Innovation Food Forest

When I mention the Innovation Food Forest, most people don’t know what I’m talking about. However once I say “All of those bushy green plants along the walkway beside Innovation Hall,” usually people know exactly what I mean.

Russian Comfrey in IFF, August 18th, 2013

I myself slowly became familiar with the Innovation Food Forest and the famous bushy green plants (which, by the way, are called Russian Comfrey). Finding out that it was actually a permaculture garden, naturally I jumped at the chance to volunteer as part of my service learning hours for Sustainable World (NCLC 210).

What is permaculture you might ask? It’s a method of gardening that strategically groups plants that will foster each other’s growth, whether it’s by attracting certain pollinators or enriching the soil with vital nutrients. In the concept of a food forest, a garden or “forest” will eventually be able to sustain itself with little to no care.

The Russian Comfrey, for example, although not edible, repairs soil structure by breaking up clay with large taproots and accumulates nutrients deep in the soil in it’s leaves, which die and decompose to provide nutrients for other plants. As the IFF was started in 2012, the soil is still being remediated from the construction of Innovation Hall. During construction, typically all of the healthy topsoil is removed from site and used elsewhere with very little returned afterwards. The soil, therefore, is less than ideal and before it can support a healthy ecosystem, nutrients must first be returned to the earth.

Planting winter cover crops

Buckwheat, Winter Rye, and Red Clover are three plants that help to prevent erosion and fix nutrients in the soil. One of my tasks as a service learner was to prepare a large bed of these cold season cover crops. After spreading compost and mulch throughout the bed, I mixed the seed with some dirt, tossed an even layer of the mixture, and watered – it was that simple! So simple, in fact, that I was sure it wouldn’t grow. But despite my doubts, they sprouted like magic, even in mid-November!

I believe that a food forest is a great way to sustain a community. For one thing, it adds to the mix of land use, providing green space in an urban atmosphere that is functional in more ways that just for edibles. It promotes participation in the surrounding community; people will feel more connected to this patch of land and to each other because it is a place where they can gather, work, play, and eat together.

As the first university based food forest in Northern Virginia, the IFF is a great model because we are taking soil that is suffering from the strains of urban construction and making it into something purposeful, green, and functional. This space was made and is maintained by volunteers! I strongly encourage anyone interested in becoming a part of the IFF to contact Elizabeth Torrens at or sign up on the website to find out more about work days. It is well worth the time and effort!

– Mimi Fuerst


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