One hundred volunteers planting edible native plants in the Edmonton River Valley Food forest in McKinnon Ravine in 2014

Edmonton’s River Valley Food Forest

An Edible Ecosystem in the River Valley

In 2014, one hundred community volunteers descended into Edmonton’s river valley to plant thousands of edible native plants. Located on the south-facing slope of MacKinnon Ravine, the river valley food forest aimed to create a self-sufficient edible ecosystem that captures water, increases biodiversity, reduces costs, cleans the air, sequesters carbon, and builds community.

Plants included saskatoons, high bush cranberries, currants, red elderberry, pin cherries, chokecherry, beaked hazelnuts, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, and currents. All plants were native and provided by the City’s Roots for Trees program.

One hundred volunteers planting edible native plants in the Edmonton River Valley Food forest in McKinnon Ravine in 2014
Community members planting thousands of edible native plants in the Edmonton River Valley.

Origins of the Edmonton River Valley Food Forest Project

The City of Edmonton’s Roots Trees program is “an enhanced planting initiative which intends to increase tree planting within the city. The annual target is to plant an additional 16,000 trees annually on public and private land.” Roots for Trees achieve much of its work by partnering with community members and organizations to coordinate public planting events. For context, Roots for Trees planting the trees along Edmonton’s Whitemud or Yellowhead (freeways).

In early 2014, then Principal of Horticulture Travis Kennedy pitched the idea of an edible native food forest. Roots for Trees already plants native edibles in their naturalization projects, so we focused on the edible plants they were already cultivating. Weirdly, the absence of non-edibles, rather than the addition of edibles, is what turned a regular Roots for Trees planting into a food forest installation.

Goals of the River Valley Food Forest

The Edmonton River Valley Food Forest has four goals. The City had three goals, and the volunteers had a fourth.

  1. Naturalization – Composed of species native to Edmonton’s river valley.
  2. Low/No Maintenance – It must be a functional part of the ecology, build biodiversity, and eventually sustain itself without ongoing municipal intervention.
  3. Scalable & Repeatable – Find success beyond a single site; the project should be repeatable across the city by various community partners.
  4. Food Production – Publically accessible forage for people and wildlife.

Program Progress

2014 saw hundreds of volunteers planting thousands of plants on site. Unfortunately, a dry 2015 with above-average temperatures caused some seedlings to struggle despite the site’s twenty water harvesting swales.

Dustin Bajer's sketch of the river valley food forest in Edmonton
Design of the first phase of the Edmonton River Valley Food Forest

In 2015 and 2016, the food forest expanded two hundred meters west, up the ravine to a more sheltered location. The new site offered a combination of open and shaded areas, which increased the number of suitable plant varieties. The site’s gradual slope also reduces the need for swales (more time planting) and provides better access for watering trucks.

A Life of Its Own

The most significant measure of success is that the City continues to host food forest plantings – with and without my involvement. In 2021, I attended a planting with members of the Shrubscriber community. I believe the project was successful because it simultaneously aligned with the City’s goals while forcing them to move ever-so-slightly out of their comfort zone (food production). The project’s legacy has opened the door for broader conversations about edible landscaping across Edmonton.

*Naturalization, at the time of this writing, still largely relies on native plants. As the climate shifts, exclusively using native plants for “naturalization” may become less appropriate. We may inherit a future where all ecologies are novel, and cities are viewed as an extension of the natural world.

Cold Hardy Food Forest Plant List

Learn more about food forestry with this list of native and non-native food forest plants sorted by growing zone and forest layer.


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