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The Essential Forest-Gardener – in the end…

Written By: - Date published: 9:48 am, December 25th, 2016 - 32 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, farming, 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. 

When we first bought this parcel of land, it was a forest of sorts; mostly broom and gorse, that pair of so-called pest-plants that irk farmers so much, with patches of blackberry and cocksfoot grass, but precious little else. Now, it’s a far more complex collection of plants that provide opportunities for all manner of organisms to flourish; the soil supports a multitude of life-forms, bacterial, crustaceous, moluscoid, arthropodic, arachnoid, insectal, vegetative, fungal to name but a few. The above ground matrix of trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and so on host a further collection of organisms, some attractive to humans and others not. The garden is stopover for creatures with feathers and fur, winged and clawed and those who wear clothes. Compared to the pasture that is spread out over the farm next door, our environment is thrumming with life and diversity.

I’ve seen tremendous change to the hectare or so we call home and am well pleased with the decision we made to try our hands at a different approach to land stewardship. It is however and most pleasingly, not over yet. The days, weeks, months and years ahead will be even more interesting than those that brought us to this point and that’s because of where we now find ourselves, philosophically. Much has changed in our approach to how we do things out of doors. At the start, we worked to a plan, one we’d drawn with pencil and paper, that was designed to achieve certain things; create shelter from the prevailing sou’west winds, derive maximum benefit from the sun, fit in with the slope of the land, the flow of the stream that wound along one edge, the artificial boundaries of farm fence and the road that carried traffic past on our eastern side.

We read about and applied ideas from the school of permaculture, avoiding the cliches wherever we could; we have no mandala garden or swale, and leaned heavily toward a wilder version of any known gardening practice. We’ve got there, I believe, and there are few visitors who say, “Not very wild, is it”. In fact, none do. It’s pretty wild and wildly pretty.

From here on though, I plan to loosen the controls even further, and let the forest garden shape itself. It’s doing that already, truth to tell, and my plan is to keep even further out of it’s way while it does it. I’ll still plant. I can’t help myself, especially when I’ve found something that’s new and fascinating. I’m not a good customer at garden centres, as I never buy, just look and plot. If I can’t grow something from seed or slip, I’m willing to let it pass until the time when I do stumble across the open source, free version that I can pop into the soil and have grow.

Pruning fruit trees, or rather stopping the practice, is challenging, but not impossible. I can see our 80 or so apple trees, becoming the canopy once I’ve stopped cutting them. There will be a change to their productivity, most likely, but they produce far too much fruit now and the volumes are increasing year after year. I’ll not net either, letting the birds have what they need and timing my picking better, watching for their signs of interest and harvesting when they show, rather than later. I’ll still be cutting scions from the plants that other people might like a copy of; apples, pears and plums that we collected from the old orchards, unusual fruiting trees that I’ve picked up from other gardens over the years, plants that attract butterflies and bees that when planted beyond our own boundaries will enhance the populations of those wonderful insects for the benefit of everyone and quirky personal-favourites like the Fengu’s Fan that I have growing amongst the understorey below the native trees for no reason other than it delights me.

My approach, and I like to think it’s a mature one, has become to greet every challenge encountered in the forest garden, with a practice that adds life to the situation, rather than takes it away. Instead of clearing, cutting and chopping at plants I don’t want to occupy too much space, I’ll add some competition for them, by casting seed or setting out cuttings of plants that will make the so called weed, take its place and only its place in the garden.

Where there are insects that might spoil a crop I favour, I’ll bring in other insects that will harvest their crop-eating brethren and that’s easily done by planting something that attracts them. If I stumble across a plant or any organisms at all for that matter, that I react to negatively and believe I need to destroy, I’ll think again, ponder on my thinking and try to re-jig my world view to this add-rather-than-take philosophy. I’m confident that this is a natural approach that’s been tested for a very long time, certainly longer than I’ve been scratching around on my patch of soil, and is one that will satisfy all of our needs.

When I retire, and that’s something that’s going to involve a good deal of light-footed wandering about in the forest garden, rather than pushing a wheelbarrow or hand-mower, I’ll be thankful that I had the opportunity to try stepping back from what was expected of me as a gardener and instead having a go at letting the garden-that-became-a-forest, shape my thoughts and actions.

I’ll nibble leaves and fruits as the desire arises, brachiate in an orangutan-like fashion if I’m still able, collect and store nuts, pad about on the spongy forest floor and scatter seeds wherever there’s a pool of sunlight decending through the leafy canopy. If all goes to the loosely woven plan I’ve fabricated in my mind, my children and their own offspring will be in there with me, doing much as I’m doing, only with more spring in their steps. I recommend forest gardening to anyone and everyone who would enjoy to do the same.

32 comments on “The Essential Forest-Gardener – in the end… ”

  1. Oh, and Merry Christmas, everyone! Hoe, hoe, hoe (lame gardener’s joke).

  2. weka 2

    Robert, if you were starting on a new piece of land, would you still do a paper-based design as a beginning point, or go straight to following the wild?

    • First up, weka, thank you very much for hosting me here at The Standard – it’s been a delightful experience and one I’d happily repeat if the opportunity presented 🙂
      In response to your question; I drew and drew when I was first yearning for a forest garden of my own; colourful maps in watercolour and pencil, swirling and sweeping, fanciful and mandala-like but to my amazement, they came into being as the first drone footage revealed and showed me that image-ination is everything and thought comes before action; in fact, action cannot help but follow thought *(so be careful what you wish for:-) For those who are visioning their own forest garden, I can tell you it will happen faster (and deeper) than you ever imagined and there’s no time better than now to start, if you’ve not already set out on that path.
      All satiated as I am with Christmas dinner and the conversations of whanau, I just want to say, (whisper more likely), it’s all about love. If that sounds flaky, blame it on the rosé. Happy New Year, everyone; don’t waste the opportunity to grasp the nettle 🙂

      • weka 2.1.1

        You’re welcome Robert, and thank-you! I learned a lot, and felt very affirmed in my own approaches to various things, gardening and politically. The conversations below the posts have been valuable too, great to see who is around and doing and thinking what. Would love to build on that if we can.

        I understand your last paragraph 🙂 good on your for whispering it out oud, and I hope we can all get back to the garden so to speak.

  3. adam 3

    Thank you Robert, a utter joy to read.

  4. Thanks for reading my posts, garibaldi. Without readers, a writer is a tree, falling in a forest when no one’s around, etc… 🙂

  5. Thanks, garibaldi. It feels great to be read.

  6. Thanks for reading my stuff, garibaldi.

    • 3 responses! Looks a bit daft, but trust me, I’m grateful 🙂 – Nah, really, they didn’t appear when I pressed the “submit comment” button, so I kept re-writing.

  7. Molly 7

    Merry Christmas Robert. Have really enjoyed your series here at the Standard.

  8. Philj 8

    Thank you Robert. The world is a better place with your attitude and practical example.

  9. Thanks, Philj. I’m just starting to hit my straps here and expect really great things in the (near) future. Watch this space 🙂

  10. mauī 10

    Ok, quiz time. You’ve got an urban garden area infront of you full of invasive crocosmia, which has deep bulbs that are very hard to remove to stop it coming back. How do you get the area into a productive food garden as soon as possible? This is just a hypothetical situation, not to worry not a real world problem.

  11. Hi, mauī – those crocosmia corms are something else, aren’t they! Wikipedia says of them:
    ” The corms are unusual in forming vertical chains with the youngest at the top and oldest and largest buried most deeply in the soil.[citation needed] The roots of the lowermost corm in a chain are contractile roots and drag the corm deeper into the ground where conditions allow. The chains of corms are fragile and easily separated, a quality that has enabled some species to become invasive and difficult to control in the garden.”
    How’s that for a survival strategy! Crocosmia grow best in dry, bony conditions where there is little competition. To manage it, I’d change those conditions. I try to grow crocosmia here, but it’s a struggle 🙂 as there’s not much room amongst the other plants and it’s too shady for them. I like the yellow crocosmia best, with the dark red coming in as second favourite. The common orange is okay too. If there were too many to dig out or the soil was too tough or infertile, I’d just heap rich compost on top and get growing my vegetables. The swords would still come through, but the vegetables should produce what you need in between. As conditions improve for the vegetables, they’ll become less favourable for the crocosmia and you’d find them easier to remove. Perhaps the two crops could co-exist. It’s not a challenge I’ve faced, I have to say.

  12. Greywarshark 12

    Hi Robert
    Happy Christmas – make it last for days – and then new year. And 2017 too – it’s been great reading your exploits this year. Next?

  13. Hi, Greywarshark – Happy Christmas to you also. I’ve spent the first 1/4 of Boxing Day out amongst my trees – beautiful it is out there. I’ve beans and peas in the soil, swelling in the heat and the damp. The grape-vine cuttings I put in months ago are all shooting and looking ready to transplant. I’ve moved my lemon tree to a warmer spot and it’s thriving; putting on new growth and looking glossy. The yurt we’ve bought arrives tomorrow, so I’ve work to do in preparation for that (It’s 12 metres in diameter, so no pup tent) and a woman is arriving soon to collect the rooster that’s been bothering us every morning for the past month – he’s found a new home, good luck to those kind souls 🙂 Beyond that, it’s visiting day today, and we’re the hosts. 2017 will be, all going well, the most interesting yet for us. All of our projects are blooming and people are attracted to that sort of thing, so there’ll be no hiding away in the shrubbery for me; I’ll have to make sure my face is scrubbed, my boots polished and my smile turned up for whoever arrives at the door. Good fun. I’m publishing this “Essential Gardener” series as a book and that’s a challenge right there, but I’ve friends helping. The short film, “An Invitation for Wildness” is doing especially well on-line (over 70 000 views now) and there are repercussions from that already. We are hosting another film maker here tonight, so there’s more of that sort of stuff to come in the new year. Best thing though, the new Governor General is vegan! That’s got to be significant. I’m not so disciplined, but that’s a move in the right direction, imo. I’d like to post here on The Standard again sometime; perhaps an up-date to the posts that appeared here over the past 12 weeks. I do have a blog http://www.robertguyton.blogspot.com and that continues to attract followers, to my great delight and I have plans to integrate that with Instagram and a facebook page called “The Forest Gardeners” which is built but not open for business quite yet. Anyway, have a happy new year, Greywarshark and thanks for your support.

  14. Karen 14

    Thank you for your posts Robert, they have been a joy to read.

    In what I suspect will be some dark times for the world in coming years your attitude to life is something to emulate. My suburban garden, on a steep hill a 20 minute bus ride from the centre of Auckland can never be anything like your forest garden in the deep south, but your philosophy about growing plants is one that I can adopt/adapt to my little piece of wild garden.

    The Standard is not no longer somewhere I want to spend any time – too many right-wingers, conspiracy theorists and gullible spreaders of alt-right and Russian propaganda for me. Arguing is a waste of time – I’d rather put energy into doing things that make a difference. However I will check your blogspot and keep an eye out for any future posts from you here.

    • Hi, Karen. I’m with you. There’s too little time to waste it defending a position – best to establish one and encourage it to spread and spread and spread 🙂
      As to gardens and how they can be – I could find solace in a pot-plant on a window-sill, truly I could, so don’t feel your “forest garden” has to be the biggest or the best – we work with what we’ve got 🙂 And thanks for your encouragement – that’s super-grow fertilizer to someone like me 🙂

      Robert

    • weka 14.2

      Really hoping the lefties recolonise TS again at some point 🙂

      • Jenny Kirk 14.2.1

        I do too, Weka, but I’m thinking we’re all going to be a bit too busy in 2017 to recolonise TS …… as well as getting out there in the garden.

        Robert Guyon – I don’t suppose you have any advice re guava moth pest, do you ?

        This is a new pest from Oz but becoming prevalent in the north and so far, no-one seems to have any ideas how to prevent it from getting into orchard fruits. it starts with loquats where it develops, and then moves on into other fruits.
        We have just planted a loquat – thinking this would be helpful to the local birds ….. but I’m now thinking maybe I should just pull it out, and give the other fruiting trees a better chance of resisting the guava moth.

        • weka 14.2.1.1

          “but I’m thinking we’re all going to be a bit too busy in 2017 to recolonise TS”

          Might be the most important year of all to do it though.

      • Karen 14.2.2

        Sadly I don’t think it will happen unless there is a major change in the rules. Maybe if there was a limit on the number of comments any one person can make on any post (including Open Mike) and a requirement to provide verification of any claim made things would improve enough to make it worthwhile spending time here.

        • greywarshark 14.2.2.1

          Karen I think too that there needs to be a limit on comments each day full stop, and also on each post. I note the place is infested with RWs and their pap, and it isn’t interesting or nformational and en masse they dominate.

          These are dead heads that believe by repeating the same they will invest it with authority, or just have nothing better to do – a place for pre alzheimers who prate about their superior opinions with no room for growth. Most other people I can find something worthwhile in what they say, and can take on board new ideas or a change of perspective.

          Can something be set up like that lprent and authors/mods? 2017 will be an important year and it would be a shame to see idle non-thinkers dominate the site and preach their diatribes so that good reading becomes impossible because of those who must react to every provoking yahboo from some basically childish twit and complacent rentier. Limits would mean a better spread of advice, opinions, information and when it is information, there should be links to a source definitely. Opinions, why can’t people say what they think, surely people have this right though of course it would help to have a brief reason.

          But that doesn’t mean I want to hear more of the wimmin’s perspective on everything if that’s what you miss.

          • lprent 14.2.2.1.1

            When comment sections get too damn repetitive and boring, moderators start taking more notice of behaviour. I know that I do.

            But it takes time and effort. So we usually do that kind of effort when it becomes quite noticeable to us.

            On the other hand, we do tend to go over the top when we act. It helps with commenter self regulation.

            As you know, this site has been running since August 2007, and moderating like this since early 2008. It seems to work…

            But we do tend to take more notice in election year. That is when we tend to get concerted efforts to bias debate from all sides. For some strance reason I like dealing with people doing that kind of thing.

            • greywarshark 14.2.2.1.1.1

              lprent
              Yes the site is doing well and attracting a lot of people who would like to derail the conversation. That is what I’m saying, not to stop all divergent opinions, just to limit all so there is a swirling flow not a stagnant pool. At present it often seem the obsessed’s main interest.

              Perhaps we could have a daily political crossword to let the oldies practice their synapses on? Do any of the blogs have such? Are there frustrated crosswordographers out there? Some people have great convoluted minds at that sort of thing. When the news papers started to implods many paid off their locals and bought in some rank outsiders. Could TS welcome a resident
              wordsmith?

  15. Hi Jenny. Incoming organisms like the guava moth are going to be appearing more and more frequently, imo. You northerners will cop them first, being warmer than us, and we’ll be watching to see how you cope. I am somewhat fatalistic when it comes to invasive species, especially now when they are driven by a warming and more vigorous climate, along with geopolitical changes but having read, “The New Wild”, – how invasive species can save the planet (or some such sub-title) I’m just going to go along with events and see what advantages there might be with these immigrants. I’m not wanting to be exposed to mosquito etc. that carry human health implications, but I suspect there will be little we can do about that in the long run, aside from keep ourselves and our environment as healthy and resilient as possible; maintain a diverse flora and fauna external and internal and even in your mind. This might be more than you were asking about (guava moth) but the process is the same, imo. I’d be loathe to pull out a loquat tree, as I love the fruit so much and in any case, I favour adding more, rather than taking away. It might be possible, on your smaller scale, to trap the moths; lights at night with some stickyness or a pheremone lure. Turps and molasses in a jar could do it. If New Zealand still had it’s gecko population we’d be fine.

  16. Jenny Kirk 16

    Thanks Robert – first sign of the guava moth, and I’ll do that lure at night. And – I’ve been thinking with planting the comfrey, calendula borage etc around the trees that might help them resist the moth …….. maybe, hopefully. Will see what happens.

  17. Readers here might be interested to read about our latest “event” – the arrival of our Mongolian ger (that’s yurt to those who prefer the Turkish word).

    http://robertguyton.blogspot.co.nz/2016/12/the-yurt-has-landed.html

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