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The Essential Forest-Gardener – the trees and the heritage

Written By: - Date published: 7:27 am, November 27th, 2016 - 28 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. 

Apples are the signature crop of our forest garden. Pip fruit trees thrive in the temperate climate and loamy soils we enjoy here in southern New Zealand and we have built our forest around them. Other forest gardens in warmer parts of the world feature sub-tropical or tropical staples like banana, papaya, mango or oranges, and those favoured trees influence the design and management of those gardens significantly, perhaps causing them to have canopies that are more open or closed, understories denser or less complex, and likewise, ours is shaped by the presence of fruit trees that like to have the wind flowing through their leaves and enough sunlight to colour-up their autumn-ripening fruits.

Thanks to the efforts of the region’s settlers, the apples we have been able to source for planting here are as varied as can be found anywhere in the world. We have trees from the “home country”, whether that was Britain, France, Holland or America, brought over on the sailing ships that delivered the first waves of settlers to our region, as well as shipments of apple “whips” imported by nurserymen to bolster the orchards of later immigrants to the new land. The conservative nature of Southlanders meant that though aged and infirm, those same trees some 100 years later are still growing, unmolested if unpruned, in farm orchards and in and around the older villages of the region.

It didn’t take much to learn the fundamentals of grafting and armed with secateurs and a head for heights, we collected scions; pencil-thick branch-tips, from the untended apple trees and brought them home for attaching to vigorous young rootstock. The result was a young and very special orchard of beautifully named and wonderfully tasting apples; Merton Russet, Warner’s King, Adam’s Pearmain, Yellow Ingestre, Yorkshire Greening, Black Prince; the list of our apple varietes reads like a nurseryman’s catalogue written by a poet. The fruits of dozens and dozens of equally gorgeously named varieties are as different from each other as they are from the modern apples you’d find in the weedless commercial orchards, each occupying its own special niche in the apple world; some for eating straight from the tree in early summer, others to be wrapped in paper and stored through the winter until their flavour reaches perfection, then baked in the oven or stewed in a lidded pot on top of the stove.

Still more, and Slack-my-girdle is a suitably evocative example, make fine cider and won’t please anyone’s taste-buds if eaten raw. There are those which fit neatly into a child’s pocket and can be carried that way to school and whoppers such as the popular Peasegood Nonsuch that a child would struggle to lift.

Apple trees are everywhere in our forest garden, but don’t stand alone the way they do in other gardens, but are instead intertwined and interspaced with other trees, shrubs, annual and perennial herbs, have their crowns wound with vines and their roots interplanted with bulbs, tubers and corms that throw up flowers, leafy stalks or tender vines in the spring. The dense and complex carpet of herbs of the family apiaceae protect the apple trees from the black spot fungus, by intercepting its spores as they seek to gain access to the new apple leaves with the help of spring rains. Wild onions exude their nematode-repelling vapours beneath the soil and clumps of hairy comfrey haul up nutrients from well below the apple-root zone and present them to those roots, in the form of comfrey leaf which collapses exhausted onto the soil in the autumn. Cow parsley and sweet cicely attract aphid-eating hoverflies to where they are needed and borage and alkanet, growing beneath the spreading boughs of every heritage apple tree in the forest garden, signal to the bees; honey and bumble, that there’s their nectar as well as apple-blossom, right here.

With apple trees, and pears also, dictating the make-up and layout or our forest garden, the overall effect is one of a rambunctious orchard, floral and seemingly natural in design. We have pruned our trees and their compact forms are reflected in the years of attention from the secateurs, but as the garden matures, I’m loosening my grip on those cutting tools, as I did on the lawnmower and the spade, and giving the fruit trees their head. They’ll probably create a canopy of their own complex design, like the ones I’ve seen on the old farms of Southland, and I’m looking forward to seeing that filligree against the southern sky. Our fruit-per-tree rate will probably fall, but that’s no bad thing, given that already we struggle to harvest what grows on trees that are only one eighth of their way through their expected lives.

Our forest garden is by no means exclusively apple trees; our list of fruiting trees is long and various; quince, nashi, Mexican hawthorn, Chinese dogwood, medlar, tree fuchsia, New Zealand and Chilean wineberry; all sorts of pip, stone and berry fruits make up the harvest from our forest garden, but apples are king here, or queen more likely, given the beauty of their blossom and the modest form the trees take, their twigs a delicate tracery and their wood that turns a pretty bowl. Along with friends, and with a thought for the neighbours who might not think so highly of our apples, we celebrate with a winter night’s wassailing, involving plenty of cider sampling, a noisy, night-time march around the leafless orchard and enthusiastically delivered words of encouragement for the trees and their health for the coming spring. Given that our heritage trees hale from regions where such ceremonies were once regularly held, I’m sure they benefit from our version of the wassail and thanks to our somewhat muted approach, the neighbours haven’t said a thing. Contributing to that happy state, must be the sound-absorbing quality of our densely planted forest garden.


28 comments on “The Essential Forest-Gardener – the trees and the heritage ”

  1. [deleted]

    [banned 2 months for intentional derailment and wasting moderator time – weka]

  2. Looks like I’m the early bird (aside from the-other-Robert, who sounds as though he hasn’t slept well 🙂 Just a note to anyone wanting to see the moving pictures version; the “film of the book” can be seen here; “An invitation for wildness” has been online for just two days now and looks great, Robyn and I reckon. The Happen Film crew are good at their work and lovely people with it.

    • I’m just watching it again – very enjoyable – found it from Ōraka Aparima Rūnaka Pānui so the word is being spread.

    • weka 2.2

      I loved this film as well, beautifully made, and a good showcase of what you and Robyn are doing. The overhead footage gave me a much better sense of the whole, and it was great they allowed enough time for you both to be really explaining what is going on.

      • Yeah, they were very patient 🙂 The second cameraman was Jason Hosking; he’s a photographer for New Zealand Geographic magazine and has taken some magical images of tui in flight, amongst other things. He operated the drone over our garden and has very interesting views about domestication, developed from the many times he’s emerged into farmland from working on projects in the national parks and being struck by the contrasts, especially in the way we regard birds. He talks about the shock of realising how differently we treat kakapo to the way we treat battery hens, for example.

        • weka

          How we value ‘things’, eh.

          Ironically early Europeans did have a battery hen type attitude towards Kākāpō, in that they were something to be consumed with little regard for their own intrinsic worth or that of their surroundings (although I suspect that small mammal predation was a bigger factor in their demise). A colonising attitude rather than a Consumer one, a precursor perhaps.

          Meant to ask btw, do you get eggs from your chooks in the free-range months?

          • Robert Guyton

            You seem to have a personal interest in birds, weka 🙂
            Kākāpō, kererū and other native birds have a very low egg-laying rate and can’t be equated with jungle fowl, imo. The whole “Kentucky-fried kererū” argument seems a nonsense to me because of that. I do collect, cook and eat eggs laid by the hens here and don’t anguish about that. It feels as though I’m doing them a favour, clearing their nests and making room for more 🙂
            As an aside, we have had ruru in or forest garden for some time now – they visit during the night on their way to somewhere else. A bird I love is the grey-fronted heron but they need very tall trees to nest in and I don’t have anything of the “old man pine” variety here, although the stone pine I planted 20 years ago is getting up there and may one day attract the gawky herons. I saw several riflemen here a while back and felt happy that they would come here. Grey warblers too, and brown creepers. Fantails in abundance. No weka though :-)_

            • weka

              Well there was the dude that tried weka farming 😈 But I tend to agree, lots of breeding gone into domesticating the animals we get food from and I can’t see a huge case for trying that with natives until we at least restore habitat.

              Ruru, isn’t there a more pork pun in there somewhere?

              Do your hens have their own nests in the forest, or do you have a night house for them?

              • Yes, a night house for the hens – it’s high up on posts, mimicking their branchy heritage and has a ladder I made from a big forked branch with treads bound on with flax fibre 🙂
                One hen made a wild nest in the forest this spring and raised a family of chicks but they’ve been encouraged to move into the run with the others. When they’re out and about, they find my colonies of brassicas and peas pretty fast.

  3. I roto i te pānui ra? Pai rawa tena! The bunui I got from Putauhinu is about to flower so I’ll take some in to taua tari though it might make some yearn for nga moutere titi.

    • weka 3.1

      he aha tēnei mea ‘bunui’?

      • Ko bunui ” punui” ranei he tipu te koiora ataahua no nga moutere titi ki te taha o Rakiura. It grows as the understorey to the rata forests on Putauhinu and has leaves the size of dinner plates. Its stems are edible. Stilbocarpa Lyallii – here’s a link to a photo of one growing in my garden:

        • weka

          Kāore au i mohio i ngā kahere rata i reira. That must be a sight.

          He aha te tārawa o nga bunui stems? Ka kaiota, ka tunu?

          • Robert Guyton

            Tēnā koe weka
            Ae, he pai te tirohanga o te ngahere ra (the rata forests are wonderful, especially where the birds are using cliff-top trees as launching sites, engari apologies for my patchy reo – I tend to bodge together what I can, having forgotten much in recent times, however, I’m back to learning, as I love te tangi o te reo tūturu o ēnei motu 🙂
            I kai au i nga tātā kaiota o te bunui.

    • weka 3.2

      Hey Robert, can you please use the reply buttons? I only just realised that you were replying to marty. I see lprent was asking people to do this other day too, it does help with a better flow of conversation.

  4. The lost sheep 4

    Have you ever tried growing tete-a-weka (Olearia angustifolia) on the Mainland Robert?

    I have been lucky enough to be given seeds and seedlings from some good friends, and tried it in several South Island locations, but the longest I ever got it to grow was about 3 years before a catastrophic wilt killed it.

    You see it perched on the most outrageous of exposed sea cliffs, like the South End of Pohowaitai just above the 70 metre or so height the Southern Ocean scours clean…but it seems to me the one thing it can’t survive is comfort!

  5. Hi lost sheep – you’ve got that right; tete a weka needs to be thrashed by salt-laden sub-Antarctic rain and wind to feel happy. It’s a beautiful plant, with its wavy-edged leaves and daisy flowers. I’m impressed that you got those fluffy seeds to strike – their viability is notoriously poor. I have a naturally crossed hybrid that is more suited to Southland; not quite so special but lives longer, although this season they’re looking less than perfect. Easy to propagate from cuttings. Were you fishing offshore from Pohowaitai?

    • The lost sheep 5.1

      Can’t remember where I got the tip (Metcalf?), but the secret to getting Southern Olearia seed to strike is to leave a 100 or so planted seeds in soil from their point of origin over Winter, keeping the surface clean. In the Spring / Summer you’ll get 10 or so sprouting….if you’re lucky!

      I’ve been privileged to hitch a few Rum soaked trips into the Deep South on Rakiura Fishing boats, and dropping off ‘birders, and a couple of less inebriated voyages even further South with DOC and the Navy.
      Been lucky enough to have seen a lot of the World, but for me, that’s the place i love the most.
      Legendary though your gardening skills are, I don’t fancy the odds of your forest garden doing very well on The Snares!

  6. Ha! Beaten by gannet guano and flattened by sea lions! I often wonder how much poorer our soils are with the demise/disappearance of the seabird hosts in times gone by. You must have an iron gut, lost sheep, to have made those voyages and survived. I’ve heard stories. (and seen swells!)

    • The lost sheep 6.1

      The one thing I can tell you Robert is the answer to the old debate of whether a hangover or sea sickness is the worse malady?
      Without a doubt, having both at the same time is the worst of all possible scenarios!

      But I’d happily suffer that for 2 weeks straight to spend an hour wandering among the mega-herb gardens of The Auckland Islands.

  7. I kind-of regret that I will never wander those extraordinary “gardens” – I’m growing what I can here, but they are a pale shadow of what I believe is down there. Some places are best left un-visited by me, I reckon – keeps my imagination keen and in any case, I can avoid the hangover/sea sickness. I had bought “Paihia Bombs” in preparation for a trip to Antarctica, but changed my plans at the last moment, and stayed here 🙂

  8. Cinny 8

    Robert… would your black spot solution work for a fig tree please? My fig is suffering for the first time from black spot, I feel it is because of the excessive spring rains we have had this year.

    “The dense and complex carpet of herbs of the family apiaceae protect the apple trees from the black spot fungus, by intercepting its spores as they seek to gain access to the new apple leaves with the help of spring rain”

    Which apiaceae plants would you recommend please for underplanting?

  9. Hi Cinny – I’m surprised that figs get black spot. Mine have no sign, but they’re underplanted in the same way my apple trees are; thickly. Your plants need to be growing well before the spring rains come so have to be biennials like parsley, carrot or celery-family plants. Once they’ve done their “interception” job they can be mown or rolled flat if they are getting too thick and unruly. I mix wild onion/onion weed in with my understorey for a number of reasons; the allium exudes a substance that aids apple trees in their ability to repel sub-soil pests plus they make a good addition to salads. Chickweed and miners’ lettuce too, are multi-use and attractive. The growth of chickweed in the spring signals the soil is warm enough for you to sow seed.

    • Cinny 9.1

      Thank you so much for that valuable information Robert, I really appreciate it. Dad grows all his plants from seed, so I’ll hit him up for some parsley (grandma always said one should never buy parsley, instead one should be given it, especially if one practises the craft), lol she had the best superstitions.

      It’s funny because I underplanted the fig with some fennel last year and no black spot, Great tip about the chickweed and soil warmth, thank you, chickweed has wonderful medicinal uses.

      Your advice and experience I find fascinating, myself I am big on companion planting, luckily there are orchards close by, so my garden at the moment is humming with bee’s as the orchards have hives.

      Raspberries are outstanding this year, picked our first crop last night, almost a cup full, so my tummy is very happy.

      I love gardening, been doing it my whole life, thanks to parents and both sets of grandparents being avid gardeners, Grandad was from Riverton 🙂

  10. You’re from sturdy stock then, Cinny 🙂 Your grandma and her craft sound interesting also. I love the stories behind plants, especially the alternative names; elecampane becomes elf dock, etc. I’ve grown elder, hawthorn, oak, hazel and other European trees for reasons your grandma would appreciate 🙂
    Raspberries this early in the year is amazing! Your not living in Southland, I’m guessing. We are eating strawberries though, fresh from the plant. I’ve a lot of fennel growing here, ’cause, you know, blue cod (your Grandad would know what I mean 🙂

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