citizens, developers and planners on how food systems can be worked into urban landscaping and architecture. Such innovations in sustainability are precisely the elements that can foster healthy communities and a creative city. From our initial demonstration site we plan to develop a replicable model for both backyards and business districts. 

Site Choice

Currently Permaculture Ottawa does not have access to a land base, which makes it more difficult to offer hands-on workshops, and to demonstrate permaculture principles through practical applications. Permaculture Ottawa sees the Food Forest project as a unique opportunity to showcase permaculture in Ottawa while also participating in Just Food’s innovative Community Food Hub. The current site at Greens Creek will provide us with a variety of locations that would be ideal to grow a food forest, along with many opportunities to collaborate with Just Food in mutually beneficial ways. Just Food will offer programs that teach a new generations of farmers to produce sustainable and local food right in the Greenbelt, and Permaculture Ottawa can augment this by demonstrating how partially and fully forested sites can be an equally productive element of our City’s food system.

Food Forests can act as excellent buffers between agriculture, residential areas, and ecologically sensitive zones. The site that we have chosen for the Food Forest is located near the residential street of Tauvette Street, which means that residents will 

benefit from a calm woodland landscape that will contribute to property value by buffering the noise and pollution of Innes Road, and maintaining a natural aesthetic. It can potentially contribute to the protection of the nearby—ecologically sensitive— Greens Creek by increasing rainwater retention on the site, as well as slowing and filtering the flow of water coming from residential settlements and farm fields. The food forest will also be compatible with the recreational function of the site desired by local residents, since it will provide the public with a beautiful path to walk through. The site is also ideally placed for public access for educational programming since it is right on the frequent 94 bus route that travels down Innes Road. Furthermore, since it is close to many neighborhood schools it would be a welcome outing for teachers looking to supplement their curricula on ecosystems, food systems and sustainability.

Furthermore, Blackburn Hamlet is an extensively forested neighborhood, which can be challenging for people who want to grow food in their backyard. Through the food forest, Permaculture Ottawa will be able to teach local residents how to select and plant shade-tolerant edible species so that even residents with heavy tree cover on their property can participate in a local food system.

The Food Forest’s design is primarily composed of trees and other woody perennials that in some cases require years, or even decades to fully mature. In addition, many of the species we hope to plant are rare, expensive, and some are difficult to aquire. For these resons, it is essential that Permaculture Ottawa have long term access to the proposed site for the project to be viable. Permaculture Ottawa hopes to implement a multifaceted productive and educational food forest site to benefit generations to come, and many of our members are committed to a long-term engagement with the project. 

Project Planning

Food forests offer the benefits of a low maintenance food system, which unlike more conventional forms of agriculture, will last for generations and will improve, rather than deplete the soil. However these benefits are the result of many hours of planning and planting. To design a food forest the site needs a great deal of observation in order to fully understand the flows of different elements (wind, water, sun, etc.) through the site. This is so that plants, swales (on-contour trenches that retain water), mini-ponds, stones, etc. can be most efficiently placed in order to create a self-sustaining system. After intensive observation, design, and implementation, the only labour that is needed is pruning, mulching and harvesting. This is a stark contrast from more conventional forms of agriculture, which require continual tilling, sowing, watering and weeding. 

The timeline of the food forest will follow a four phase plan, most of which will be implemented in the next two or three years. If designed properly the last phase should last theoretically forever, which is what “perma”culture strives for. The phases are as follows:

Phase I (Oct, 2011 - Oct. 2012) – Visioning and planning. This phase is an intensive planning process that involves the visioning of what the Food Forest will involve. It will require the tasks of site observation, mapping out social networks and community partners, discovering what various stakeholders desire from the site (i.e. local community, NCC, Just Food, Ottawa permaculture community, etc.), inventorying available resources for the project. It also involves thinking well into the future about what later generations will need, and how the site can foreseeably benefit them (for example, by designing climate change resiliancy into the plan). These processes will yield an overarching conceptual plan for what will be incorporated into the of the Food Forest.

Phase II (April, 2012 - April 2013) – Observation and design. Once the vision of the site is established, designers will continue site observation to determine how materials and energy move through the site, and how these flows may change over time. This will include site contours, observations of year-round wind patterns, light exposure, surface water flow, micro-climates, animal traffic, human traffic and usage, and other site factors. During the observation period Food Forest volunteers will untertake detailed site mapping that records the factors affecting the site. From this, designers will be able to start thinking about the ideal location of design elements to be arranged in such a way as to minimize necessary external inputs of labour and resources. Such a design will harness these energies to produce a relatively self-sustaining system whose productivity will increase as it matures.

Phase III (May 2013 - October 2013) – Implementation. After two years of observation and an intensive design process, the Food Forest plan will then be ready for implementation. This phase will involve the initial planting of soil building features along with some long term perennial flora that will act as the more central features in the food system. These elements will include the implementation of contour swales, a rain water collection pond (popularly known as a “rain garden”), nitrogen fixing plants and trees, several fruit trees and bushes, and a deep mulch around all of the planted species.

This process will require the most amount of labour and materials, and will also provide the greatest educational benefits for students and community members. This phase will take a full summer season in order to get the food forest started to begin maturation into a resilient food-producing system.

Phase IV (November 2013 - onwards) – Reflection, Additions and Maintenance. Once implemented, the food forest will need occasional maintenance. This will involve the pruning of overgrown plants in order to ensure the health of the plants, the waste from which will serve as mulch to nourish and protect the soil and roots from erosion. The abundant fruits, nuts, greens, and herbs, produced from this forest will also need to be harvested, which can be done casually by local residents, as well as by organized

teams of Permaculture Ottawa volunteers for larger harvests (of seasonal fruits and nuts). After the initial installation of the food forest designers will need to revisit the design in order to make additions or remove elements to allow the forest to thrive. Ongoing evaluation couldresult in the addition of a plants that repel certain unforeseen pests. With occasional effort the food forest can last indefinitely, withstanding fairly substantial shocks due to climate and land use change. If maintenance of the site is stopped at some point in the distant future the food forest will simply mature fully into a closed canopy forest ecosystem, which looks extremely similar to a typical forest.


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