The Essential Forest-Gardener – “don’t destroy life”

Written By: - Date published: 7:23 am, November 20th, 2016 - 10 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. 

My garden is not tidy in the traditional sense. There are no straight paths or rows of plants. I don’t pick up fallen leaves and branches, dead-head flowers or uproot spent biennials. Vines clamber up shrubs and trees rather than wooden trellis and the tiny patch of lawn I have retained, goes un-mowed. But lack of tidiness does not equal disorder. As the forest garden becomes more and more complex, with greater numbers and types of plants, more and more interactions between the tall and the broad, rambling and stoicly upright, orderliness becomes greater.

You can see this effect when looking at a “wild” scene, such as that found where plants are free to grow where they will and humans have not bothered to stamp their authority; in neglected plots, the properties of retired folk unable to attend to the gardens and in some cases, the “commons” where no one has felt obliged to attend to the wild, unchecked growth of weeds. In those situations, where time has provided plants the opportunity to express themselves naturally, and complexity has become established, a high degree of orderliness can be seen.

Each plant is shaped by the next and grows as optimally as possible. The subtlety of position and maximising of opportunity seen in “gardens” like these  are the inspiration for a forest garden that seeks to be like that and benefit from the natural form of tidyness. Messing with that order; by addressing the wildness with mower or spray pack, creates collapse and disorder by reducing the bulk and complexity that natural order requires.

This is a fundemental concept for the forest gardener and one that’s not easily grasped and practiced. In the early stages of developing a naturally-ordered garden, things can look very untidy to the traditionally-tuned eye. Long grass where there was once a lawn is almost an outrage to a person who has grown up playing on lawns, proudly mown lawns and been complemented on them by others of the same mind-set. Setting free the lawn is a political and cultural statement that has to be done mindfully, if you are to succeed beyond the first attempt. I’ve overcome that challenge by doing away with mine altogether, bar the tiny, shaggy patch that seperates me from the first rank of green and growing things that is the garden, though I can spring across it with a single bound.

Certainly the manicured lawn represents a desire to control a natural space that would otherwise change significantly if left to its own devices. The mistaken belief that order equals simple creates an unseen threat to the wellbeing of humans, I believe, because it makes our agricultural and horticultural resources vulnerable to all manner of attacks, from insect, fungal and viral “pests” to the changes that are coming with the shifts in climate. Complexity is stable, homogenity is vulnerable and easily tipped over.

In the forest garden, the multitude of variety, form and habit of the plants and their attendant lifeforms from symbiotic fungi to the birds that live in and feed from them, makes it a stable, resiliant, reliable ecosystem that is tough and able to recover quickly should it be impacted on by something overwhelming from the outside; floods, chill, plague or tempestuous winds.

For the gardener, undoing the tidiness training we’ve experienced for most of our lives takes effort and time. It’s not wise to abandon all culture and do nothing at all in the garden in the hope that a balanced, complex, resilaint forest will “occur”. It won’t, at least not before many decades have passed.

Mindfully applying skills already learned to the new principles of “complexity gardening” to what might be an over managed garden or even a new property, will result in a naturalistic but mindfully managed forest- garden that will have the characteristics and benefits of a wild place, but at the same time provide sustenance to the designer and worker, and that’s you. How exactly to do that is important and while straightforward and do-able, depends on a number of factors. Where you are in the world, what’s already onsite, what you are capable of doing and so on are all real factors and being different in every instance, mean that no two forest gardens will be the same which is reflected in the discussion here.

Some very general rules of thumb will help though and the one I hold as most important is, “don’t destroy life” and I keep that in mind whenever I’m making a choice to tear out plants or add more in, fight a weed or crowd it out with a host of other plants, annihilate a “pest” insect or introduce one that will manage it, apply a fungi killer or change the environment to suit non-fungal organisms, and so on. It’s a very useful measure of behaviour for the gardener who doesn’t want to be destroying in order to achieve a garden that’s a source of creation and creativity. Creating, adding, facilitating, encouraging, making more complex are the approaches I take to managing my forest garden.


10 comments on “The Essential Forest-Gardener – “don’t destroy life””

  1. weka 1

    I think this one might be my favourite so far.

    • Thanks, weka. I especially enjoyed writing this installment. I’ve only just now returned from Tauranga, where I was speaking on this topic, so haven’t been able to comment here yet. Thankfully, it’s been quiet 🙂

  2. [deleted. Major derailment. Just don’t – weka]

  3. The lost sheep 3

    Excellent article Robert, and as something who has had the great pleasure of viewing your garden, I must say it is very beautiful illustration of your ethics and aesthetics.
    I’ve always grown much of my own food, but unfortunately have shifted around quite a bit and not had the opportunity to develop a piece of land long term. But I can still appreciate the vast satisfaction you must get from the enormous work you have put in.

    But on the ‘Don’t destroy life’ angle, I was really hoping you would continue the conversation we were having a couple of days back. If you did find the time I’d really appreciate your further discussion

    Open Mike 17/11/2016

  4. Karen 4

    I didn’t comment lat week or yesterday but Just wanted to let you know that your weekly post is a real treat for me, and I am sure many others who may not comment.
    As I was reading it yesterday I glanced out my window and there was a kereru drinking out of the bowl of sugar water I put out for tui. The sun caught the iridescent green of its feathers – so beautiful. Just like your posts.

    I then went out into the garden and thought Robert would approve of my passionfruit vine which escaped the trellis a couple of years ago to climb over and bury a garden seat before heading up the deck support posts then over a lime tree that cross-pollinated with the lemon tree (and now produces lime sized lemons all year round), and has headed up and over a pittosporum into my neighbour’s garden.

    As a postscript – I don’t normally put our sugar water this late in the year but we have had an extremely wet and windy spring that has impacted on their usual food sources. We get an influx of tui from Tiritiri Matangi in winter but they have gone back to the island now so am about to stop the supplementary food.

  5. Hi, Karen, nice to hear from you. I’ve been in Tauranga for the past few days and so have an idea of what conditions have been like in the North Island – seems blustery and wet has been the norm for a while. Here in Riverton, it’s been, dare I say it, glorious for most of the winter and spring (today’s wet and that’s very nice for the trays of seedlings I’ve got set out alongside on the path to the hot house. They’re loving it!) I did enjoy hearing about your passionfruit vine. I’m especially interested in vines at present and am adding more and more of them to the forest garden. They bring an element of linkage and entanglement that I really like, and they produce fruit to boot! You’re very fortunate in receiving overflow from Tiritiri Matangi – kereru are magnificent though a little hard on the plum trees! I’ve a pair that fly, fast, at chest height along the path in front of my house. One day there were about 30 pre-schoolers sitting along that path on picnic rugs, having lunch, when the pair raced through, just above the heads of the children. Not one person, bar me, noticed the amazing performance. I felt the birds did that for a thrilling pleasure of some sort.

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