The food forest demonstrates how to obtain a yield while caring for the earth and its inhabitants. (Photo by Nancy McLaughlin)

The red-winged blackbirds are waging a furious battle to keep him away from the pear trees, and the squirrels are already plotting to make off with this year’s crop of hazelnuts, but Tim Sonder remains unruffled and determined to share the bounty of Evanston’s food forest with local food pantries as well as the resident wildlife. “The squirrels are very greedy,” he laughs, “and it is a problem. However, we plant enough to get plenty of food.” Mr. Sonder is co-leader of Edible Evanston, a non-profit organization that oversees the Eggleston Park Food Forest and the thriving volunteer program that has helped it grow over the past five years.

The food forest is a project that has evolved over time much like the plants that inhabit it. The seeds were sown in 2013 when a group of Northwestern University students secured the land to plant an orchard consisting of nearly 50 fruit and nut trees as well as 30 raspberry bushes. After the students moved on, oversight of the orchard passed through various hands until the fall of 2016, when Edible Evanston became involved and began its conversion to a diverse, high-yield food forest. Startup funding for the concept came from the Evanston Community Foundation. Today the food forest is sustained through donations from individual and business supporters as well as grants from various civic organizations.

Small and slow solutions and an emphasis on biodiversity have allowed the food forest to develop in a natural way. (Photo by Nancy McLaughlin)

Chaotic beauty reigns in this verdant corner of the park, but a closer look reveals incredible natural harmony and balance. The forest is organized into seven distinct tree guilds with carefully selected companion plantings occupying the layers below. Well-established fruit trees provide shade and nutrients to an eye-popping array of edible plants, including gooseberry, goumi and currant shrubs, as well as fragrant herbs and earthy mushrooms.

“Everything here has at least two uses,” Mr. Sonder explains. Beneath the apple trees, wild blue indigo provides food for pollinators and a critical source of nitrogen. Bright purple chives and yellow daffodils are a treat for the eyes and also deter rabbits and deer from nibbling at tree bark. Strawberry plants act as a ground cover keeping the weeds at bay and later in the summer will provide succulent fruit.

Showy, fragrant Rugosa roses produce large edible hips. (Photo by Nancy McLaughlin)

Founded on the principles of permaculture, the food forest is modeled after a natural woodland ecosystem. In his writings, permaculture pioneer David Holmgren defines the system as “consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs.”

“The idea,” says Mr. Sonder, “is to create something that is more self-sustaining – lower inputs of things and lower inputs of labor over time.” Before the orchard conversion began, Mr. Sonder had visited the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, one of the oldest and largest in the country. He and his team from Edible Evanston were inspired to try to create something similar in Evanston, an environment where the needs of the earth and other beings would be weighted equally with those of people. It was a relatively new idea at the time, but today there are more than 70 food forests located in states across the country.

The food forest is home to native Blue Orchard mason bees, solitary stingless insects that are highly effective pollinators of fruit trees. (Photo by Nancy McLaughlin)

“The three ethics of permaculture are earth care, people care and fair share. I stand up here and keep giving the lesson, but the squirrels just aren’t listening,” Mr. Sonder quips. He finds a more receptive audience in the volunteer gardeners who work in the food forest every Thursday evening as well as the first Sunday and third Saturday of the month. Mr. Sonder says they are mostly local folks, who range in age from 16 to 85, although much younger children often come with their parents. No prior experience is required. Interested parties can register online to help with weeding, planting annuals and perennials, harvesting, mulching and other projects.

Although weeding is a common task, volunteers shouldn’t expect to pull too many dandelions during their shifts. The much-reviled plant occupies a place of honor in the food forest. “They have so many benefits,” says Mr. Sonder. “The leaves are edible. The flowers are edible. The pollinators love them.”  Their deep taproots pull up nutrients from the soil and make them available to other plants. Mr. Sonder advises home gardeners who wish to control dandelions to mow less frequently. A higher lawn will crowd out sun-loving dandelions. Or better yet, Mr. Sonder suggests, eliminate lawns altogether in favor of more eco-friendly plantings.

When the topset of the Egyptian walking onion becomes heavy enough, it will pull the stalk over onto the ground, allowing the fallen topset to take root and spread.

Throughout the summer volunteers are able to enjoy many of the fruits of their labors, with raspberries being a particular favorite, but much of the excess is donated to local food pantries as part of Edible Evanston’s produce sharing initiative. The food is an important byproduct of the forest, but Mr. Sonder believes other yields are just as valuable. “It’s about demonstration and education. I find that inspiring, and teaching people and showing them what they can do for themselves is also a yield. Every time someone comes here they are amazed at how much they learn.”

This summer Edible Evanston plans to complete an irrigation project to increase water use efficiency, and in the near future, the team would like to build a shelter that could be used for educational programming and rainwater collection. Mr. Sonder says eventually he hopes to see the food forest enhanced with rotating displays of artwork, sculptures and a water feature that would create a welcoming space for community gatherings.

“My goal in all this is to get people to see the potential and the beauty in nature,” says Mr. Sonder. “If you work with nature instead of fighting against it, you can create a productive environment.”

Nancy McLaughlin

Nancy McLaughlin is an Evanston-based freelance writer who has a fascination for the everyday events that shape our community in extraordinary ways. She covers human interest stories for the RoundTable.