Los Angeles-based Huntington Ranch Experiments with Edible Landscapes and Food Forests
September 23, 2011 | Melaine Bryant
Researchers at the Huntington Ranch are experimenting with innovative farming techniques focused on ecosystem-based growing and using multi-level polyculture to create “edible landscapes.” Such landscape systems require less upkeep, have a lower environmental impact, and are less expensive in the long run.
Located on fifteen undeveloped acres of land at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, CA, the Ranch features a vegetable garden, dozens of fruit trees, an avocado grove, a “food forest,” and a half-acre zone featuring demonstration spaces for container gardening and pruning workshops. The Ranch functions as an outdoor classroom, demonstration garden, and research lab for sustainable urban agriculture.
From South Central to Huntington
The Ranch, which opened in November 2010, had its genesis in a 2006 controversy surrounding the closure of South Central Farm, a fourteen-acre urban community garden in Los Angeles. When the shuttering of South Central Farm was imminent, the Annenberg foundation, which had become involved with a campaign to raise money to save the community garden, paid for all of its mature fruit trees to be boxed up and moved temporarily to the Huntington.
When the decision was made to plant the trees at the Huntington, Jim Folsom, the director of the botanical gardens, proposed a larger urban agriculture project on the same site. The Annenberg Foundation provided the funding, and the Ranch was born.
Edible Landscapes and Food Forests
Scott Kleinrock, the Ranch’s project manager, is most interested in developing a growing environment that regenerates year after year without replanting. This involves finding plants that grow in a wild or semi-wild state in the Ranch’s micro-environment, and then planting them at the right time of year, in the right place.
Kleinrock says, “we need to know what really wants to grow here: which crops work well, which ones require more care, and which ones might not be worth planting at all. We look especially at perennials and fruit trees produced in this micro-climate and then we adjust our levels of different plantings to streamline the process and make it less labor intensive.”
An “edible landscape,” Kleinrock says, “is designed to be very productive, with lots of food-bearing plants.” A variety of annuals, perennials and fruit trees are planted on different ground levels in the general area of vegetable crops. The non-edible plants “serve multiple functions in the edible landscape, such as attracting beneficial insects to take care of pests, and improving the fertility of the soil over time.”
To this end, Kleinrock has planted comfrey, a nutrient-rich plant with large, fleshy leaves, underneath some of the new fruit trees. The comfrey leaves, when trimmed and mulched, can improve the fertility of the soil. Another ground cover, the white-flowered common yarrow, attracts aphid-eating ladybugs and wasps. Goumi, a fruit-bearing shrub, helps fix the nitrogen in the soil.
Their most experimental approach, Kleinrock says, “comes in the form of a Mediterranean-climate food forest. It’s based entirely on the creation of a resilient ecology that mimics the structure and interactions of a wild landscape, but that has been built with a large number of edible and useful plants. The goal is to create the most resilient landscape possible with the highest level of self-regulation.”
A Resource for Sustainable Urban Agriculture
As a community resource for sustainable urban agriculture, the Ranch works to strengthen connections with growers throughout Southern California. The Huntington’s education department offers opportunities to urban farmers growing for farmer’s markets and restaurants, as well as to home gardeners who grow in backyards or on balconies. Programs include workshops about specific aspects of edible gardening, training classes, and symposia.
The Ranch’s first train-the-trainer course, Urban Ecosystem Agriculture, started on September 3rd. The series, which runs through January 21st, 2012, teaches participants about some of the techniques the ranch is using, both in the classroom and out in the field. It has just under thirty participants, including master gardeners, teachers involved with school gardens, and people involved in a variety of other gardening programs around Southern California. “The idea,” says Kleinrock, “is to create a kind of ripple effect. Participants are people interested in taking this information and applying it to their own projects all over Southern California.”
Only at Home, an all-day symposium on November 18th, will explore all the different aspects of growing food at home. Speakers will discuss everything from unusual varieties of plants that can be grown in the Southern California climate, to native plants for your garden that will attract beneficial insects, to using grey water—recycled water generated by household activities such as laundry, bathing, and dishwashing—for landscape irrigation.
Within the next year, Kleinrock hopes to make a myriad of resources available online. The project has only been open for less than a year, but, he says, “as we document these studies and are able to crunch some numbers, we’ll be sharing that information.” This will include information useful to urban farmers working in this region, such as the different techniques that are used at the ranch and plants that are particularly adapted to Southern California.
For more information about the Huntington Ranch, visit their blog at http://huntingtonblogs.org/theranch/, or the Huntington’s general website, http://www.huntington.org.