- Date published:
7:27 am, December 4th, 2016 - 11 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, food, sustainability - Tags: food forest, green activism, 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.
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.