The Essential Forest-Gardener – tools of the trade

Written By: - Date published: 7:45 am, November 6th, 2016 - 17 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. 

I do not own a motor mower, nor would I borrow one in order to cut my lawn, as I have no lawn to speak of, nor do I have the desire to fill the air of my forest garden with the angry-wasp droning of a petrol engine. Nor do I wave a whining weed-wacker; whacking weeds is the last thing a plant-loving forest gardener would want to do. As time has gone by and my experience of living amongst the vegetation here, I’ve desired lesss and less to attack it, lay it to waste or whack it in any way at all.

It’s very quiet in here, even when I or anyone who might be working with me are using any of the few tools I have kept; a light spade and one or two other wooden-handled, steel-bladed implements that can cut through stalks that I can’t break by hand. My previously comprehensive collection of choppers, slicers and hackers of the sort that most garden sheds are filled with, are all gone, rendered unnecessary by the increasing ease with which tasks can be carried out under the forest gardening system and the softness of the soils that form the basis for everything that grows here. Most planting can be done literally, by hand. The soil is now friable enough, thanks to the plants that grow and expire, rise and fall, leaving their stems, leaves and other green bits lying on the surface of the ground to be drawn down below and converted into humus and other absorbent material, to not need to be dug at all.

With the digging family of tools made largely redundant, and the realisation had that a gentler approach to gardening is possible, the rakes, hoes and other tined cultivators went next. There’s so much less steel here than there was when I first began waving weapons at this land.

What I have found especially useful for cultivating though, are plants themselves. If your forest garden-to-be consists of hard-packed soil, there are plants that can soothe that compaction and turn it into friablity. Seeds like clovers, cereals, peas and lupins soften soil as well as any grubber and won’t give you blisters. Sown at the right moment, a mix of annual plants like these can cover hard ground, break it up with their roots, attract and feed soil-aerating earthworms, and add carbon when they expire and are dragged below the surface as midnight snacks by worms and other soil creatures. With patience, your entire property can be made duck-down soft simply by casting the right seeds at the right time.

The sale of your digging implements will fund the purchase of those tiny earth-easing marvels. Once you’ve achieved the desired suppleness of soil, planting the shrubs and trees you’ve grown yourself from cuttings and slips can be comfortably done bare handed. I know this is a rather optimistic description of how easy planting in a forest garden can be, but it’s closer to reality than you may, in your present tool-fancying state, believe. I regularly wander off into the dappled shade of my garden, a pottle of seedlings in each hand and nothing sharp about my person, to plant in any sunny spot, just by scuffling into the soil with my fingers.

It feels very good to have reached the point where it’s this easy and I’m certain the birds and the other non-human residents of my garden appreciate that the people who live here aren’t armed to the teeth with slicers and dicers, nor do they like to rupture the atmosphere with noise and fumes that interfere with their communications so stridently. Having such a quite garden makes me very aware of the relative cacophany that erupts all around the neighbourhood whenever my fellow townspeople are off work and relaxing on a Sunday morning. Perhaps though, the greatest bonus to having laid down arms in the form of blades sharp and spinning, is that I no longer appear at the kitchen door, asking my family for sticking plasters, bandages or to ring the doctor. I’ve more scars from past misadventures with tools, than I care to mention.


17 comments on “The Essential Forest-Gardener – tools of the trade”

  1. weka 1

    Robert, what would you suggest for land that is in predominantly grass/couch as a starting point? Do you think there is a way around the mechanical tools eg mowing or digging? How would one give the new crops sown the best chance to take over? (assuming the timing is right). I’ve seen Geoff Lawton’s system using animals and then cover crops and succession, but am curious about other examples, and if anyone is doing this closer to home.

  2. Hi weka – quiet morning in the forest garden 🙂
    Yes, there’s always a viable alternative to petrol-powered gardening. In the south, wild chervil overwhelms couch effortlessly – all you have to do is introduce the two to each other and be patient while the generously-seeding biennial claims title over the stolon-powered perennial. That will leave you with a property that’s chokka with chervil, but that’s simple to take advantage of, being easy to manage; just walk around and it will turn to tossed salad under your feet, and advantageous in many other ways; it’s a self-replicating source of carbon for your soil and it attracts useful flying organisms with its nectary-flowers. If wild chervil/cow parsley sounds too scarey, a lupin/cereal mix will do the trick also, providing you’ve weakened the pasture sufficiently by close-mowing, grazing or some otherway of disadvantaging the grass long enough to establish a smother-crop over it. A bolder gardener living nearby the sea might like to employ the freely-given seed from the wild yellow flowered lupins that grow in the dunes, to establish a short-lived perennial crop that can be coppiced and managed that way.

    • weka 2.1

      With the chervil, do you mean just planting seedlings amongst the grass in the first year? That’s quite a long term strategy, 3+ years by the time it’s seeded and started to spread? Does it need to be the wild one?

      Other than that, the legumes should hold their own against grass if the grass is knocked back enough? I’m not sure if I have faith in that, lol, but I’m guessing it will vary from situation to situation.

  3. adam 3

    I love reading these on a Sunday, it reminds me that the real need for change – is how we live.

    If the conservatives are to believed, then change should not really happen, or so slowly as not to affect anything. But somthing has changed, and indeed I say we need to ask, what has happened to us as a species when we move very far from the land? But even then that is not it, just look at some of a barbarism that some on the land, or so called modern farming embraces. I know sure how to frame that in one simple sentence.

    What I do know is we have lost somthing, and I get the feeling we can only get it back by a life style change.

    So thanks Robert, not only is this a good read, it kicks the brain into gear as well.

    • You are very welcome, adam. That “something” you are trying to identify is, to my way of thinking, wildness. Not wilderness, but wildness. We humans have wild in our history, wild in our DNA and wild in our psychology. Once we’ve learned to identify it and weigh it against the civilized and the domestic that we’ve “recently” aquired, we’ll be be back on the path. We were once wild, along with everything else.

  4. Yes, the wild one (quite a different performer – the culinary chervil’s a feeble version and would fail to make any impression at all) and not planting seedlings – too, too hard and inefficient. Broadcasting is the way forward. Finding seed is tricky, unless you know a guy 🙂 I just started with a sowing at the windward edge of my garden and it began to quickly spread after the second year (it’s a biennial). The perennial lupins do beat grass and get well above most types. I don’t have any experience with kikuyu, so can’t comment, though I noticed when travelling through kikuyu country, that shading beats it.

    • Karen 4.1

      Re kikuyu – the only way is get rid of it (without the use of pesticides) is to stop any sun getting to it for a couple of years. Layers of cardboard do the trick when you need to clear an area to plant trees or to keep it spreading onto young trees.

      Kikuyu loves the Auckland climate and clay soils like mine and it spreads incredibly fast. It is impossible to just pull out. However, once shrubs and trees are well established, it can no longer survive in the shade.

    • weka 4.2

      So does one need to weaken the couch for the broadcasting method with the wild chervil? Or just cutting the grass and starting that way? Methods of weakening (mostly want to get a sense of how much)?

  5. mauī 5

    I think weka stole my question.. But, how would you turn an old grassy paddock into a productive vege patch. I know with what I’m thinking of the cocksfoot grass is what I’m most worried about (most problematic), it grows the biggest and forms in a dense clump I think with a big root system too. I heard of someone else digging up with their entire front lawn to create something similar, and I don’t mind doing the physical labour. In a paddock scenario I’m worried about old grass seed seeding into the newly turned over soil and also the remnant pieces of grass taking root again. What would be your approach? Thanks, I enjoy reading the gardening (I should say permaculture!) posts.

    • Hi, mauī. Have you heard of a “paddock garden”? They’re commonplace here in Southland and as pragmatic as you’d ever want. Farmers wanting to grow a vegie garden simply plough a plot in a paddock, sow it, usually using their tractor-pulled sowing machinery, then fence it off from stock. They grow massive crops, the vegetables benefiting from the previous years of superphosphate application. Your pasture might be and hopefully is, free of that acidic stuff and what goes with it. Cocks’ foot grasses are at first pass, challenging, as they grip the earth with a tenacity that has to be experienced, but really, they are easy, once the method is learned. The physical labour required though, is rendered unnecessary once your approach to the plant changes. Viewed as a valuable member of the community, cocks’ foot becomes a plus. It’s drought-resistant, for starters and it produces lots of carbon/biomass. I treasure my remaining cocks’ foots, now that they have taken a back seat to everything else. Sadly, their clump-communities have all but disappeared in my forest garden but I have some good crops in my other “gardens”, a wasteland in particular where I’m growing basket willow by pushing wands into the inter-cocks’ foot spaces that are kept clear by the shading caused by the grasses own blades. Does this help? Embrace rather than exclude, is what I’m hinting at 🙂

      • mauī 5.1.1

        Yes, that’s great thanks Robert. Handy to know what the farmers do. I can see where you’re coming from and I think my Victorian era mindset is slowly changing. Back to reading my first permaculture book Holmgren’s – Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.

  6. mauī – when you flick through a couple of pages from the book of wild, you’ll learn so much more 🙂
    Holmgren’s work is significant, but I found him very dry in person and Mollison ego-centric. Ducks, as Leunig will tell you, have it all, as do mice, mosquito, marrow, mallow, mallard, millfoil and wild things whose names begin with every other letter of the alphabet.

  7. gsays 7

    Hi robert, I wanna echo the appreciation for these Sunday posts.
    Keep up the good work.
    They do provide an extra impetus to ‘gardening’ (for want of another term).
    To my mind this is the politics that really matter: how to provide for now and the future.
    In the wafer thin defence of the use of mowers etc, there is something satisfying in a freshly cut lawn, kinda like vacuuming the lounv

  8. Hi gsays, thanks for that. Like you, I see this field of thought as critical to our future . Like you also, I recognise the satisfaction of mowing lawns, having done my time behind the Masport when I was a boy – the smell of fresh-cut grass, the green stained soles of my bare feet, the ringing in my ears for an hours afterwards 🙂 I see plump men astride ride-on mowers and know how much they’re loving it, just as aged motorcyclists love to ride, born to be wild, despite the small-animal-terrifying racket they leave in their wake – I was a Big British Bike rider when I was younger, but I think some pleasures should remain unrealised for the greater good 🙂
    Carving out that square of clipped sward is where civilization meets wild and wild gets a whopping. That said, once the mower is broken or starved of fossil fuel, the wild doesn’t wait to be invited to return and set things to rights 🙂

    • greywarshark 8.1

      @ Robert Guyton
      I like your simile? ‘A field of thought’ – perhaps that is a TS post with burgeoning ideas about plants! So what drew you to Southland Burt Munro? Reading about him seems that could apply to your team, you and your wife.

      Looking up NZ Edge on NZ achievers:
      “The “World’s Fastest Indian” from the edge of the world believed in boundless opportunities and in the importance of never giving up his dreams regardless of challenges along the way….
      Besides his speed, the Kiwi from Invercargill was known for his “remarkable affinity with machinery [greenery]”, his “uncanny ability to be able to see through a problem to a workable solution” and the “dogmatic persistence at everything he attempted” as friends recall…

      Burt told Roger Donaldson film director and his cinematic champion: “I’ve always been working on my bike – even when it blows into hundreds of pieces – I just wade in again and start all over again. I’m happy doing that. If you don’t put an effort in at anything you might as well be a vegetable….

      The World’s Fastest Indian” opened in 2005 in Invercargill starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as Burt Munro. Donaldson’s interest into the Invercargill man’s life had been sparked after making the documentary “Offerings to the God of Speed”. From then on it was clear to him that he wanted to produce a blockbuster movie to honour the Kiwi’s life work and his belief that “If it’s hard, work harder; if it’s impossible, work harder still. Give it whatever it takes, but do it”. “

      • Hi greywarshark – Southland’s lure for me back then was an apple; the one of my eye, that is, my wife, Robyn. She had no interest in living in “flash” Nelson, the district in which I was raised, so I followed her to where she grew up and haven’t looked back. I like it here and it’s been good to me. I miss a couple of things from the top of the South; katydids and lemons, but those’ll be here soon, as the temperatures rise; I’m planting dozens of outdoor grape vines in anticipation of warmer weather and I’ve had loquats and figs in for sometime now. Burt was pretty hard case. The festival they hold in his honour has the air down here thrumming with the roar of big bikes though for some reason the weather always collapses. One year, every biker and his bike was sandblasted off the beach where the races were being held. The wind from the southern ocean can be bracing 🙂

        • weka

          One of the things I’ve been thinking of is the commitment to place that is required to do restorative gardening. Not that shorter time frame gardening isn’t useful and meaningful (it’s what I do), but I am curious whether you knew you were going to settle on that piece of land long term, was that intentional at the start? Did you think at all about ‘resale’ value at the start, or did you know that wasn’t an issue because of the commitment? I wonder how many people now stay in one place for that long and know that at the start.

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