When I was a kid, I was fascinated with the universe. I wanted to know how it all worked – how small intricate elements form large complex systems. This fascination propelled me into the study of Physics and System science and lead me to a career in computer system engineering.
When I met my wife, Lotus, I discovered that we shared this fascination, though hers from a different background – outdoor education. We spend many nights talking about how intricate behaviors of plants and animals form complex ecological systems.
We dreamed about living in an eco-city where people live symbiotically with nature – a fusion of engineering and ecology. We researched solar panels, solar water heater, regenerative agriculture, food forest. We read science fiction about utopias and dystopias. We went to conferences on sustainability, collective living, and community organizing.
So after we got married in Portland, Oregon, we bought a house made for our dream – a large south facing roof for solar panels and a large yard for food forest. Getting solar panels was relatively easy. At the time, solar was already very popular. So information about solar panels was readily accessible. However, food forest was a different story.
Before I proceed, let’s first brush up on what a food forest is.
On a conventional farm, whether it is in an apple orchard or a lettuce farm, you often see rows of evenly spaced plants of the same height. Yet in nature, plants grow all different sizes with many varieties of species.
A food forest mimics a natural forest in design with the added function of producing food for humans. One arrangement of a food forest can be tall nut trees, dwarf fruit trees, berry shrubs, supportive plants, vegetables, edible ground covers, and mushrooms.
This compact layering of plants maximizes sunlight utilization to create higher yield with less land. It leaves less room for weeds to grow, retains more ground water, and creates habitats for beneficial insects.
Thus, an established food forest needs little watering and weeding, and no pesticides or herbicides. It is significantly lower maintenance than conventional food systems.
Most importantly, a forest is regenerative – it replenishes and reproduces its own renewable resources. Waste from one organism is recycled and reused by another organism. The forest fertilizes itself.
This regenerative process continuously extracts carbon from the atmosphere to create more biomass. It literally reverses climate change.
So basically, a food forest is an ecosystem engineered to benefit both people and the planet.
Now this all sounded great to Lotus and I, in principle. Both of us understood plant biology and ecology. However, the concept of food forest is still quite new in the mainstream culture. There wasn’t a manual on how to food forest. We planted some fruit trees, then got stuck. One layer of trees is not a forest. We needed not only knowledge about underlayer plants but also how they interact in relation to each other to create a balanced ecosystem. Such deep knowledge takes years of experience to accumulate.
We needed expert help. This is where Nutmeg came in.
Nutmeg became one of our housemates through our friend’s recommendation. She was a caring and responsible housemate, and had a wicked sense of humor. We quickly became friends. Of course, it also didn’t hurt that she had years of experience designing and creating regenerative ecological landscapes on the west coast.
Nutmeg added many elements to our yard that made it more resilient and forest-like. She put woodland strawberry under the fruit trees as living mulch that also recycles nitrogen, a fertilizer, back into the soil. She planted yarrows, lavenders, and sages to attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. She added more under layer food shrubs, such as blueberries, raspberries, elderberries, huckleberries, grapes, etc.
Together with Nutmeg, we sheet-mulched the entire lawn to get rid of the water-guzzling invasive grass, and reseeded clovers as a lawn alternative that requires no mowing, watering, or fertilizing when established. They also provided food for our chickens and bees.
The food forest as it stands now has 17 fruit trees, 5 nut trees, 4 nut shrubs, 9 berry shrubs, 3 grape vines, and lots of miscellaneous herbs and vegetables.
While our food forest was one thriving ecosystem born out of our journey, it wasn’t the only one.
You see, Lotus and I never intended to live on our own. We bought the house to also provide affordable collective living – a housing community where people share the same values and responsibilities for each other – a human ecosystem. And just like how a symbiotic forest makes each individual tree more resilient and productive, a symbiotic community makes each individual human more resilient and productive too.
We engineered an affordable communal meal plan so that our collective purchasing power can buy more grocery at a discounted bulk price. We engineered an efficient chore system so that each person did what they were better at. All the chores, including cooking and grocery shopping, were done effectively, while each person only put in around 4 hours per week.
This resiliency became even more evident one year after both the forest and the home ecosystems were born, when Covid-19 hit. Many of our housemates were laid off because of the pandemic. People were worried about making ends meet. Nothing seemed certain.
So we got together and made a plan – we are going to expand Nutmeg’s existing one-person landscaping business in to a much larger corporation so that we can not only create more regenerative ecological landscapes but also provide more well-paying jobs. We knew growing a business during the pandemic, when many businesses were closing, was unconventional, if not straight up dangerous.
“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” – Albert Einstein
However, this also meant new opportunities that were once unavailable, have now become available. People who spend a lot of money on maintaining their landscapes may consider switching to low maintenance, low cost ecoscapes. People who want to mitigate climate change may want their yards to absorb carbon instead of emit carbon. People who are worried about food security may want to grow their own food forests.
An ecoscaping business also made perfect sense, because we each were experts in a required skill. Nutmeg knew plants like the back of her hands. Lotus had extensive experience in communication and customer management. I could build a website and knew my way around legal and corporate systems.
Nico had camera equipment and could shoot professional pictures and videos. Khalila knew about bookkeeping. Maggie had marketing experience. And many more gardeners who were ready to get their hands dirty. Much like the forest and home ecosystem, this work ecosystem also amplified the strength of each participant, generating a greater impact. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
More importantly, we already knew how to work as a team, because we had been living together as a team. We were experienced in making quick group decisions. We knew how to delegate and collaborate. We trusted and took care of each other.
We choose to incorporate as a cooperative, an employee-owned company, where workers have equal voice and stake in the company. Our wages are fair. Our work environment is healthy. And we all share the same vision:
A vision where people come together to create natural and human ecosystems that are good for the people and the planet. This is why we named our company SymbiOp, which stands for Symbiosis Cooperative, where Symbiosis represents the natural ecosystem and Cooperative represents the human ecosystem.
This chapter of my story is coming to an end. Our food forest, our house, and our company are still going strong. SymbiOp has since grown significantly, adding even more expert designers and gardeners. My journey wasn’t without hardships and failures, but these people, these plants and animals, these ecosystems nurtured me and kept me going.
Our planet is in crisis, politically, economically, and ecologically. Our collective journey seems so dire and uncertain. I know my story is only about a handful of people, but I hope it will plant a seed in all of you, a seed that will reach down with strong roots to ground you through the crisis, reach up to the sun to form a canopy that will shelter your friends, your family, your fellow human beings, and with them, form a resilient forest that will regenerate for generations to come.