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Sustainability and learning from forest gardening

Written By: - Date published: 6:15 am, April 11th, 2021 - 30 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, farming, food, sustainability - Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve been wanting to write about sustainability for a while, taking a deepish dive into what it is, why it’s important, and how the mainstream is moving in the right direction but still allowing neoliberalism to co-opt and undermine it (aka greenwashing). Sustainability is meaningful when it incorporates some specific principles. It’s at core a state that arises from systems and the relationship between things. It’s not well understood with contemporary western thinking, although the best of the cutting edge sciences are digging into the holistic thinking required to make sense of it.

Below is an hour long video tour of Robert and Robyn Guyton’s 25 year old food forest on the South Coast of New Zealand in Riverton.  This is an exemplar of active, medium term projects in New Zealand that showcase sustainability while building practice and generating new knowledge. The kind of knowledge we will need going into the climate change/eco crises storms.

As Robert talks about the particulars of their food forest, he’s also describing sustainability principles. These are about food forestry, but for the most part such principles also work on other areas including social and political aspects of human culture. Sustainability is fractal like that.

The Guyton’s food forest is one of the oldest in New Zealand of the modern food gardening movement that arose in the UK in the 80s from the pre-regenag subcultures. Humans have always forest gardened, in New Zealand when Europeans arrived and decided that nothing was being done with the land here and let’s chop down all the trees and grow grass and sheep instead, Māori were in fact forest gardening along with hunting/gathering and cropping. Forest gardening is the practice of working with nature in ways that allow the systems to sustain themselves for very long periods of time or indefinitely. Such systems have minimal extraction from offsite, and minimal pollution while also producing for various human needs. Lots to learn, and yes, no reason this cannot be done at scale.




30 comments on “Sustainability and learning from forest gardening ”

  1. Ad 1

    Robert's the more famous, but Robyn is the brains behind pa. Her initiative to form an online shop of Southland's seasonal produce growers is one that will build bigger margins for crop growers against the supermarket duopoly.

    If anyone has specific initiatives that they want to crack into in regenerative farming, the government has a fund to apply for (and best of luck dealing with MPI):


    • Robert Guyton 1.1

      Dammit! I missed all this, through taking Robyn away for the weekend of her birthday and a gathering of our children and their children at Kaka Point, where we splashed-about in the waves, listened to 33's on an ancient turn-table in the "crib" and ate like spoiled-things for two days…Ad's right, and horribly wrong at the same time 🙂 – Robyn's more famous than I am; watch "The Project" over the next wee while and see what I mean, but Ad's a sucker for great ideas and is swayed by one of Robyn's; she's the font of more than a few, but who, I squawk, climbs those ancient apple trees and snippets-off the scions?? Me, the lesser-brained Guyton, that's who!

  2. Andre 2

    no reason this cannot be done at scale.

    Let's take a squiz at how that forest compares in productivity compared to alternative ways of growing food to feed the masses.

    It has been reported that Robyn and Robert grow 60 to 70% of their vegetarian diet on their 2 acres (0.8 hectares). Let's make allowance for land devoted to the house, and for some of their production going off the property to others. Then we arrive at a rough estimate of one acre feeding one person a vegetarian diet.

    How does this compare to the rest of the world? Total world land area devoted to producing food is around 4.8 billion hectares, or 12 billion acres, or around 1.5 acres per person. That includes the massive amounts of really inefficient grazing land for food animals, as well as the massive amounts of croplands used to grow animal feed. That all uses way more land than a vegetarian diet.

    Drill down a bit to look at different populations, a clearly different picture emerges. Populations with a predominantly vegetarian diets, mostly poor countries but including a few wealthy nations such as Japan and Saudi Arabia, need a small fraction of the land per capita for food compared to meat heavy places such as NZ, US, Europe, Brazil, Argentina.

    Then drill down a little further to a middle of the pack country such as Austria (good chart on p 19). Their current meat-heavy-ish diet needs about 1 acre per person to supply, about the same as the Guyton's vegetarian diet. A modest reduction in animal products to a level claimed to be consistent with better health (cue Psycho Milt disputing this) would bring the land area required down to 0.65 acres per person, of which half is still required for the animal products remaining in the diet. By comparison, India feeds its population a mostly vegetarian diet from about 0.25 acres per capita.

    So it looks to me like the sustainability benefits from the Guyton's lifestyle and food production choices come from their adoption of a vegetarian diet. The food forest aspect of it doesn't look like a pointer to a better way to feed the masses, but is instead an expression of wealth and privilege that they are able to devote a large land area to a low-productivity means of feeding themselves, that they nevertheless apparently find satisfyingly enjoyable.

    To be sure, that they choose this way to amuse themselves is vastly better for the environment and all the rest of us than many of the other ways people amuse themselves, and vastly better for the environment than the high-intensity farming practices that actually do feed the masses of us. But let's be clear eyed about this, it's not a pointer to a way forward for general food production practices, because of the low productivity. At best, there's aspects of it that could be taken from it and adapted to improve other higher productivity farming methods.

    • greywarshark 2.1

      Ooh Andre that is a good objective view with balance and comparison with statistical information from over the world. That is interesting and we should bear in mind the scientific and the crop measurement etc. But that is not all, and that attitude is what is killing human culture and its soul.

      We need to use science as a tool, not to have professionals and academics instruct us in their findings, and then direct us like laboratory rats to where we can get the most, the best, the biggest, and the most efficient.

      We should listen and learn and then see how we can apply it to what we are led to try out, to seek, to appreciate, to satisfy practical needs; the lesser crop but the more long-lasting, the one that can be left fully grown in the earth till needed, the one that is not being attacked by old bugs or new invaders. Or we might just go for the one with pretty leaves that have tiny fruit that have to be searched for, but being careful to avoid the related one that has spreading rhizomes and will brazenly take over the garden.

      At present I have the thought that mandarins seem to be useful, and crop well. I have a smallish backyard that is sunny all year to some extent, we get some frosts in Nelson but my Meyer lemon grows happily now it is grown up. Is there a dwarfish mandarin, easy peel, that someone could recommend? I'd appreciate some guidance and I would go and order it if not immediately available. I'd like it's full name so I make sure I get what was recommended.

    • Robert Guyton 2.2

      The most important function of a forest-garden is not the production of x-amount of food, in my opinion, but the transformation that occurs in the minds of the forest-gardeners and the people who visit. We have to change our minds, in order to change our ways and the forest-garden: part civilisation and part wilderness, is where such transformations (powerfully and meaningfully) take place. Food, that is, for the soul and without soul, you're/we're *soul-less

      *see "corporation" Neo-liberal" "civilisation" 🙂

  3. greywarshark 3

    Thanks Ad for spreading the word about that Labour fund for regenerative farming. I don't know if it came under that heading, but yesterday (I think it was a repeat), I heard a farmer tell about establishing a wetland area on part of his farm that was unproductive land. I think he said that the land had been affected by an earthquake and become quite boggy. He doesn't have water lying around but has taken the opportunity to put in natives and so on.

    Also in the theme of embracing nature this news about growing kokako numbers is thrilling. I have a screensave of a huia and so remember it and its demise nearly every day. Good for us and the kokako I say!


    Kokako have their say: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WX_YI8D9n5A (Do you remember Yma Sumac – you are old!)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IY6wd-0I2rw – Some more shots showing the bird on the branch and ground, busy, lively. That’s the North Island Kokako but the South Island one?

  4. Stuart Munro 4

    It seems a good way to live, and a food forest can presumably also accommodate small livestock like fish or quail for those of us not too keen on a vege only diet.

    But when we consider the squalid treeless infill housing of dystopian cities like Auckland, the food forest seems as distant a prospect as a ten acre block.

    One of the challenges of mitigating the wasteland created by out of control property speculation and mass low quality immigration, is to bring elements of the wild into even these spaces – the less biosphere in evidence, the greater the urgency to establish some.

    We have standards for insulation and the like, perhaps greenspace also needs to be required of new builds. Unless a more organic solution can be arrived at.

    Bit of a pipedream really – the incompetent economist wonks who have ruined NZ have dehomed half of us – greenspace might happen for them, the rest of us will be obliged to do without.

    • greywarshark 4.1

      Could you look at this Stuart. I wondered about something and thought you would know. https://thestandard.org.nz/open-mike-10-04-2021/#comment-1787684

    • AB 4.2

      "the squalid treeless infill housing of dystopian cities like Auckland"

      Good to see someone brave enough to say it. And the 'solution' to the housing crisis will be to try to build even more of this alienating trash.

      • greywarshark 4.2.1

        Just what I anticipate AB. Like the choice offered in a brochure from a retirement village showing a sea of ordered black roofs like pens for special animals at an enclosed but free-range park.

      • RedLogix 4.2.2

        The overwhelming impression you get when you fly into Auckland on a nice evening is just how from the air it looks like a big green, overgrown village. Well compared to say LA or pretty much any big city in Asia.

        In fact flying over most continents, you get to see just how much wilderness there is, vast spaces pretty much empty of anything much human.

        The real problem that I think prompts your reaction is that we tend to build rather ugly, devoid of much organic architectural principle. I'm no expert on this, but some decades ago I avidly read Alexander's magnificent A Pattern Language, and in my mind it remains the visionary standard we should be aspiring to.

        • Stuart Munro

          that we tend to build rather ugly, devoid of much organic architectural principle.

          Although there is certainly a dearth of good design, both at the functional and the aesthetic level, I was really thinking (more in accord with Weka's and Robert's work) about how to incorporate more green, and perhaps more food production into cities, which presently are trending the other way.

          I notice there is a petition circulating to encourage recirculating aquaculture for households, and I imagine Robert's forest contains many specimens that, with a bit of thought, might render our built environments less barren. A bit of ecotopianism to counterbalance the subterranean denominators of corporate construction.

          • RedLogix

            I'm not disagreeing with your underlying point, but the days of NZ cities being based on suburbs with large sections and lots of trees are long gone – and they're not coming back.

            The trick with intensification is that it puts a premium on intelligent, patterned organisation of space. I can't even begin to precis Alexander's monumental work, but in essence it contains about 1000 or so descriptions of spatial 'patterns' starting on a regional scale and working gradually down through smaller and smaller scales and winding up literally at 'niche'.

            By observing and organically integrating patterns as the opportunity arises and generations pass, we create spaces that are both functional and attractive. So even if every household cannot have it's own urban forest, we certainly can manage this on a community based scale. It's the kind of thing we recognise instinctively when we experience it. For instance here in Brisbane I cycle home via one particular street that's just magical; a sensory overload of sounds, tree and flower scents, parrots and bats, and glimpses into homes that are open to the street, low fences, trees reaching right over the road, a broad footpath, and a real sense of vibrancy. It's a beautiful combination of patterns they've accidentally gotten right.

            In addition you might like this interesting reference:


            Growing urbanisation is a threat to both mental health and biodiversity. Street trees are an important biodiversity component of urban greenspace, but little is known about their effects on mental health. Here, we analysed the association of street tree density and species richness with antidepressant prescribing for 9751 inhabitants of Leipzig, Germany. We examined spatial scale effects of street trees at different distances around participant’s homes, using Euclidean buffers of 100, 300, 500, and 1000 m. Employing generalised additive models, we found a lower rate of antidepressant prescriptions for people living within 100 m of higher density of street trees—although this relationship was marginally significant (p = 0.057) when confounding factors were considered. Density of street trees at further spatial distances, and species richness of street trees at any distance, were not associated with antidepressant prescriptions. However, for individuals with low socio-economic status, high density of street trees at 100 m around the home significantly reduced the probability of being prescribed antidepressants. The study suggests that unintentional daily contact to nature through street trees close to the home may reduce the risk of depression, especially for individuals in deprived groups. This has important implications for urban planning and nature-based health interventions in cities.

            • greywarshark

              Red Logix mentions this book – the blurb sounds promising.

              A Pattern Language: Let Christopher Alexander design your …

              https://archive.curbed.com › pattern-language-christoph…

              11/07/2019 — “A Pattern Language” is not about architecture, but about how <b>specific design choices can help us build better relationships.</b> By fitting a series of …

            • Robert Guyton


            • Stuart Munro

              A very good recommendation RL, thanks for that.

              • RedLogix

                That street I mentioned above – tonight I noticed that one of the houses has a brightly coloured 'box' on it's front fence – and on looking again I discovered that it's a free book exchange for everyone in the street.heart

                Another cool thing we see is that some people decide to extend their garden out onto the public grass verge – and as long as they don’t totally obstruct the footpath, the council lets them do this. It’s not exactly common, but we’ve seen quite a few now, and the effect can be quite charming, it softens and blends the spaces.

                Well in a short several hundred metres this street community has three of them.

                • Stuart Munro

                  Anything that reduces lawn (except perhaps as play space) has to be an improvement.

          • greywarshark

            What about doing something with roofs – that would be a way of working creatively and new-technically in closely positioned settlements? Can't find much for average home with hip roof – was thinking of stairway up to a flat roof access built around the low side of the roof .







            • Stuart Munro

              There's certainly a lot that can be done with roofs – though the change I'd probably look for first would be vertical options like espaliers, vertical gardens, or vine culture systems. Wall space is largely dead under our existing city norms, reclaiming some of that space for life has to be an improvement. Planted walls don't seem to present the same leakage issues.

              One thing you see throughout Asia is pumpkins or melons trained over roofs in summer – they like the heat, and help keep the house cool, but die off over winter in much the same logic as grape pergolas.

              The thing would be not to have a monoculture of espaliered trees or whatever, but a suite of species and cultural techniques that replace dead space with living.

        • Robert Guyton

          I'm wondering if the good burghers of Auckland appreciate their big, green overgrown-ness 🙂

          And I mean, really appreciate.

    • Robert Guyton 4.3

      Let's (us de-homed) plant those green-spaces *everywhere a seed will strike and grow.


  5. Cricklewood 5

    The key thing to take away from Robert's garden imho is the biodiversity, a mix of exotics & natives in harmony producing not only food but providing diverse habitat.

    Sadly we are moving away from diverse plantings and in fact cutting out exotic species and replacing with eco sourced natives, in a world where we likely see quite quick environmental change we are better to use wide and varied plantings perhaps taking plant stock to help manage this transition.

    • Robert Guyton 5.1

      Thanks, Cricklewood: biodiversity (complexity, multiplicity, random-ness, chaos, beauty also 🙂

  6. Sabine 6

    IF i could just get the council to stop spraying my fence line.

    Other then that, i am in the process of joining the local bee club and hope to create a space of a bee hive in the 'overgrown mess' that is my gardern. 🙂 Soon.

    • Robert Guyton 6.1

      I am truly excited to read this, Sabine! Love your (unseen but elegantly described) garden!

      • Sabine 6.1.1

        My house is easily identified by the exessive vegetation. people to the left and rigth moan about it, but then i only speak english when i want too, so i smile and hand them some crapapples and in the broadest german accent i say, Gut fuer Jelly making.

        Essentially i plant quite tightly, and let stuff go to seed -saves me next year plantings and i put trees in. 7 two years ago, and i will put another 7 or so for this next planting season. Alas i only watch my garden grow when i don't work. But the guys from the local bee club have approached me to see if i would have a hive over summer and yes, why thank you please. I should maybe prune the pear tree as she is approaching monster status, but the birds so love the fruit i can't reach.

  7. greywarshark 7

    Just an update on the world of finding out about plants and what we can do to remedy or advance our environment.


    When scientist Alan Baker made a cut in the side of an exotic plant in the Philippines jungle, the sap that bled out had a jade-green glow.

    The shrub was a newly discovered species, soon to be known as Phyllanthus Balgooyi, one of a rare variety of plants that naturally suck high amounts of metallic elements from the soil.

    The fluorescent sap turned out to be 9 percent nickel.

    It was a welcome finding, but not a surprise, as Professor Baker's research into so-called "hyperaccumulators" had already uncovered species that seemed to thrive on everything from cobalt to zinc, and even gold.

    "These are plants which can take up elements from the soil [at rates] orders of magnitude higher than normal plants," Professor Baker says.

    Scientists are now on a quest to discover whether farming these plants could provide an alternative to environmentally-destructive mining, while also helping to rehabilitate former mine sites.

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