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The Essential Forest-Gardener – chapter 2

Written By: - Date published: 12:05 pm, October 15th, 2016 - 20 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, 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. 

In my pre-forest garden period, 28 or more years ago, I lived in another part of the small fishing village of Riverton, in a schoolhouse. I worked then as a school teacher, doing all I could to encourage the children of my classes to read and write and see the world as I saw it. My home gardening activities were stymied somewhat by the rules of the Education Board landlord who demanded that nothing other than grass grow in the grounds, though they did concede to my planting a small vegetable garden to feed my young family, so long as I returned the plot to lawn at the end of my stay. Those restrictions played a big part in my adoption of the exuberant, no restrictions system I operate under now, and I suppose I should be grateful for their obsession with law’n’order.

At the weekends, my wife Robyn and I would drive around the town, looking for a place that we could move to and remake in our own image and one crisp autumn afternoon, we found it. Over looking the Jacob’s River estuary and facing directly north into the sun, the gently-sloping hill section won us both over in an instant. The soil was deep and loamy and hadn’t been cultivated for many years. There was a creek, and, we later learned, a spring of cold, fresh water. Any two of these features would have been enough for us to say yes to the land agent, so we acted swiftly and bought the property. It cost us very little, though the neighbours said we’d paid too much.

No one else had seen the potential of the acre or so of untidy, gorse and broom-covered land, and it had sat unwanted for many years, something for which I am even now, very grateful. The level part of the property, on the brow of the hill, was strewn with rubbish from the previous owners whose house had been so damaged by the smoke from a fire in the ceiling that they’d upped-sticks and left, leaving their discarded worldly possessions lying about the place; car parts, piles of kitchen rubbish, rusted water tanks and beer bottles, dozens and dozens of beer bottles, all smashed and scattered near and far. I’m sure that the junk that lay all about was responsible for having turned other potential buyers off purchasing the land, and I’m thankful for the carelessness of that beer-loving family. If it weren’t for them, I might still be simmering away in a schoolhouse somewhere, restrained and frustrated by someone else’s rules and prejudices about plants and chaos.

We set to work, escorting everything that couldn’t be composted to the local refuse site, and felling the broom and gorse in the belief that it was a problem. That was my first mistake, sawing down what could have been a standing resource that would have protected the soil and every newly planted tree from the strong sou’westerly winds that blew in regularly from the southern ocean, but there were other mistakes to follow, so I’m not being too hard on myself over that one. We learn as we go.

With that ill-judged felling done, we set about planting native trees to replace that freeby shelter; tough, leathery-leaved shrubs and trees that grow naturally along the exposed coasts of Southland and the islands further toward the Antarctic. Like Edward Scissorhands, I chopped and diced my way through the tangled blackberry that hid the creek and spring, and laying down the sickle and machete I wielded for that prickly job, I took up a spade and dug innumerable buckets-full of mud until I rediscovered the rocky creek bed and blue-clay bowl of the spring.

We built a house, had another baby and settled in to grow what we now wander happily amongst; a forest garden that has become an on going inspiration for ourselves and a great stimulation for people visiting for the first time. The messiness and exposure to the elements we struggled with in the early days are a thing of the past and we’re now flourishing in a sheltered, productive and vibrant environment that we’d sensed could eventuate, even on that very first exploratory visit, almost 30 years ago.

This post is part of a series appearing over 12 Sundays. Other parts can be seen here.

20 comments on “The Essential Forest-Gardener – chapter 2 ”

  1. Jenny Kirk 1

    Lovely story, Robert Guyton. We’v e just planted a dozen orchard trees on a flat lawn at the back of our house – it gets plenty of sun, in fact gets too hot to sit out in during summer – so hoping to eventually emulate your photo above. Shade and fruit !

  2. Good for you, Jenny. Now that we’ve plenty of ‘framework’ to our garden, I’m releasing the vines, planting grapes especially, at the base of a couple of dozen trees and encouraging them to clamber up into the canopy where they will display their clusters of fruit for us to pluck, at our leisure and in friendly competition with the birds:-) The grapes are heritage varieties sent to me as cuttings by an elderly woman from Central Otago who has a passion for collecting plants from the old stations and long-since-passed mining settlements – once you show signs of interest in old varieties of anything at all, kind people make up parcels of the most wonderful things and share. Makes visits to the letter box a great excitement.

  3. weka 3

    Robert, have you worked with using gorse as a nursery plant down there? Just wondering what it’s like working with it given it’s prickliness.

  4. Sabine 4

    going back to the gardenhouse next week
    lucky me.
    thanks for a nice read to start my sunday with.

  5. Hi weka – yes, I’ve planting under “old man” gorse to good effect. It’s not a great idea to try to use adolescent gorse as it doesn’t allow enough light in for whatever you’ve planted. I broadcast seedballs under gorse also, and that works when the seeds you’ve used in the clay/compost mix are from pioneer species, like tutu or poroporo. Other natives are slow to establish and need a different method. Getting manuka established on pasture is a test, and the best method is to use “slash” – seedpod bearing branches cut from live manuka and laid thickly on the ground. They provide an environment for the manuka seeds to strike in and grow through and it’s very effective, allowing you to miss out the nursery/tray/planter bag steps and do large areas very cheaply. Cut gorse makes great rabbit and hare repellent when piled around the trunks of newly planted fruit trees. I didn’t have to do that here though, as our understory of herbs and biennials kept them away entirely. I’ve some beautiful gorse sticks to use when I get old and infirm 🙂

    • weka 5.1


      Do you think that succession method (tutu/poroporo first) under gorse/broom is better, or faster, than planting higher succession trees/shrubs initially?

      Does the gorse have to be cut out at some point or do the other plants just take over?

      Were you planting manuka for its own sake, or as part of a succession?

      questions, questions!

      • I go for broadscale, fast growing, short-cycle pioneers, native or exotic, to get any and every project started. I favour tree lupin (Lupinus arboreus) for anything near the coast – maritime gardens like mine or anything on an offshore island. Inland, I’d use other legumes, like tagasaste, sown en masse. Even lucern and clover – start with a smothery nitrogen-fixer and add, always add. The manuka slash method is for conservation repairs, rather than forest gardening. Where native forest has been turned to pasture and you want to reverse that action, the manuka method is a quick way to convert back to native. You know farmers imported the smut/blight that blackens the manuka throughout the country in an effort to beat the “pest”?
        You don’t need to cut old man gorse, if you are patient and sensitive to the cycles the uncivilized world follows. Standing gorse that is dead and or dying is habitat for all sorts of organisms and we have the unfortunate need to tidy everything up, for reasons most people would struggle to justify, if asked. Standing “spent” plants offend our sensibilities, but not those of the wild world. There’s a lesson in that.

        • weka

          I didn’t know that about the smut. So manuka will be succeeded by something else and won’t form a climax state? (I’m more used to kanuka, which tends to hold on to its patch).

          • Robert Guyton

            Yeah, manuka will eventually yield to the next iteration, but a “manager” can hasten the process easily. I prefer to use exotics, as they cycle so much faster and there’s no anguish with harvesting/felling them if need be. My rule of thumb though, is add, not subtract, so I’m always using more plants to make changes, rather than clearing away. If you understand the life cycles of those short-lived perennials, you can ease in the next crop while the first is resting/wintering underground etc. Softy plants are easier to manage/sacrifice/utilize than hard stemmed plants, like manuka and kanuka.

            • weka

              I love that philosophy to always add.

              • Yep. Take the life-giving path in favour of the life-destroying, I reckon. That’s why I’m no fan of antibiotic behaviours. Attracting aphid-eating hoverflies and ladybirds to your garden by planting and encouraging to flower, parsley, parsnip, carrot and fennel is so much more elegant than spraying with an aphidicide 🙂 Providing nest sites in the tops of tii kouka for starlings that collect caterpillars for their newly-hatched is the life-promoting alternative to poisoning the soft-bodied leaf-chewers with something lethal from Monsanto.

                • weka

                  That will be the thing for me to think through today, thanks (it’s also what I am thinking politically).

                  In terms of gardening, there is a lot of experience there, right? It’s how we would all be gardening if we lived in a culture that was still immersed in nature, but given that we don’t, I think there is a shift that needs to happen, and then there are skills that need to be learned. I’m pretty aligned with that in my own gardening practice for a long time, but hadn’t quite framed it the way you are doing, and still many areas where I have things to learn.

                  • Me too, weka. I’m learning not to say or think, “nature” as that implies “other”. I’m substituting “wildness” for that which is not civilized. It changes the way I think and behave.

                    • weka

                      “nature” as that implies “other”

                      Is that because the over culture sees it that way? For me nature is something I am part of whether I am being civilised or wild (or in civilisation or the wildness). I agree that choosing different words changes us though, maybe I’ll try wildness and civilised on for a while.

  6. RedLogix 6

    A beautiful headline picture Robert! I’ve never been to Riverton, but I imagine it captures the mood of the place well.

    Our instinct to clear fell does need to be resisted. We learnt the same lesson rehabilitating a road-side creek bank in Wellington; the best results were in areas where we either left or planted the coloniser/pioneers species such as manuka, koromiko, tree lucerne and hebes. The key was to weed release them the first year, or protect them with some bio-degradable matting (about a m2). By the second year they’d be waist or head high and start suppressing the weeds and grasses. Only then was it worth planting the more ‘glamorous’ canopy podocarps.

    Without that protective micro-climate, it was just one loss after another. Even trees that looked quite well established would suddenly die for no apparent reason.

    After about six years the creek was an entirely different place. From deep thickets of blackberry and rubbish, we had a profusion of natives jostling for sunlight. From sterile bare soil, a layer of leaf litter was building. From hostile to welcoming. We would take an inordinate pride in going back to visit … although of course it was nature which had done most of the work!

    Oh and we found Greater Wellington Regional Council extremely helpful. Both on the ground and in providing resources.


    • Thanks, RedLogix; that’s a view from the veranda on a day that’s promising rain 🙂 It’s taken at this time of the year too, so when I look out now, it’s like that, only no skeins of rain. Your description of how to succeed with revegetation is spot on, and your advice to not clear fell is the most valuable ‘take away’ concept of all. You’ve recognised that the wild world is an ally not an enemy. When the rest of humanity reaches that point of understanding, we’ll be in with a chance of survival.

  7. Karen 7

    Your description of having to get rid of years of accumulated rubbish brought back some memories! We only have a fifth of an acre (on a steep slope) but the amount of rubbish hidden beneath the undergrowth was extraordinary – 3 stoves, a couple of fridges, bits of cars, loads of corroded metal of unknown origin, and hundreds of tins and bottles. Everything was covered in vines and noxious weeds – lots of gorse, privet, old man’s beard, wild ginger etc but there was the saving grace of a kauri tree, a few punga and one cabbage tree. 35 years later we have a big vegetable garden and the rest of the section is covered with mostly native trees, but also a few fruit trees for us and some camellia and cherry trees for tui to feed on in winter.

    Not nearly as wonderful a transformation as you have achieved of course, but it gives me great pleasure whenever I start to despair of the state of the world. I am very aware how privileged I am to have this.

  8. Corokia 8

    We lived in 2 school houses when I grew up, clearly my mum paid no attention to Education board rules on gardening. Thanks to her and the previous residents the school houses were surrounded by fruit trees, vege gardens, flowers and shrubs

  9. Good on you, Karen – cleaning up the detritus of other people can be very therapeutic; I regard it as cleaning up the mess I made myself when I was young and headstrong/stupid. I broke more than my fair share of glass bottles and windows when I was a lout lad and am grateful for the opportunity presented to me when I finally grew up, to make amends.

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