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