Pittsburgh Forest Garden grew out of my desire to to help people unlock the potential beauty, biodiversity, and abundance in the landscape all around them. The name describes my vision for the future: a sprawling network of school and community forest gardens in the Pittsburgh area that will equip people with the skills and empower them with the courage to grow food and regenerate the health of our local ecosystem, while also healing the societal/cultural maladies that created the crisis in the first place. As a father of three, and as someone who has loved plants and wild places my whole life, I am naturally dismayed and alarmed at the deepening climate crisis, the pace of ongoing global ecological destruction, and the way that the effects of this destruction are felt most by black, indigenous, and communities of color. Everything I do is shaped by a yearning for climate justice—transformative action towards the liberation and restoration of land, labor, and culture. This may sound like a lofty goal, but it begins, literally, right in our backyards. Pittsburgh Forest Garden is my way of engaging directly with this work.
I came to landscape design late in life, though I've loved plants, landscapes and design my whole life. I grew up in the temperate rainforest of Southeast Alaska, where I first fell in love with wild spaces. I worked in fish canneries, the tourism industry, and as a cook on tugboats and fishing boats before going to an environmental college in Arizona to study permaculture and creative writing. After college, I worked as a technical writer, a teacher, a prep cook, and a house painter. I came to Pittsburgh in 2005 to study poetry at Pitt, where I have stayed on as a senior lecturer in the English department teaching creative writing. I founded Pittsburgh Forest Garden in 2018 as a way to do the work I truly love and fulfill my vision of helping to heal our ailing planet. I live with my partner and three children in the East Liberty neighborhood at Borland Garden—an intentional community centered around urban gardening, landcare and the arts.
I am writing a book titled The New School Garden: Teaching Resilience & Regeneration in an Age of Climate Crisis—a design manual for school and community gardens that directly address climate change and its wholistic, systems-based solutions.
What is a Forest Garden?
Forest gardens are designed to mimic the properties, principles, patterns, and processes of natural ecosystems while producing food and other materials useful to humans. Forest gardening is one of the oldest forms of agriculture in the world: In the Bolivian Amazon, for example, beginning about 11,000 years ago, people started cultivating manioc and squash. They created thousands of “artificial forest islands” — oases of trees and other plants — within savanna landscapes. Similarly, as M. Kat Anderson writes in Tending the Wild, when white settlers arrived on the North American continent and encountered its unthinkable bounty of fish, game, and wild plant foods, what they took to be untamed “wilderness” was actually a sophisticated garden, skillfully tended by indigenous communities who had lived there for thousands of years.
Forest "home gardens" are in use today all over asia, where it is common to grow a wide variety of perennial staple crops on small backyard parcels of land. In recent years, temperate climate permaculture has popularized the forest garden as a strategy for growing food and biodiversity in northern regions. The concept is simple: As in natural forests, most food forest plants are perennials that fill all available spaces (see illustration). As with natural forests, food forests designs strive to be mostly self-maintaining: nitrogen-fixing plants fertilize the soil; nectary flowers attract beneficial insects to help control pests and provide pollination for food crops; ground cover plants act as a living mulch to hold water, prevent erosion, suppress weeds, and provide nutrients to the soil. Unlike natural forests, however, the majority of food forest plants are edible, medicinal, or useful to humans in some way.
What is Regenerative Landscaping?
A regenerative approach to gardening and landscaping understands the health of human beings as intimately connected with the health of forests, rivers, prairies, oceans, and other ecosystems. Any harm done to them directly harms us, as they constitute the organs and tissue of the living planet. A regenerative approach to gardening and landscaping centers biodiversity alongside food production and aesthetics. It aims to improve and protect soil, grow habitat for wildlife and food for pollinators, sink and store carbon in the soil, increase water infiltration and improve water cycling, while also beautifying space and growing food, medicine, firewood, and other materials for human use. This isn’t hard to do—in fact, once established, these gardens require fewer inputs and less labor to maintain than a conventional garden. It merely requires a shift to a mindset that gardens with the earth, not just on it.
Specifically, regenerative landscape and garden design shifts the focus of gardening away from conventional, high-input landscaping practices by working to:
Build deep soil that is rich in nutrients and organic matter
Grow many layers of vegetation to create varied habitat for birds, insects and other wildlife;
Create mutually beneficial relationships between plants, insects, birds, microbes, mammals, and all other inhabitants of the landscape, including humans
Restore the water cycle by sinking, slowing and spreading water in the landscape, increasing soil fertility and resiliency
Create increasingly closed cycles so that, over time, the garden requires fewer supplies from the outside, producing most of its own fertilizer, mulch, seeds, new plants, and so on. Except for the harvest, little from the garden is lost by leaching and erosion—it's all folded back into the life cycle of the soil and plants.
It is worth noting that conventional landscaping practices reverse the equations above: they deplete topsoil, destroy habitat, waste water, poison insects, birds, microbes, and mammals, and alienate humans from the land. Far from being regenerative, conventional practices are extractive and destructive.
The point of regenerative land care is not only to grow healthier, more complex, abundant gardens and landscapes, but to restore the relationships between humans beings and the living planet. To feel myself alive in a sentient, living universe as opposed to a utilitarian or mechanical one—this is, for me, the point of the regenerative approach.