Written By: - Date published: 7:23 am, November 20th, 2016 - 10 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, food, sustainability - Tags: green activism, ood forest, 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.
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.