- Date published:
12:05 pm, October 15th, 2016 - 20 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, food, sustainability - Tags: food forest, food forests, green activism, resiliency, resiliency gardening, Riverton, robert guyton forest gardener
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.