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The Essential-Forest Gardener – native or exotic

Written By: - Date published: 7:27 am, December 4th, 2016 - 11 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. 

The question of whether or not to grow non-native plants is one forest gardeners in New Zealand struggle with only fleetingly. We’d likely starve if all we grew were natives; there’s only so much fern root and fuchsia berry a family can eat before they rebel and call for potatoes, corn, tomatoes or rice, all of which are exotic in their origins. Food crops, be they fruit or vegetable, that sustain humans were not a feature of our country’s pre-history, because of the almost total absence of mammals like ourselves that fed on such crops and favoured their presence. New Zealand was a place of birds, lizards and frogs, in the main, and those creatures don’t need fruits of the sort monkeys, raccoons or horses might enjoy, and so the larger food crops weren’t naturally selected and multiplied in the way they were on the larger land masses.

But that’s all changed and mammals feature large here now and have to be fed. Native plants do however, form the framework of my forest garden, thanks to my earlier passion for them, and my desire to include them at all levels of the forest in recognition of their “first-plants” status and their other more useful qualities. Leathery-leaved shrubs that naturally grow on the weather-facing cliff faces of our exposed off-shore islands are perfect as the avant guard shelter from the wind; they grow tightly and close and don’t suffer from salt burn. Taller trees that produce masses of small berries, such as the wineberry and whitey wood, provide perching and feeding stations for birds exotic and native and represent the canopy in the overall forest-garden design.

I’ve a love of cabbage trees, as did Dr Suess, who modeled his famous truffula trees on them, because of their striking appearance, their useful leaves which can be used as fire-starters, thatching material, plaited into strong and waterproof ropes and other simple and free to the user, purposes. They also serve as nest sites for starlings and those good birds, when providing for their chicks, harvest who knows how many grubs and caterpillars from the surrounding forest garden, resulting in almost completely hole-free leaves on every other plant.

The list of useful native plants is long, depending on your needs. I’ve lately been expanding my medicinal native plantings, with the propagation and planting out of kawakawa and koromiko, both of which grow under the umbrella of rongoa, native medicinal plants. My woodlot also, features native trees that I prune regularly with the wood-fire in mind. Many native woods are dense, burn hot and can be coppiced for an almost never-ending supply.

Although I began my tree-growing career championing native trees above all others, my thinking has changed markedly as I came to realise how restricted my choice was, in terms of food production and it was a relief to let go of that “nativism” and begin to explore the potentials of the plants that had to travel by ship or plane to get to this country. The menu of choices is vast and for someone who thrives on the new and novel, the smorgasbord of exotic plants that have edible bits provides endless delight and excitement, despite our new and more restrictive import regulations.

While ‘ordinary’ fruits provide the bulk of our harvest, odd, experimental and newly-arrived fruit and vegetables now provide us with tastes that are different from those we enjoyed in the early years of the forest-garden. South American tubers, rhizomes and bulbs do especially well in our soils and climate, though take a little getting used-to. While tomatoes and potatoes from across the Pacific have long been staples in New Zealand gardens, some of the new ones require a change in both gardening and cooking habits. The mashua, or climbing nasturtium, for example, has a tuber that looks yam-like but doesn’t behave quite the same in a roasting dish and is better eaten raw in a salad or included in a chunky ‘tuber’n’ root’ stew.

We’ve said yes to every offer of interesting and extraordinary edibles and have extended the list of food plants considerably, beyond what it was when we established our forest-garden. We now eat the stalks of plants we’d never heard of 20 years ago, the flowers of others that we thought only grew in gardens of decorative plants and the fruits of trees that were only seen in cities’ botanical gardens. Who’d have thought that hostas were edible and that their springtime spears taste like asparagus or that daylily flowers were delicious eaten fresh from the plant? The leaf-stems of the cardoon, the tender just-unfurled leaves of the linden tree, the seeds of the French hollyhock that grows so enormous here beside the coast, Chinese artichokes, Saskatoon and Silver buffalo berries, burdock roots, the pods of Dead Man’s Fingers, all provide us with tastes that weren’t found in this country before the arrival of man and I’m very pleased to be able to enjoy them now.

A strict adherence to native plants would have meant lean pickings and a reliance on foraging from the sea and a need to hunt birds for survival. The “garden of many nations” we have developed has saved me from that tough lifestyle and given me the opportunity to taste the world without having to go past my gate.

A new short film about the Riverton Food Forest ‘An Invitation for Wildness’ can be seen here.

11 comments on “The Essential-Forest Gardener – native or exotic ”

  1. Good morning gardeners, herbalists, epicures and blog browsers – it’s a sunny day in Riverton and I am, unusually, digging holes – we’ve refurbished a large second-hand tunnelhouse and today’s the day for setting its posts in the ground. There are 20 of them, so I’ve got my work cut out for me. Once the tunnelhouse is up and covered, I aim to grow all sorts of exotic fruits and vegetables in there and being as big as it is (20m x 10m x 4.1m) I’ll be able to be in their on days that it’s raining and still be able to enjoy being amongst plants. For anyone who hasn’t seen “An Invitation for Wildness”, the short film of our forest garden, I’ll put this link here so that, having little else to do on a lazy Sunday, you could have a look – at this point over 22 000 people have watched it, according to the counter Youtube employs and the viewer rate seems high, as that number continues to climb. It’s very pleasing to think that the forest garden concept is so popular, at least I think that’s what those number indicate. These days it’s hard to know.

    • Jenny Kirk 1.1

      Its a sunny day in the north, too, Robert G. And looks like its going to continue to be dry ……. so a bit of trickling water over tree roots is called for, and then some more mulching.

      • We’ve cloud now, Jenny; perfect for digging though, as it’s hot work!
        Thanks, weka (for making the link, not the clouds) 🙂

        • weka 1.1.1.1

          My first job this morning was moving the science experiments from the fridge to the worm farm 😉

          Am hoping to do something slightly more exciting this afternoon.

    • weka 1.2

      I’ve added a link to the bottom of the post 🙂

  2. Cinny 2

    Another sunny day in Motueka, sea breezes now and a bit of cloud. A wonderful day for gardening.

    I did my digging last night lolz, nice and cool, was just a bit hot for digging during the day. Gosh the soil is beautiful, dark and full of life, i’ve been working on it for a couple of years and it has really paid off, lawn clippings, horse shit and seaweed, i swear by it, straight on the garden in layers like lasagne with a bit of river sand and pea straw for good measure.

    Awesome news about the tunnel house Robert sounds like it will be mighty, good work. Dad built a small one using old shower doors, roof tiles (for surrounding the garden beds, they keep the soil warm) and he also used old thick plastic, it’s served him well for a number of years now, his cucumbers are ready in november as a result.

    Tunnel houses rock. Looking forward to hearing more about your progress and the plants you will be growing in there.

    • Cucumbers in November! The roof tiles are a great idea. I collected slates from the roof of the derelict Court House in Orepuki and have used those to get heat-needing plants established here; figs, loquats, grapes, lemons etc.

      • Cinny 2.1.1

        Gardening geniuses come from southland 🙂 True that. The tiles work a treat. I really enjoying reading your gardening posts, and I’ve planted parsley under my fig tree for black spot prevention, thanks so much for that tip the other week.

  3. 44 south 3

    Hi Robert,just viewed the linked video,must be hugely satisfying to wander through such a changed landscape.
    I’ve long been attracted to the permaculture ideal but thus far am still doing a more conventional small holding thing here at Peel Forest.
    Have broken up one eight acre paddock into eight smaller ones with fencing and hedgerows of hazelnut,fruit trees,natives and this and that.
    I run 40 sheep,a couple of goats,and lots of poultry; so need pasture aplenty. I anticipate that the hedgerows will expand into the pasture over time,but being a doomer,want to keep things flexible for now.
    Your input here and in the Timaru Herald is much appreciated.Cheers.

    • Hi 44 south, great to hear what you have done and are doing. Managing hooved animals is an art that I’m not familiar with, I have to say, though I try to behave like a browser in some aspects of my forest garden management; if I had a lawn it would have a chewed-off appearance, rather than a trimmed one. I like the way cows wrap their tongues around tufts of grass and pull, rather than the nibbling of sheep – the broadleafed perennials at least get a chance to recover. I hope your hedgerows do get a chance to become as wide as they are long. Do you coppice? That’s the secret to having a productive hedgerow that can return a profit to its manager.

  4. Amanda Atkinson 4

    Nice article, this is such a tricky issue for me. The left of me, wishes, as I do hikes every weekend, and drive around, that more government, council, private land could/should have more native plants, even to the extent that gov and counil land it should be complusory. That said, maybe some places the natives will not survive, I don’t know enough about it.

    All I know is, I see some lovely gardens, beautiful parks, but it’s tempered by … geez I wish those were all natives in there .

    The right of me, says, well, it’s private property (in some cases), and we want less beauracy in our lives, not more.

    We have such beautiful native bush, and I want to see more of it as I drive around, my family get sick of me moaning about it on the plane, every time we are up there, i look down at so called “beautiful green NZ”, and I just feel a bit sad … all I see is farms (nothing against farmers, we used to be farmers), and ‘some’ bush, … what did it look like 200 years ago? Must have been out of this world stunning!!!

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