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The Essential Forest-Gardener – reproducing the forest

Written By: - Date published: 7:21 am, December 18th, 2016 - 22 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, farming, food, sustainability - Tags: , , , , ,

The following is a Guest Post from Robert Guyton and is part of a series appearing over 12 Sundays. Other parts can be seen here.

Robert is a sustainability pioneer who along with his family grows the oldest food forest in NZ. A long time organic gardener, permaculturist and heritage orchardist, he’s a columnist, a regional councillor for Environment Southland, and an early climate change adaptor. 

My garden is forever spilling over its borders; onto the roadside, into the orchard next door and across the neighbourhood. I’m responsible for some of that spillage, being a proponent of “surreptitious gardening” and the sowing out of the bare spaces found in towns like my own, but I’m not the only agent of dispersal. Birds carry seed in volumes that can only be guessed at and spread those far and wide as part of their every day activities. There must be offspring from all of my seeding plants somewhere in the local environment, deposited in a splash of guano by a bird recently feeding here. I see examples as I walk about and while I can’t be sure they came from my forest garden, I’m certain enough to smile a little when I see them. The wind will be assisting also, lifting feathered and plumed seed and whisking it away to open ground somewhere.

Visitors to the garden often leave with pockets swollen with seeds, so I’m assumingly that those will be planted in gardens that are sometimes well beyond the borders of our region. We’ve scions also, of our garden that are being purposefully grafted into ordinary properties in towns throughout the country. Forest gardening is popular already and keen growers are always on the lookout for the tools of their trade; leguminous trees, shrubs and vines that will keep the rest of the garden supplied with nitrogen, members of the Apiaceae family such as fennel and giant parsley for attracting aphid-eating hoverflies, and deep rooting ‘nutrient miners’ like comfrey and burdock that serve to capture leached nutrients and return them to the surface of the soil. Carrying home roots and off-shoots of useful plants is something I like to see my visitors do, knowing they’ll use them to establish colonies of their own, wherever they have their own gardens.

I’ve made conscious efforts also, to provide plants for anyone who visits my garden and likes what they see growing there, by creating several nurseries amongst the trees that provide the semi-shade prefered by the young plants as they get growing. They’re difficult to find though, those nursey beds, and many visitors walk past without seeing them at all, to my delight. I’m not an especially methodical person and have to create systems that care naturally for vulnerable seedlings, shading them from the summer sun, watering them with freely applied rainwater at regular enough intervals to keep them alive and providing the same level of natural pest control that’s available to the established plants in the forest garden.

I cultivate free-form propagation beds where ever a space is available and exhibits the conditions needed. Poking cuttings into soil that has been made healthy through its connection to the wider garden means fungal diseases aren’t an issue. Chewing and sucking insects are at such low levels that they don’t need to be considered, thanks to the network of insect predators that are always present here. The only task I have to attend to in and around the propagation beds is lifting the newly rooted plants at the end of the season and planting them out in my own forest garden or in one or other of the satelite gardens I lay unoffical claim to.

Those that I give away or sell, I transplant into recycled plastic pots or wrap in wet newspaper once they’ve been selected. It’s a simple and effective way of contributing to a larger ‘garden’ that, while thin at this time, will grow and grow until it becomes the dominant feature of the landscape hereabouts; or at least, that’s my dream and I’m pursuing it vigorously. Given the number of young parents who visit and take home armloads of plants for their own budding forest garden, I believe I’ll see the manifestation of my  vision before too long.

There is also a growing interest in planting the common ground of villages and townships like ours, with useful, fruit-bearing plants that can be harvested by anyone interested in ‘wild’ foods or needing to forage in order to keep themselves and their families fed. There are people who love to wander and gather from the largely neglected parts of city, town and countryside, coming home with pockets and bags full of blackberries, hazelnuts, mushrooms; all manner of edible treats, and I am one of those people. I believe the “outdoor-pantry” that is the unused, unplanted space that is found wherever there are councils, can be planted with a far wider range of edible plants than presently grow in such places, and that they can be managed in a way that won’t make council employees fretfully pull out their hair by worrying about how to manage the growth. The forest garden model is the ideal one, I believe, for a new form of commons and one that will offer people of these communities opportunities to augement their diets with good food.

There’s potential also, for the planting out of the whole roadside network that criss-crosses ever region of New Zealand. I’d begin with our lovely native hebe, just to show the unconvinced how attractive  and trouble-free roadside plantings can be, then add edible shrubs and perennial plants once the sight of something other than mown or sprayed grass along the road edges becomes the norm. It’s not unreasonable to expect the roading agencies or the district councils to make those long, thin spaces available for people to harvest from, in fact, I believe it’s an opportunity they would be delighted to take, were they approached the right way. The cycle trails that are becoming widespread throughout the country are also perfect for the role of providing access to fruit trees and their lesser fruiting cousins, and I know cyclists would revel in the chance to eat as they pedal; there are few things so reviving to a dry-mouthed cyclist than a juicy 5-star pippin apple or a Purple King plum!

22 comments on “The Essential Forest-Gardener – reproducing the forest ”

  1. And for anyone who’s interested, I’m speaking on RadioLive now (7:45)

  2. Red Hand 2

    The fact that what you are up to down there in Riverton is published here and not mocked and derided is empowering. I would add that there is more to plants than as a food source for us and other animals and the fungi. They have aesthetic and spiritual value to us and they help protect our land, waterways and seas.

  3. That’s an interesting comment, Red Hand and I agree with what you’ve said. It’s a bit risky, I suppose, laying out your world view for parsing and poking, but I’m relaxed about that 🙂
    I also very much agree with what you say about the other appeals and values of non-human organisms. Rating living things according to their usefulness to humans is a system that has to be unraveled and replaced before we make much further progress with our relationship with them. Aesthetic, spiritual, and the rest of it. It’s difficult not to describe the world from an anthropocentric pov but vital that we learn to do it.

  4. Jenny Kirk 4

    Robert Guyon – down south you probably don’t have to compete with rampant weeds and grasses such as kikuyu and cooch grass.
    These grow in huge abundance in the warm humid north. Starting a food forest and trying to get rid of these massive pests is a major task. Any ideas on how to go about it?

    At the moment all I’m doing is killing off the grasses near the trees and around the boundaries before getting onto the paper/mulch/bark and grass clippings bit. Otherwise I’d have to kill off the entire 1/4 acre lawn area …..and I’m only doing a small portion at a time. Hoping this will be sufficient when all the trees and their underplanting take over, and I can then just pull out the kikuyu as it sprouts its head up above the mulch.

    Does this seem to be a reasonable approach to it? Or – have you other ideas on how to deal with this invasively rampant pest.

  5. Hi, Jenny. Kikuyu looks challenging, but only in relative terms; we’ve had it easy in the past, but others have worked with kikuyu and don’t seem to have been beaten by it. Couch grows here but I don’t regard it (or anything else for that matter) as an “invasively rampant pest”, more a successful plant that has had its competition removed and given too much space to grow into. Cow parsley fixed that problem, growing more quickly than couch, and taller so that it shaded out the grass. I’ve recovered whole properties filled with couch, with cow parsley in very short periods of time, then used cow parsley’s biennial nature to infill with a whole range of other species. I don’t think that will work for kikuyu, as cow parsley doesn’t grow with the same vigour in the north as it does here. Forest gardeners I know living in the north do draw their gardens up through kikuyu and shading is the process they use. I’ve visited beautiful forest gardens in kikuyu country, but they’ve been mature so I don’t know exactly how they managed stage one – I suspect they mowed and mulched until the canopy was established then it was easy from that point on. My suggestion though, is to regard kikuyu as something other than a pest, or aggressive or any other pejorative way, as forest gardening is not a war against plants, more a mutually beneficial agreement 🙂

    • Jenny Kirk 5.1

      Thanks Robert ….. that sounds the best way to go about it ….. and hopefully once the shading happens – along with the mulching, I’ll be able to keep it in reasonable control.

      ps I’ve just realised, I have a lot of calendula in a roadside rockery and have been de-heading them to keep them flowering – and have just realised I could be scattering the deadheads over my potential forest garden. Just been out there and picked them all up and scattered them. They might also help keep the kikuyu and couch at bay.

    • greywarshark 5.2

      You’re are sooo laid back Robert. A war against plants is necessary – sometimes. How would you regard bindweed? I haven’t been managing it and am ripping the top growth down at present and am going to get some orange pegs and start plotting the course of the long pipes going underground, they are more than runners, and tender as so, they break easily and their course needs to be plotted so as not to leave bits that start a whole new pestilential? route.

      • How we regard and describe the wild world is paramount, I reckon, greywarshark. If we declare war, we reveal our failure to understand our true relationships and without the understanding of who we are, we will always fail in our mission. For example; a lepidopterist might resent the stinging nettles that grow between him and the flowering bush visited by his favourite butterflies, and scythe, chop, spray and burn them into extinction until he discovers that they were the sole food for the caterpillars that became the butterflies he loved.
        A wild gardener would make the lightest changes possible to a system they were yet to fully understand, applying the precautionary principle, knowing that unintended consequences can be significant and irreversible, in the way that our whole NZ landscape is displaying presently; dirty rivers etc. I believe there is a way for humans to be part of the world without mucking it up; we did it for millions of years before some of us chose to follow the dead-end “civilization” path and that way involves, wait for it…gardening 🙂 It sound trite, perhaps, but there’s a way-through that exhibits itself in some forms of gardening where humans subtly shape the wild world into a de minimis form that allows us to take our place and give flower to our human culture without destroying all around us, as we are presently doing. So, bindweed 🙂 It’s soft, easily pulled down from whatever plant it’s co-growing with, has no thorns, needles or burning sap and has gorgeous flowers, beloved by bees – what’s not to like 🙂
        If you must pull it down so be it, but with the right mind-set, you could do that as a seasonal activity that’s enjoyable and gives you the opportunity to take a close look at all of your other plants te mea, te mea.

        • greywarshark

          Robert G
          You create different pathways in my synapses just reading your wise green thoughts But bindweed is not benign It must be the vine that grew over the castle where the princess lay in a coma waiting for the prandsome hince to come and give her the magic kiss that would break the spell. Bloody hell I can’t wait that long and think of what it would do to property values in my street! Already,
          I admit.

          This reality : am going to get some orange pegs and start plotting the course of the long pipes going underground, they are more than runners,

          I will have to use Roundup at the ends where it is putting up leaves and work back to an entry point. (If it gets away in a field it can be an interlacing mass of white pipelike roots under the surface to about 20cm down.) I will have to do this on my hands and knees, have knee pad, will need to persevere by time. So many minutes per day – not finish a line and then stop. So if you have any offers of wisdom apart from live and let live I would be interested.

          • Robert Guyton

            I gazed into my crystal ball, greywarshark, looking into the future of the bindweed that has chosen to share your place with you and guess what?
            Despite your efforts to round it up, it was still there 🙂
            Chemical warfare is a harsh and ultimately unsuccessful path for you to take, greywarshark (delivered in a booming Gandalfian voice, brows knitted, knobbly hands grasping the Staff of Green Wisdom).

          • weka


            Somewhat different situation I’m guessing (his was a lawn), but the gist of the control is there.

  6. Good idea, Jenny. You might like to try seeding with any carrot or celery family biennials you can find – they grow quickly, spread satisfyingly, look beautiful and help to overwhelm your unwanted kikuyu. If you can find the seeds for free, all the better! Where there’s a monoculture (kikuyu) the trick is to introduce competition and the best way to ensure that what you add doesn’t become a problem itself is to add a wise variety of new organisms; plants in your case. Plus, calendula looks great.

  7. Cinny 7

    Another awesome post full of info from Mr Guyton, thanks Robert 🙂

    My front garden is a place I hardly touch, except to mulch (lawn clippings, seaweed, horse shit and some dry matter like sticks run over by the mower or bark). It’s a mostly native garden, and so many wonderful birds. And the best thing which i believe is in part from the canopy shade of the pungas and silver ferns as well as all the birds, are the seedlings that I find like treasure in the soil. Sure i get a few undesirables in there, if I’m lazy I’ll just cover them with lawn clippings, or ask the kids to pull them out. Irrigation is supplied via the down pipe on the roof, such an easy easy productive garden.

    I’ve lawn, but that’s for the kids, lawn sprinklers installed by the previous owner supply us with much fun in the summer. Ended up digging up paspalum, I don’t like it, easy to dig up during the autumn and spring rains. Mostly bare feet around here so a soft prickle free lawn is a must for us.
    Onehunga prickles continue to be a problem, which one day i hope to have under control. Am anti chemical sprays, so any suggestions to control the onehunga would be awesome thanks,

    Vege garden is thriving, while many appear to be struggling financially at this time of year, we are enjoying so much fresh food and potting up natives, dividing herbs etc for christmas presents. Super satisfying for the soul as well, loves it.

    Bring on more community gardens and food producing plantings in parks etc. It’s easy to find free fruit on bike rides here and a wonderful treat, thanks to people like you letting their gardens spill out a bit, there are rogue pear, apple and plum tree’s up the valley and on the way to the beach, we are so lucky here.

    • Rosemary McDonald 7.1

      “Onehunga prickles continue to be a problem, which one day i hope to have under control. Am anti chemical sprays, so any suggestions to control the onehunga would be awesome thanks,”

      The best way of controlling Onehunga weed, which has worked for us, is not to mow the lawn too low.

      We too avoid chemical sprays…but have recently used an ‘organic’ pine oil based spray for couch….slayed it!

  8. Thanks, Cinny and great to hear about your place – Onehunga weed I know all about, having been brought up in Nelson (Tahunanui, Richmond then Stoke) and most of that time barefoot, so the prickly-lawn experience is a very familiar one. I can only suggest; lose the lawn or move south, where it doesn’t grow 🙂 Great to hear about the rogue fruit trees of Motueka – fruit grows exceptionally well there, but spraying by commercial orchardists there and in Tasman is a big worry for those who’s childhoods involved raiding. 🙂 (wry smile)

    • Cinny 8.1

      Robert you make me smile, when I was two it snowed on christmas day in invercargill, after that our family moved up here lolololz 😀 Love the beach too much to move.

      Hey interesting what you say about sprays and rogue fruit trees. Massey Uni has been intouch with the school asking all the parents if they agree to having their children included in a study on orchard sprays and their effects on those whom live in a horticultural area. Yup I signed up my youngest, will be interested to read the results of the study when it is completed.

      We don’t live next door to any orchards, but by crikey some of the orchardists here are cowboy sprayers. A friend whom works for a company selling natural based horticultural products, huge huge worldwide company, he comes up here to do the orchard rounds for his work, and the orchardists here are so hooked on chemical sprays, that they don’t want to try anything else, and it’s disappointing how closed their minds are.

  9. weka 9

    Hi Robert, next Sunday appears to be a day largely of distraction, would you still like your post to go up then? Or leave it for a week until the following Sunday, which will be New Years day? Or it could go up this Saturday? Or Boxing Day? Any is probably fine.

    It will be #12!!

  10. Christmas day suits me perfectly, thanks, weka. If no one reads the final chapter or comments on what I’ve said to finish up with, it won’t matter at all and no one will mind, it being a wonderful day for other things. Thanks very much for providing a portal for me to explain myself to those who were interested; I’ve really enjoyed the discussions and the people who have commented have been delightful. I found it a very rewarding experience talking with such kindly folk 🙂

    • weka 10.1

      Christmas it is then 🙂 I’ve enjoyed this too. Thanks to you too for your wilingness to share your wisdom and experience in the posts and in the comments. I agree, good vibe in the comments, and great to hear other people’s stories too.

      • Cinny 10.1.1

        Hear Hear 😀 been loving this series, loads of good vibes and valuable info from our genius gardener Mr Guyton, and all those whom comment. Big up’s to Rob and everyone else thank you so much.

        Summer Solstice starts tomorrow woooo hooooooo

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