Photograph by Whitney Pipkin
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Acorn gel and fermented sweet potato greens star in an appetizer served on shiso leaves at an outdoor forest feast.
Photograph by Whitney Pipkin

How to Farm a Forest—and Feed a Neighborhood

A forest garden helps prove the theory that fertile, well-maintained understories can produce as many calories per acre as a field of wheat.

The dollop of acorn gel with fermented sweet potato greens looked like sustenance from an episode of Survivor when a volunteer first offered it to me, plated on a single shiso leaf. It tasted like salted almond butter, albeit on an unconventional vessel—and served in an unconventional place.

I had just entered a “forest garden,” according to the wooden letters woven into the gate of a towering deer fence. Though I didn’t have to forage or grow the ingredients for what was billed that evening as a food forest feast, it was clear that someone had.

What looks from a distance like an overgrown field in an otherwise suburban enclave of Bowie, Maryland, is, in fact, a carefully managed young forest, teeming with enough food to feed the neighborhood. At least that’s what forest farmer Lincoln Smith aimed to prove when he invited Washington, D.C., chef Michael Costa to cook a several-coursed meal from the plants, trees—and duck eggs—found on these ten acres of fields and forests.

“When I started this four-and-a-half years ago, I wanted to eat from a healthy ecosystem, not from a farm that was doing somewhat less damage,” Smith said as he welcomed 50 guests to the outdoor dinner. “Tonight, we get a taste of what that could be.”

The Incredible, Edible Forest

On land he rents from a nearby church, Smith has replaced the corn and tobacco it’s grown for decades with nutrient-dense crops like amaranth and ground cherries, seeding them among native pawpaw, persimmon, and pear trees. Ducks roam the property, leaving behind fertilizer and eggs that help round out weekly shares from the farm for nearby residents.

In the mature forest that surrounds the field, an orchard has begun to fill in the sun-spotted understory. Logs sprout shitake and oyster mushrooms and ferns produce edible fiddleheads. That’s not to mention the oak trees that effortlessly produce buckets and buckets of acorns, which Smith transforms into flour and baked goods.

His approach to farming could be described as permaculture, agroforestry or, Smith’s favorite, agroecology. Customers and neighbors of the farm know its efforts to coax food from a system that’s also good for soil, water, and wildlife simply as forest gardening, and many of them pitch in.

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Purple sweet potatoes and butternut squash, grown in scattered beds throughout the area, are served at the feast.

This let-it-grow approach to food production has taken root in other parts of the country, too, where people are taking cues from one of nature’s most productive systems to grow more with fewer inputs. A food forest that took shape in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in 2013 is still sprouting berries, herbs, and the like in a communal foraging area, as well as smaller plots for individual gardeners.

North of Seattle in Sedro Woolley, Washington, the Woolley Food Forest Association is turning two-and-a-half acres next to a food bank into fertile ground for blueberries, English walnut trees, and other mostly perennial crops that can feed people, with plans to propagate the system elsewhere.

“The whole point of this is you’re participating in what wants to grow here,” says Will Honea, a founder of the group who sees this type of growing as a way to feed people without polluting the environment. “If you don’t insist on making it look like a golf course, it can be a lot less work in the end.”

Acorn's Gluten-Free Flour Power

But few are building businesses on the backs of the food forest concept, or milking its rich resources for as many nutrients, as Smith. With his business partner, Benjamin Friton, Smith’s Forested business also offers landscape design services for communities or homesteaders interested in forest gardening (and monthly tours of the ten-acre plot in Bowie).

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Attendees of the first forest feast in Bowie, Maryland, pass a plate of potatoes as Lincoln Smith, founder of Forested, looks on.

This type of agriculture might not feed the world, Smith says, but it can feed communities from a forest resource that’s so underappreciated—despite being a workhorse for cleaner air and water—that the trees are often chopped down to make room for more houses or traditional farm fields. Smith’s forest garden, small as it may be, helps prove the theory that forests with fertile, well-maintained understories can produce as many calories per acre as a field of wheat.

In that line of argument, the humble acorn has become Exhibit A.

Smith mills hundreds of pounds of acorns into flour each year to use them like wheat flour for (gluten-free!) breads and baked goods. The forest feast’s menu featured acorns several ways: as a nutty gel, as the main ingredient in fried falafel, and as a flour substitute in pawpaw cakes and acorn granola.

Acorns were staple foods for Native Americans, after all, and Smith has traveled as far as Korea to rediscover how the nut can be used in modern cuisines.

“We can use tree crops to produce a stable carbohydrate food that supports a culture without having to till the ground and ruin the forest,” Smith says.

A Chef’s Playground

Michael Costa, head chef at the Mediterranean-focused Zaytinya (owned by José Andres) in Washington, D.C., met Smith at a food conference and has been visiting this “massively inspiring” space to forage for ingredients ever since. The pair agreed to host a dinner that would put the food forest’s potential on a plate, supplementing its produce and duck eggs only with dairy from nearby farms.

“As a chef, there’s no better playground than this,” Costa said while frying purple sweet potatoes into crunchy cubes before dinner. As the sun settled into its golden hour, bright goldenrods sparkled against an otherwise green backdrop around him.

Butternut squash and a duck egg omelet were cooked over open flame in the field, which was mowed to accommodate several tables and a bluegrass band. Puntarella, a pungent green, was served alongside late-season tomatoes, including some sun-dried in the garden’s solar-powered dehydrators. The acorn falafel was served hot and crunchy alongside marinated sweet peppers and sautéed forest mushrooms. (See "Why Mushrooms Rule the Fungi Kingdom")

And a dessert of acorn pawpaw cakes went as far as any in convincing the diners that from-the-forest food could be delicious—and filling.

But, standing next to the forest farmers near the end of the meal, the chef didn’t want to take too much credit.

“All I really do is come in and do the last 3 percent of work to put food on the table,” Costa said. “I can’t imagine a more interesting place to do that.”