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Berlin’s food forests: An urban agricultural revolution

How urban farmers in Berlin are using permaculture techniques to transform the food chain.

Photo: Liz Eve

Forests are incredible, naturally balanced ecosystems where every element interacts with and supports the growth of fellow organisms. Around the world, urban farmers are seeking to replicate these complex symbiotic systems and grow edible forests in city gardens, parks and industrial wastelands. We spoke to some Berlin-based projects on the front end of this agricultural revolution.

In December 2019, the Berlin Senate officially recognised that we are in a climate emergency. To get out of this emergency, we have to learn to get along without further destroying our planet – including changing our current food chain model and conventional agricultural structure. We are reaching a dead end with traditional agriculture. What we think of as normal in terms of food production is actually not normal at all: heavy machinery, massive monocultures, mineral fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and ever-worsening soil health. One (some say revolutionary) solution put forward is the food forest model.

What exactly is a food forest?

A food forest (also known as a forest garden) is a productive landscape composed of a mix of trees and perennial plants that mimics natural ecosystems. Rooted in permaculture design principles, this multi-dimensional, edible biotope incorporates a variety of plants growing on different layers, planted similarly to the way they would grow in the natural world.

Typically, food forests consist of seven layers: the canopy features fruit and nut trees, the lower tree level typically has smaller fruit trees, followed by a shrub layer (berries), the herbaceous layer (perennials, herbs, leafy greens), the root layer, or rhizosphere, and the ground cover or soil surface.

Bracketing these is the seventh vertical layer, which includes climbers and vines. Sometimes an eighth layer is included to incorporate fungi friends and mycelium.

Food forests integrate aspects of permaculture, regenerative agriculture, ecology, biology and other natural sciences.

Together, these disciplines create a living set of tools and practices that can help one engage with nature and food production in a more meaningful way. And because such a diverse community of life can grow in a small space,food forests are especially suitable for urban environments.

Photo: Liz Eve

Waldgarten Projekt – the science

Twenty kilometres east of Berlin lies a fertile patch of 2.7 hectares that is set to become one of Germany’s pilot projects for the food forest model.

This edible experiment was created by a cross-generational group that rallies under their parent association Sarsarale e.V. and collaborates with a sister project in Senegal called Permafoodforest, founded by Jens Hauck.

At the head of this crew of cultivators is Ramos Strzygowski, a software engineer turned permaculture devotee. “In Germany,even if food forests have previously existed in smaller iterations, there is not much scientific data available.

As a farmer, you won’t change systems if you can’t calculate output,” Strzygowski explains. “With food forests, we’re changing the system, offering a totally different way of thinking about how to grow food – no machines, smaller plots of land, lots of community support. You need numbers on yields and inputs/outputs etc. if you want to convince others.”

The Waldgarten Projekt aims to provide just this: realistic output figures and tutorials backed by documentation and scientific evaluation.

When asked about the yield of the food forest system compared to conventional agriculture, Hauck said that his project in Senegal has a much higher output of food and biomass per square metre compared to traditional agriculture. “In Senegal, we try to calculate what we are getting from one square metre; we have these seven layers and each layer is growing food. There is a lot of food coming out of a small area. We are collecting this data, counting our trees, measuring how much food we have. We need the numbers that will convince farmers to change,” he says.

A proper food forest does not have to be replanted year after year. Once established, it is generally very resilient. Hauck says that these food forest systems “are changing the microclimate, increasing biodiversity, restoring groundwater… all the things threatened by current agricultural systems. We are trying to do some healing, working with nature instead of against it. If we go forward producing food the way we have been, we will lose our place to live.” But if they are so fantastic, where are they? Why aren’t we being fed by food forests?

According to Strzygowski, prototypical food forests have been cropping up in Europe for the past 30 years, but aren’t currently feeding many people because the concept is still barely known and existing systems are rather small. He started to wonder if it could be scaled up – “if it works for five people we could do it for 50, or even 100.”

But it’s not just about size, as Hauck explains: “what we eat has to change as well. Huge monocultures are not working. This is really hard – perhaps the most difficult part of this process.”

This is why projects such as Waldgarten are ramping up both model and data collection. And it’s why others, such as the Feld Food Forest, are working to shift public perception on alternative food models and educate people on where their food comes from – and which processes drive production.

Photo: Liz Eve

Feld Food Forest – the soul

A people’s park in the heart of Berlin, Tempelhofer Feld has long served as a place of recreation, but the Feld Food Forest believes it could be this and even more. With a vision of transforming a small portion
of this shared space into a self-sustaining forest garden (and a newly signed contract permitting them to do so), we spoke to the group’s head of communication, Liz Eve, and organiser Max Schützeberg.

The project was born on the September 22, 2019 via a Facebook event called ‘Establishing a Food Forest on Tempelhofer Feld’ to which 15 people showed up. As of April 2022, the collective has just been given the go-ahead to start seeding their dream on the grassy field.

“The group was drawn to the Feld because of its popularity. Showing how greenspace can be managed is really important for future city sustainability,” explains Eve. She says that progress has been slow largely because people found it hard to understand the concept.

“When you call it a food forest people think it will be dense, a tree forest that you cannot penetrate,” she says. “It takes several conversations to explain that it will be a place for people – not just a natural space or one dedicated to food production.”

Organiser Max Schützeberg agrees on the need for information: “In a recent meeting with gardeners and Senate representatives, it was a concept nobody had heard of. People hear forest and have a certain vision – ‘no you cannot plant a forest on the Feld.’”

Yet the space FFF is imagining will actually invite interaction with nature. Beyond cultivating trees and veggies, FFF seeks to grow a community that revolves around this patch of nature in the middle of the city.

Guided by permaculture ethics ‘Fair Share, People Care, Earth Care’, their project is multifunctional. It aims to empower and engage with the community, foster knowledge through educational programs, as well as produce food.

Café Botanico – the stomach

If you want to get a real taste of the food forest model, the best place to go is Café Botanico. Hidden away in the backyard of an old building in Rixdorf is a 1000-squaremetre urban Garden of Eden where founder Martin Höfft grows an array of vegetables, fruit and wild herbs that showcases the connection between nature and consumption.

Höfft shares his story of moving to Berlin in 2011 and coming upon this dirty, neglected patch of land in the middle of the city. During parental leave with his newborn strapped to his back, he began to work the land: “It [was] a new approach for me, about getting the place alive. When it is alive it will grow; at a certain point it will even begin to grow by itself because nature does not need us to tell her what to do.”

This minimal, nature-led intervention approach has served Höfft (and Berlin’s foodies) well for over a decade. When asked about the public perception of food forests as yet another bio-bourgeoise movement disconnected from reality, Höfft is quick to defend his work, saying: “Is a forest garden posh? I am not sure, I never really thought about this – I’d rather say that a forest garden is highly productive farmland that not only produces food, but also to increases the ecological value of a place and makes it accessible and enjoyable for you and others. Not sure if that’s posh. It is definitely idealistic and it is a lot of work – and it won’t work if you don’t put your heart into it.”

What used to be a wasteland in Neukölln (overgrown weeds, durum wrappers, and metal scraps) has been transformed into a permaculture paradise. As Höfft explains: “you work with nature and cannot really apply your own visions to your environment. You let the environment talk to you and try to find solutions.”

Café Botanico was born as a collaboration between Höfft and his father-in-law (an Italian chef), plating up transformative market gardening for Berlin’s foodies. Now his ‘little’ garden manages to supply the restaurant with fresh greens the whole year “only because we let nature do its job and don’t get in its way too much,” he says.

Targeting both grey matter and taste buds, Höfft aims to persuade by educating and delighting. His best argument is the food served at Café Botanico. Try it – you can thank us later.

Photo: Liz Eve

The future

It’s easy to feel a sense of pervading doom as the world seems to hurtle towards a
disastrous finale. But meeting the hands and hearts behind the food forest movement does bring a certain sense of hope.

With clarity of voice and vision, Höfft speaks to the collective urgency with a kind of patience one accumulates after spending years becoming familiar with the rhythms of nature. “I need to accept, even though we are in a transition to a more ecological society, we are not there yet,” he says.

Based on cooperation, his simple, holistic view cuts through the antagonism that sometimes
crops up between alternative and conventional approaches, avoiding the ‘immediate fix’ pitfalls simply by respecting the rhythms of natural growth.

Hauck has a similar mentality, recognising that he and his colleagues “are not alone in working on this challenge. We have urban gardens, people transforming their roofs to greenspaces, people building hydroponic systems in their cellars. Also those researching food waste and similar issues.

When you look at the food chain, there are a lot of screws we can tighten…there are many ways, and when we put them all together it will work in the end.” And the crew at FFF are demonstrating that even in the heart of the city there are lots and lots of fertile spaces, “many more than you first think,” Eves explains. “I think that is really the idea of an ‘edible city’ – you could produce food on every street corner.”

It is going to take a mindset and perspective shift by consumers to justify the funding and implementation of these models. You can’t get corn flakes or frozen pizza from a food forest. But you can grow the variety of nourishment needed to meet nutritional requirements for the whole year, proving this is a first step towards wider acceptance – and investment.

Finally, for Strzygowski, it is a question of alternative options: “If you have more and more climatic catastrophes, we need to ask what we can do in the time remaining… so let’s give it a try. We’re at the point where we have to change consumption behaviours such as our urge to eat strawberries in December. You can call this a problem – or you can say it is an interesting challenge.”