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The Essential Forest-Gardener – the humus factor

Written By: - Date published: 7:30 am, December 11th, 2016 - 22 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. 

The atmosphere in a forest garden is very different from that in other gardens; the light is dappled, sound is muted and distant views are masked by layers of tree and shrub. It’s settled and quiet under the canopy of leaves. The ground itself is more absorbent of noise than an ordinary garden, having a much deeper layer of fallen leaves and twigs to soak up sounds that might detract from the ambience. Walking around is quiet and can be done barefoot, at least in my garden where there are no alarming reptiles to keep the wanderer’s nerves on edge.

The effects and advantages of a complex, free-form, exuberant style of gardening are best demonstrated at ground level in the forest garden where everything eventually ends up; leaves, twigs, fruits and nuts, husks and spent flowers, along with droppings from birds, the bodies of insects and all sorts of materials unknown that arrive via the wind. These various deposits are the raw materials for what will become the “mother load” for the garden; the soil and it’s refined components, the most important being humus.

I know there’s debate about what humus is and whether there is in fact something that can be identified by the word, but I’m referring here to the dark, sweet-smelling stuff that’s found in soils that are built through the prolonged and steady build up of organic materials, including but not restricted to those I’ve already listed. Humus, some soil scientists say, is a sponge that holds water like no other substance, creating what could be described as an inland lake below the surface of the soil, away from the water-robbing actions of sun and wind. It’s an elegant description and made more appealing by the addition of the idea that it also holds minerals and nutrients that plants desire, and releases them freely when prompted by the plants.

Humus can be created by gardeners and there are many ways to do that. The forest garden, to its great credit, does it automatically and generously, effortlessly combining a number of processes that require no intervention from the gardener, in the form of compost-making, cultivation or the application of imported materials. It seems the ideal environment for building more ideal environment, in a never-ending cycle of gain and increasing productivity. The gardener needs only to refrain from interfering; cleaning up, tidying-away, burning, scraping, raking, piling up and hauling off. In my garden, the bits and pieces of forest life lie where they fall. More able organisms than me process the spent materials into the water-saving, heat-attracting humus and place it where it’s best deployed. Earthworms and ground beetles move it about, rain drops cling to it, plant roots feed from it.

Humus, mysterious and difficult to define though it is, is very well represented here. I hear it’s easy to destroy; most of the anti-biotic fungicides, insecticides, herbicides and so on, will do it in the blink of an eye. Cultivation knocks it about also, exposing humus to the degrading effects of sunlight. Applying strong doses of nitrate fertilizer which sends bacteria into a feeding frenzy that demands carbon-rich humus for a side dish, strips out humus from the soil like nobody’s business.

All of these destructive forces are foiled by the processes of a forest-garden that needs none of those things to occur. With its humus safely tucked away from harm and increasing from moment to moment, the atmosphere of the forest-garden becomes one of thriving healthiness that can be sensed by visitors who feel the cooling moisture emanating from the soil, breath in the oxygen-rich air and have their foot-falls moderated by the springiness of the ground. I believe also, that the lack of fussiness that results from not wheel-barrowing away every fallen branch and bird-nest, creates a relaxed impression.

If the signs of hard labour are missing; no tyre marks on the paths, spades buried to the hilt in dirt or piles of branches being readied for burning, the minds of any visitors or those lucky souls who live on site, will enjoy a depth of relaxation greater even than they might experience when visiting a park or arboretum where evidence of those activities abounds.

Another factor which has a powerful effect on perceptions in the forest garden, is the paths. Mine are rambling, poorly defined and ever-changing. I don’t cut them or tend to them in any way other than walking upon them, nor do I plan any route. The paths here have all evolved as time has passed, and continue to do so as people go cross-country in order to reach something they’ve seen. Their pushing through, if followed by that of other equally inquisitive visitors, presses down whatever groundcover might be dominant in that area makes a through-way. Preschool children are the best path makers, as they see opportunities for passage that their taller caregivers can’t and are not so bound by convention that they’ll keep to the beaten track. With plants such as wild chervil and alexanders having replaced the various grasses that grew here initially, pathways form easily to the sound of juicy stems crunching underfoot and the light-filtering canopy makes it difficult for any really tough grass to reclaim it’s place along the paths.

You’ll get the feeling, when visiting my place, that life is easy in a forest garden. The effect of all of these things, combined with the shelter from strong winds provided by plantings of flexible, dense flax, cabbage tree and hebe along the windward boundary coupled with the garden’s north-facing aspect mean that it’s calm and warm most of the time. This soothes any furrowed brow that might present on visitors and residents alike, makes nesting a good option for birds, fluttering safely about appealing to butterflies and offers fruit a chance to form on trees that ordinarily grow and produce in warmer climes.


22 comments on “The Essential Forest-Gardener – the humus factor”

  1. Sanctuary 1

    “Humus” with just one “m” is not very tasty 🙁

  2. weka 2

    Hu mus not be a soil microbe then.

    • weka 3.1

      Are you sure that isn’t greyrawshark turning up for a natter?

      edit, see?! (just released her comment from spam).

    • Jenny Kirk 3.2

      Goodness, Robert G. You were lucky to be able to photograph ruru – they usually silently flit away as soon as someone gets near. Must be a young one perhaps – not yet wary of people.

      • Wasn’t it fortuitous, Jenny! The tui were making a peculiar fuss and I approached the scene carefully.My camera doesn’t have a telephoto lens so you can see that I was very close. The ruru merely blinked at me, being distracted by the tui, who were making threatening sounds and displays. A couple of minutes later, I found a young thrush fallen into one of the post holes I’d dug for the tunnelhouse were are building. I got him out, though he shrieked at me for doing it.

  3. greywarshark 4

    Sounds good Robert. How many forest food tryers are you aware of now in NZ?
    Hundreds? Overseas?

    • Hi, greywarshark – the short film made about our forest garden by Happen Films and released a fortnight ago has now been viewed over 40 000 times and the comments amassing on the You Tube site are pretty encouraging, to say the least.
      This morning I hosted visitors to my garden who came in order to understand what and how, with the intention of taking their own gardens to the next phase, turning them into light-woodlands, like my own. We have bookings from groups wanting to do the same thing and I’m guessing this will be our busiest season ever, by a considerable margin, judging by what’s happening already. I’ve visited several food forest/forest gardens around New Zealand and while they are quite new, they look very promising and their designers are intent on succeeding. Oversees, I think the numbers are much greater and growing fast, but then, so is the population and the problems that come with that growth. I believe we have the best opportunity possible here in New Zealand. Our natural ‘she’ll be right’ approach though is catching us out a bit, I reckon as the need for forest gardens will be intense soon, in my view. It would be marvelous if NZ took the leadership role with this way of living and showed the way, at the same time learning what it means to be ‘living wild’ 🙂

  4. Sabine 5

    the forest that was the neglected garden that came with the cottage is beautiful. however the other one insists in having a lawn to mow. I try to tell him that we don’t need lawn, but oh well…..

  5. greywarshark 6

    Thanks weka you seem to be prescient.

    Robert what price to see over your garden forest? It is great that there is so much interest.

    Have you ideas that would suit a small back yard. Trees can’t be too high,
    perhaps four feijoa and something taller in the middle with a couple of fruiting vines that grow over to the tree and climb it, sort of maypole effect which would make a shady umbrella effect in summer?

    Thought you would like this quote in a friendship book – from Goethe.

    To know someone here or there with whom you can feel there is understanding,
    in spite of distances or thoughts expressed, that can make life a garden.

    • Goethe has it right, greywarshark – his is a thought with depth. I have visitors of all sorts, some of whom are old friends, others arrive for the first time from far off and want to give something toward a ‘guided tour’ as an investment for themselves and a help to us. I spend an hour or so with them, sharing my views and inviting theirs. It seems very happy arrangement, at least, they say so. I love your ‘maypole’ suggestion and you have got me thinking… Feijoa are handsome shrubs with wonderful fruits. I think they’re a good choice. Their flowers are delightful and you know, their young leaves are edible too.

  6. prickles 7

    Thanks Robert – reading of your garden and seeing it on TV has inspired me to continue to turn my garden from a “normal” suburban garden with lawns, flower beds and separate vege garden to a much more interesting place. No more lawns for me. And it pleases me greatly to simply let things die down and meld back into the earth. Squillions of insects, birds and bees seem to be pretty happy too.

    • That’s great to hear, prickles. I’m happy to hear about the passing of your lawn, may it rest in peace and may whatever grows in its stead be vigorous and productive. Today, in what was once my lawn, I found two skinks, a baby thrush and a morepork, all alive and well! And I was hardly looking, busy as I was putting up the frame of the new/recycled tunnelhouse. Goodness knows what I’d have found if I’d gone looking 🙂 And there were two tui in the branches of the tree overhead, showing off their plumage and voices to each other. Kereru in the plum trees as well. Plus several fantails, now that I think about it. Quite a menagerie, it was!

  7. greywarshark 8

    Robert Guyton
    You mention tui. Did you see the book Tui A Nest in the Bush by Meg Lipscombe? Lovely little photographic series that follows the progress of a pair of tui parents. The author and photographer, happened to see a tui fly in amongst a bush by her deck, when she went up there she could look over the rail right into a nest beneath. The books shows the month from the first egg in the nest lying on soft feathers provided, through the era of yellow open beaks and throats looking like tulips she says, to bright young fledglings. Fascinating.
    Craig Potton publishers (here in Nelson).

  8. Hi greywarshark – thanks for that recommendation, I’ll look the tui book up, it sounds delightful. I went recently to a presentation by a photographer who had done a similar study of a nest and his images were marvelous, showing the parents with beaks-full of dragonflies and cicada, etc, along with some dramatic mid-flight captures of the adult birds going to and fro, and yes, those throats do look like tulips! I’m interested that you’re in Nelson. That’s where I was raised and I still carry the region’s influence in some of the things I do and think about. I know there’s a plot to dam the Lee River, the deep, cool waters of which I used to spend hours and hours swimming in every summer. Such is “progress”. I’m pleased to see that there is much opposition to the plan. I don’t know where the project sits now (or should I say, crouches menacingly 🙂

    • greywarshark 9.1

      Yes I’m in Nelson though don’t buy my fish from Guytons at the Port.
      Haven’t been up the Lee for a while, and there has been an ongoing discussion for quite a while about the dam. But I’ve had nice picnics there with floating down the river on a tyre, or was it in the Aniseed Valley.

      The latest that has interested me is the takeover by bikes of walking paths so that this most basic and healthy means of exercise and transport and relaxation is everywhere under threat because of too much motorised traffic making cycling on the road too dangerous. I consider it another stealing of the commons. But people who know those who have died on the roads innocently and environmentally responsible are angry at my opinion, as I am too. Very awkward being in two minds.

      • The fishshop Guytons are a distant branch, greywarshark, so I’m not offended if you don’t buy fish there 🙂 The Aniseed was another of the rivers I swam in throughout my childhood – “up the Aniseed” was where I’d bike, sometimes to tent-over and catch eels to roast on a fire, then nip back down into the orchards to flog fruit under the cover of darkness – I remember peacharines…

  9. Kevin 10

    Thanks Robert, i have really enjoyed these posts the last few weeks.

  10. I’m glad you have, Kevin. It’s really gratifying to hear from people who find value in this story.

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