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The Essential Forest-Gardener – chapter 3

Written By: - Date published: 7:00 am, October 23rd, 2016 - 58 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. 

Forest gardens like mine – intentional combinations of forest or woodland with managed food producing plots, are for the moment few and far between. Their numbers are on the rise though, as the idea catches on, especially with the new breed of young parents mindful of the need for homegrown food in the face of climate change. I have the strong suspicion that forest gardens are not a new phenomenon at all and have in fact featured large in the distant past, when according to recent interpretations of archeology, huge tracts of what is now regarded as jungle or forest, show signs of having been managed in a style very similar to that I’m employing here in Riverton.

Without destroying the sturdy framework that a forest provides, past civilizations have grown food crops, material for building and clothing and a host of other useful plant-derived stuff, without clearfelling every standing tree. I like to believe that this was the case and forest gardening is an old practice that served humankind well for aeons, and that it will do so again, once the latest iteration becomes recognised as the way to manage the environment successfully into the far future. These are the sorts of thoughts that occur to someone who has encouraged trees to stand where once there was lawn. The cultivation of a forest garden results in thinking that leads the forest gardener into believing that there is a way to roll back the harm done by industrial agriculture and horticulture and the spread of towns and cities, and that’s through the proliferation of these delightful ‘edible woodlands’ in whatever form, size or style people would like to adopt. In any case, I’ve got mine up and running and I’m not alone in championing them. There are other gardens like mine in New Zealand and beyond and, thanks to the electronic world wide web, anyone interested can browse the efforts of others of my ilk.

Defining a “forest garden” is not a simple task. They take many forms and differ from each other depending upon where in the world they are. Mine sits in a cool to temperate zone, where bananas won’t grow, but apples thrive. Many of the popular forest gardens I’ve seen as film or video, grow in tropical or sub-tropical climates and look more exotic than mine, with their giant bamboos, flambouyant, hummingbird-attracting flowers and huge knobbly fruits. Those differences though, are of detail, rather than broad concept and all can be said to be of the same kind; trees, shrubs, vines and  almost every other class of plant, woven together in a way the mirrors the natural world of plants while at the same time being cultivated for human purpose.

Chaotic is the word that springs to the lips of the conservative gardener, seeing a forest garden for the first time, and the order that does in fact exist in these gardens is a lot more complex than that found in a lawn-and-box-hedge garden, giving the impression of disorder. My own house is surrounded closely with a great range of plants that seem to the visitor, they tell me, to overwhelm and threaten the little colonial cottage we live in. From my point of view, those plants are welcome to tower, even come inside if they would, I’m very comfortable living as a forest creature and don’t need to have a demarcation zone around my home. If I was living in fire-prone Australia or any country that harbours snakes or illness-carrying mosquitoes, I’d change my tune, but here in cool, well-watered Southland where snakes are never found, I can afford to have the garden wrap itself close.


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

58 comments on “The Essential Forest-Gardener – chapter 3 ”

  1. TheExtremist 1

    Maybe off topic slightly but today is my daughters 3rd birthday and we have given her, as one of many gifts, a small beehive. It’s a small cardboard box about the size of a dozen beers and it contains 50 bees and a queen. We are teaching her about how the garden works and about how even the smallest creatures help us grow our food and have a part in our ecosystem

    • Good morning, TE. Are those bumble bees or honey bees? I’m guessing bumble and if so, that’s a great gift for anyone, but especially wonderful for a 3 year old.
      My elderly neighbour once offered me a small writing desk in which redundant Christmas decorations from past years were still stored and when I opened the lid, we discovered a nest of bumble bees amongst the baubles and tinsel – it was a curiously attractive combination!

  2. Jenny Kirk 2

    Your stories make a good start to a Sunday morning, thanks, Robert.

  3. RedLogix 3

    As much as the idealist in me loves food forests as Robert is so wonderfully demonstrating, I don’t see this model as being the whole solution on its own. What I’m seeing is a bundle of ideas from vertical planting, urban reclaims, biodynamics, permaculture, aquaculture and landscape scale water management that together will transform our live environments.

    Cities and towns can exploit vertical gardening, or small scale highly productive plots using any number of techniques. This may feel gimmicky to some, but for others with nothing more than a verandah to work with it could be fun:


    Straw baling, worm farming, chooks, ducks, trellising, hot and cool houses all work well at this scale. An entire world of ideas waiting to be explored. We’ve been following this guy for a while, and each year he impresses more and more:


    Aquaponics which integrates plant and fish into a tight recycling scheme appeals to the engineer in me and can be implemented on virtually any scale, from something in a few buckets to huge installations. Given how critical water can be in the Australian landscape, it’s not surprising they lead the world:


    Increasingly we will see food crops like hemp, nuts and a much greater diversity of fruits . Read this and see the end of cows milk:


    Imagine what could be done here:


    Then upward to self-sustaining food forests, either family run, community managed, right out to large mixed operations that merge into wilderness at their margins. At this scale techniques like swaling, coppicing, stock management in open grass-lands, become more applicable.

    Globally there’s any amount of indigenous experience and deep knowledge to be respected and learnt from. And the bio-dynamic specialists are always compelling and interesting.

    Going outwards this complex picture is underpinned with far more attention to water management and multiple re-uses over and again. Water can be stored, used, cleaned up, re-vitalised and used over and again, many times for many purposes … at every possible scale within the landscape. And demands absolute attention to ensure this vital common property is protected and respected.

    Step sideways and study Alexanders A Pattern Language to see how complexity can be consciously designed and managed over both space and time. At each scale, from the most intimate up to entire regions, there are patterns which work, patterns which create a sense of belonging, purpose and meaning. Patterns which embrace the human spirit and increase life.

    • greywarshark 3.1

      Thanks Red Logix, pretty comprehensive comment. And I am going to file it for looking at later. Once the practical people like yourself and the Guytons can convey their message and demonstrate their experience, the groundwork is done for us others to follow and work out how to adapt our lives and thinking and resources.

      Just random thought. Self-sufficiency is not the way to go to my mind, but building co-operative trading systems, where people can buy homeowners excess cheaply, rather than exchanging them freely. This would put money into supporting the exchange system which could be a cheerful hub of activity and meeting place one day a week say, and the exchange would still be an full-time outlet for organic produce businesses to sell their product commercially. Trade is the lifeblood of a flourishing community that has employment opportunities for its people.

      • RedLogix 3.1.1

        Self-sufficiency is not the way to go to my mind

        Totally correct. I can understand the initial appeal of these words. It is how so many trapped into the cycle of wage/debt slavery would frame their dream … to escape the loneliness and quiet despair of their lives as labour units entries on some HR spreadsheet, and live their lives on their own terms.

        But rather than ‘self-sufficiency’, perhaps it would be better termed ‘self-realisation’. That means breaking down loneliness, making strong social connections, belonging to enterprises that embody shared ownership and respect personal agency. Or as you say, trading on your own terms is the economic life-force of all community.

      • All I can say to you, greywarshark, is yes, yes, you are on the pulse with your ‘freely exchanged’ ideas.

    • weka 3.2

      Biodynamics is bloody interesting and getting very good results. It’s a real pity that we are in such a place of everything has to pass the Science threshold rather than including things that demonstrably work but defy rational explanation at this stage. Fortunately many are just getting on with it, and interesting to see vineyards just doing it and not talking about it. But the prohibition coming from Science is holding us back I think.

      • Everything, weka, does not have to pass the “science threshold”.
        As you and I know 🙂
        The ArchDruid has plenty to say about that, so I’ll not pontificate 🙂

        • weka

          Quite. Plus, what you do is science. Permaculture is science. Biodynamics has its own science. Mātauranga Māori too.

          Anything in particular from the JMG? I don’t read him a lot these days because of the length. I keep thinking I’ll write a post about it myself, but there is only so much arguing one can manage. Maybe I need a more Sunday Magazine approach.

    • Hello RedLogix, thanks for your contribution and deeply thought-out suggestions.
      All I can say in response is, consider the wild! If you do that (and I think you are doing that) all of the details come into fine focus. I’m trying to use the vehicle, “forest garden” to signal one direction to take and that is, go wild. All of your iterations reflect that central theme (I think). I believe the garden I’m describing does engender all of the sub-sets you describe. The most significant act is to think wild. Once that’s established, all else follows and you have described many of the “elses” well. Again, thanks for your input – it’s exciting!

  4. Karen 4

    I haven’t visited The Standard at all in the past week (I needed a break) and then, while I was out in my garden, I remembered you would be posting today.

    I have a couple of questions for you:
    I don’t use weedkillers but I’d like to kill off some big dock plants. The roots are too deeply ensconced in my clay based soil for me to dig out. Any ideas? They are enormous plants. I could just keep cutting the leaves back but I really would like the space back.
    The other is can you recommend any literature about permaculture vegetable gardening methods that would work well in an Auckland climate?

    These probably seem very basic questions but I am a very amateur gardener.

    • Hi Karen (sorry I’ve taken so long to respond – I was helping a small community group plant an orchard in a park and it was too much fun to leave them to it. Lots of children and talk – best thing)
      Dock – I love it! Like comfrey, it’s a miner of deep nutrients and trace elements, bringing them back to the surface where they can cycle through your edible plants again. Patience sorrel is a dock look-alike and edible. Dock is a proud plant (personal observation) and should be respected, imho. I leave them be, in fact, I collect the seed and broadcast it everywhere. In my forest garden, there are no invasive plants – there’s no room for them to become a problem – they have to take their place amongst all the other plants, vying for a place in the sun.
      I’m envious of your “enormous plants”, and consider you very fortunate.Congratulations also,for not using weed killlers. You are one of the “Good Ones” 🙂
      Do you know/grow French sorrel? It’s dock-like and delicious!

      • Karen 4.1.1

        Hmmm. I certainly do not need to collect the seed – they come up everywhere! I do grow French sorrel but my issue with dock is that I don’t have enough room for everything I would like to grow. Dock grows extremely well in my clay soil and I suspect that if I allowed them all to go to seed there wouldn’t be much else – they obviously also love the Auckland climate.

        My Dad is dead now but I can still hear him telling me off for letting any of them flower. Unfortunately I often get busy with no time for gardening, and the plants I don’t want take over. I do appreciate your philosophy of no plants being invasive, but it isn’t really my experience. I will just have to keep cutting the dock leaves and making sure they don’t seed.

        • Robert Guyton

          “One year’s seeding means 7 years weeding” is true, but misconstrued, I believe. 7 years of weeds is a blessing, in my view. That wild fecundity is what’s protected us from our own destructive ways – if the wild world hadn’t filled the “dead” spaces we’ve created with “weeds”, we’d have turned the planet into desert generations ago., and it’d be Dune all over. All hail weeds and praise dock from the mountain tops! My approach to invasive plants, is pull ’em off if they are causing immediate concern, but in the long-term, manage them by introducing competition. Increase complexity, make the weeds work for their place. I have no bothersome weeds. It’s a state of mind, invasiveness. Don’t dock your dock! 🙂

      • Corokia 4.1.2

        Crickey Robert, sowing dock! I like to have a few plants around to put on nettle stings, but I don’t encourage it.
        Karen I dig out as much of the dock roots as I can. As my vege bed soil has improved I can pull out the plants that self seed there. In the lawn ( sshh don’t tell Robert that I’ve got one, I’ll lose all my credibility ) I just mow it over. And cutting off all seed heads and feeding them to the chooks.

        • Robert Guyton

          Corokia – dock root (yellow dock at least) is a saleable item, so yes, dig, dry and and sell, if you will, but dock allowed to express itself fully and unmolested is a poem and a badge of honour for the wild gardener/thinker. The problem here, is “vege bed”. Once you’ve partitioned off a plot, differentiated between wild and domesticated, you’ve created a problem. How would it be if you could encourage wild places to supply you with food in return for your cooperation with regard management? Given that “wild” has eons more experience than “domesticated”, I reckon it’s a good deal 🙂

          • corokia

            We are lucky to have 10 ha and have about half in forest that we have planted over 26 years. The forest includes timber trees, firewood trees, and many varieties of fruits and nuts. I invisage climbing beans, asparagus, tree onion and other greens as perennial understory food plants, but when it comes to growing potatoes, carrots, onions and other bulk staple foods, I plead guilty to a fondness for beds.

            • Robert Guyton

              Beds are superseded by colonies, in my view. Colonies exist in the wild, beds, not so much. Potatoes colony well, as do asparagus, rhubarb, Jerusalem artichokes,and other edibles. All that is required is some weeding in the early stages and plenty of ongoing mulch and whatever nutrient you can divert toward the fledgling colonies. Carrots are a real problem for the forest gardener (me). The simply don’t fit but there’s no reason to expect that every primped-up modern annual would 🙂
              I trade for/buy my carrots and am always looking for replacements (yams, etc.)

              • Corokia

                It’s fun thinking it through and trying different approaches.

                Any gardening is intervention, otherwise it’s hunter gatherer stuff. Humans would have caused less damage to the world if we had stuck to that, but bit late to revert to it with billions of us now here.

                I think what you are doing is cool and like that you share your knowledge. Your forest garden is a lighter touch on the earth than my bark path edged beds. We need to hear about different ways of growing food because it’s important that we diversify crops and techniques and be adaptable in this new climate that we will now have to deal with.

                • Plus, when you wild your surrounding you wild your thinking, in the same way that poetry breaks prose’s hold over thought. We can’t think our way out of the domesticated death-grip we’ve imposed on the wild world, we have to

    • weka 4.2

      Design Your Own Orchard by Kay Baxter is a nice intro to permaculture. While not specifically about vege gardening, it’s aimed at home gardeners, has more than just orchard stuff in it, and much of the orchard stuff would be adaptable to other parts of the garden. Baxter was still living at Koanga when she wrote it, so it’s perfect for your climate.

      Paradise Lot is a great read about two guys who established a dense, productive polyculture in their backyard using permaculture.

      Both those are in libraries.

      • Karen 4.2.1

        Thanks Weka. In 2013 Kay wrote another book that may be more useful for my purposes than her orchard one so I have ordered that and Paradise Lot from the library – on the waiting list for both!

        • Corokia

          Paradise in your garden- Smart Permaculture Design by Jenny Allen is good.

        • gsays

          Hi Karen, this is more observation than solution: at certain times of the moon, about 1-2 days, weeds are easier to pull out than normal. I have done this with big docks from clay.

          • Karen

            Which 2 days?

            Message to Robert – don’t worry I will always have many varieties of weeds. I just want to get rid of the ones that are affecting some more precious plants – particularly the ones given to me by my parents, grandfather and one of my closest friends who are all now dead.

  5. weka 5

    my question for Robert, or anyone, is how to not lose tools, especially in a rambly garden full of growth. I need a system or technique for remembering where I last used them or how to find them. I’m talking about tools that I used only a few hours ago (have just been looking), or the day before if I got disturbed and didn’t get back before dark. I suspect this says something about the way I garden and tend to move around jobs…

    • fender 5.1

      You could write it down on an inventory of your tools perhaps.

    • Karen 5.2

      Weka, I used to have that problem too, and I have solved it by tying lots of wide bright sparkly ribbons around the handles in big bows. Much easier to find ( as long at the sun is shining)

    • Corokia 5.3

      A metal detector might come in handy for missing tools.

      • gsays 5.3.1

        OK confession time: I ‘lost’ a weedeater for 9 months.
        Found it in winter when the grass had died back and kicked it when shifting the goat.

        • Robert Guyton

          9 months was not long enough, imho 🙂
          The greatest enemy to newly-planted fruit trees is the weed-whacker (and the guy flailing it about.). Usually the harm doesn’t become apparent for a season or two. I think of weed-whackers and lawn mowers in the same way as I regard jet-skiis and SUVs 🙂

          • RedLogix

            We found that a few m2 of old carpet, or better still recycled cardboard weed mat is a good way to protect seedlings for the first two years.


            Works especially well in settings like community planting groups, or where there isn’t enough time or labour to weed release by hand.

            • BM

              Carpet can be a bit of a prick as weed mat, some carpet has this rather indestructible weave of plastic mesh running through it that will have you cursing it many years down the track.

              • b waghorn

                hmmm yes i’ve made that mistake

              • A carpet of fallen leaves, otoh, will delight you every year down the track. In the forest garden, weed-suppression is a built-in function. Paths too, need little more attention than a good walking-on and that’s more akin to using your feet to make a salad; crunching the juicy stalks of wild chervil, alexanders and comfrey underfoot as you go about your daily biz.

                • weka

                  Is there no need to ‘release’ saplings from grass in the first few years in the sense of suppressing grass completely? I hear people saying it’s important, but have never been clear if it’s also because of how and where they plant.

                  • Grass is challenging to saplings, weka, in that it aims to smother and as well it exudes chemicals to suppress competition – allelopathy. I find it doesn’t need to be destroyed, only set-back. Hand pulling then dropping on site is the best physical solution to the grass issue, but is not always doable. The beauty of an understorey that is herb rather than grass is the ease of management, plus the fragrances. I’m fortunate now in having a garden that’s almost too easy to manage; newly planted saplings are sheltered by many varieties of biennials and perennials, all of which need only to be stood upon to make them into mulch, if needed, and they protect from rabbits and hares as well, neither of which will come into a thickly understoreyed garden like mine. As well, those flowering herbaceous biennials attract hoverflies and other pest-insect destroyers, so the protection is almost total. I’ve not even mentioned the vastly improved quality of the soil and the life therein due to all this vegetation, but that’s another story…

        • weka


      • Bigdog 5.3.2

        The lawnmower seems pretty handy for finding them 😳😂

  6. Easy, weka. The only tools you need to garden elegantly, are your hands.
    You’re hardly likely to misplace those 🙂

    • weka 6.1

      lol. That’s akin to “go not to the elves for advice for they will say both yes and no”.

  7. Elves are our selves, weka.

  8. RedLogix 8


    My partner has a very practical question. Put simply we find that many vegetables, say silverbeet, really need decent light to do well. But if you have trees everywhere, does this not cut down the usable space that gets long sunshine hours?

    Or to put it another way; the very bad habit of clear-felling came about largely because it created a big open space with lots of light and reduced competition from the trees.

    So when we let all the trees back, how does this balance re-assert itself? How do you compensate for the inevitable loss of light?

  9. That’s a very good and pertinent question, RedLogix’s partner. The “enough-light” issue is the central one, especially for those of us living in southern zones. There are two things to consider: is silver beet the plant for your needs (would a perennial sea-beet be better? A self-seeding tree-spinach perhaps? ) in other words, is there a biennial/perennial alternative to the annual you are accustomed to? Annuals need more light to produce in the limited time they have. Biennials and perennials can take it more slowly and accumulate energy. That said, it’s important to let the sunshine in wherever there are crops for food being grown. I’ve adjusted my canopy to be more open in order to utilise the southern light better. An active pruning regime helps, and adds rapidly to the mulch layer. I’m moving toward my secondary layer (deciduous fruit trees) as a canopy, rather than native evergreens, because of the issue you describe. It’s no problem, just a change of strategy. Thanks for your thoughtful and pointed question.

  10. Stuart Munro 10

    I wonder if you’ve run across San Nammeul Robert? These are the wild vegetables that are gathered in Korea. After the war the country was poorer than Somalia and people gathered what they could, but they have become respectable as healthy and interesting foods and are widely available now in markets, or from the mountain parkland around cities. One of my professors, Kim Young Woo, was particularly proud of the way they had been developed as a public resource.

    • That’s wonderful to hear, Stuart. I haven’t heard of it in NZ but if it’s here, I’d be very interested to know where. There area lot of new food plants appearing in the gardens of migrants to NZ and they offer new opportunities for us stay-at-home Kiwis to extend the range of our diet and improve our health. I’m growing Chinese yam and a leafy goji that I was given in Auckland recently and they look very promising. San Nammeul though, intriguing…

  11. AsleepWhileWalking 11

    This is a beautiful concept. I only wish my family had thought of it back in the 80s/early 90s when it was possible to afford enough land to set this up.

    I heard of the Kapiti food forest being set up a few years ago but not sure how far along it has progressed.

  12. AsleepWhileWalking 12

    This reminds me of Crete where the locals could literally grab food on the run from the Nazis.

    Good book on this is Natural Born Heroes, by Christopher McDougall.

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