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The Essential Forest-Gardener – where to start

Written By: - Date published: 7:00 am, October 30th, 2016 - 12 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. 

Once you’ve heard of forest gardening you’ll want to know how to get started with creating your own. The day I knew I would grow such a garden was when, as a boy, I stumbled upon one. It was not a garden/forest composite as such, nor was it intentionally wild, but had become that way because of the increasing frailty of its elderly gardener. It was his orchard I’d found myself in, as I took a short-cut through a seemingly abandoned orchard of apple trees; unpruned and unattended, I guessed. The grass that grew beneath the hoary old trees was lank and splashed with purple iris flowers on the tall stalks of plants that had clearly spread un-restrained for many years.

It was paradise on earth to me, and I’ve never forgotten it. When I became an adult and found myself choosing a plot of land to live and raise my family on, my thoughts were already shaped by that far-away, probably now extinct orchard and so it was easy for me to know what I wanted. For others though, the vision is less clear, and what to expect, how to get there and, most pressingly, how to start, is important.

A forest garden can be created anywhere in the world. City forest gardens exist, and you can find them in towns. Mine’s on the border of town and country, a characteristic I’ve found to be a great advantage, in the same way that the edges of any habitat – forest, swamp, shrubland or ocean – are vibrant with life as creatures and plants take advantage of the extra light, shelter and movement that occurs there. No matter where it is you have chosen to develop, a good first move is to settle down and take a leisurely but alert look around. That looking should spread over more than just a moment, a visit or even a month, if possible. 4 seasons of observation and recording the details of wind direction, shaded areas, damp spots and so on, won’t go amiss and will save you from making wrong decisions about, for example, where to site your house.

That said, I didn’t do any of that, being young and bullish when I was first let loose on the land that was to become today’s forest garden. But fortunately for us all, I wasn’t armed with anything bigger than a machete, so I did relatively little harm, though it would have been good if someone had confiscated my matches. I burned far more branches and stumps than I care to think about now and recommend to every one I meet who is clearing land, stay your fire-hand. If I had known then what I now know about fungi and their importance to a forest system, I’d have let every cut branch lie and boosted the quality of my soils hugely. But it’s never to late, I tell myself, whenever my memory of those bonfires returns.

Draw maps and keep them tucked away to refer to later, when the trees are so big you can’t remember what your original planting plan was. Recent drone footage taken in the air above our garden reflected my first penciled designs closely, though the infill of plants of many different kinds made my original sketch look very simplistic. Take photographs, print them and tuck them away in an album to pour over in years hence, when visitors ask you, how did it look at the start?

If you are of scientific bent, sample your soil and send it off for analysis. If there are missing elements to the makeup of your soil and you can add those in a form that is eco friendly, the early days are a good time to do that. The single most important thing to do, before anything else carries you away in a wave of enthusiasm, is something that I’m proud to say I did do right, that is, learn to grow your own. Propagating in all its manifestations is the handiest tool you’ll ever wield in your efforts to fill your allotted space with green and growing things in a way that won’t deplete your bank account or your spirit. Being able to take a slip of something that’s caught your interest in a friend’s garden, local park or wherever green things grow, and bring it home and multiply it through the various simple but powerful tricks of propagation, is very enabling for gardeners like me who don’t have a big gardening budget.

Multiplying by dividing, sowing, layering or whatever technique you choose to suit the plant materials you have at hand, is an art and a pleasure to partake of. I’ve developed the habit of year-round propagation of everything that attracts my attention and as a result, have a garden that’s bursting with new plants, restyling itself constantly as novel plants arrive and make space for themselves amongst the old-timers. It suits my need for novelty perfectly and barely costs me a penny, cent or a dime. If you are not already able to take and strike cuttings, sow seed successfully, air-layer or grow from root fragments, it’s time to get busy; there’s much to be learned.


12 comments on “The Essential Forest-Gardener – where to start ”

  1. Jenny Kirk 1

    We’ve just bought ourselves a wood chipper. Cost about $360. Less than the cost of a Big Bin to take all the rubbishy bits of branches, remains of swan plants, prunings etc which have been building up against the side of the house (and in other places) since we moved in a year ago. We now have a pile of mulch which we’re using to retain moisture in the soil around our fledgling orchard trees and other plants during the dry summer months here in the north.

    This is the second garden we’ve started – more-or-less from scratch – and we now know (more-or-less) what we’re doing – having observed over the last 12 months as you have suggested, Robert G, where the shady spots will be in summer, and where the frost bites in winter.

    We haven’t got it quite right, of course – some plants don’t like where we’ve put them – too sunny or too exposed to the wind, so will have to be moved to a more sheltered spot.

    But all the same, it feels very satisfying.

  2. Nice. Mulch is an environment in which uncounted organisms thrive. The more wood (lignin) you lay on the soil’s surface, the richer your subterranean life will be, especially the fungi kingdom. I let branches lie, though it was difficult to do initially, as I haven’t a mulcher, aside from my loppers and saw.

  3. save nz 3

    Beautiful images and really enjoyed the video of the oldest food forest. Is there any good links you can share how to make a food forest from scratch or adding in a food forest to existing native bush?

    Sadly many people grow up in an urban setting and a lot of the knowledge is lost or never been passed down. It’s great to see the images but sometimes hard to work out how to start your own if you have not grown up with that background.

  4. Hi save nz. Thanks, and your question about integrating edibles into native forest really interests me. I planted my own “native forest” occupying about 1/3th of my property when I first began converting broom, gorse and cocksfoot to trees and shrubs. My thought was to “put back” what once grew there, to recreate habitat for native birds, insects and fungi etc, as well as clothe and shade the creek and spring. Almost 30 years later, I’m changing the mix by adding exotics, to the horror of my conseravationist/nativist friends. At the edges, I’m growing light-loving native medicinal plants (kawakawa, koromiko etc.) mixed with exotics (elecampane, comfrey etc.) Deeper into the shade, I’m planting Japanese aralia (Tengu’s fan) and other plants that produce extra-beautiful leaves and flowers in low-light situations. Because I love plants, my ideology bends in their favour, rather than any other. It will look different from “natural” native forest, but it did already, having been designed by me. Starting a forest garden from scratch is also something I think about alot, in that there is a great advantage to having a formula, if speed and efficiency of development is that aim. Anyone can bumble on, as I did, and achieve a forest garden however working to a plan will be far more effective. I’d recommend to anyone with a paddock they wish to convert that they should cultivate once and sow a thick combination of cereals and legumes to create a living mulch that will be the platform on which to rapidly build a mixed shrub, tree,vine,herb, etc. environment. Shelter from the wind is paramount and freedom from competing plants, usually grasses, close behind.

  5. greywarshark 5

    Hello Robert
    1. But what about diseased branches being left around and with possible spores? My hebe has dead branches which I don’t want to put into the Greenwaste bin to be taken away for compost because it might be spreading something bad.
    Also with the silverleaf dieoff that was on my escallonia hedge plant. I am told it is spread by bugs but once it is there apparently it is in the plant and I am told that it then needs to be pulled up and thrown out. Again I don’t put it out in the Greenwaste for fear of contaminating the compost.

    So I would be doing the right thing there wouldn’t I? To be precautionary for the health of the compost.

    2. Do you keep track of other bright sparks in the NZ ecological field like yourself?
    I heard on Radionz on Country Life an item on Regenerative Farming – the farm taken on had about 1-2 cms of topsoil much of it pugged, and in 12 years had increased this to 15-20 cms. Quote “So you can grow topsoil really fast if you are managing your land in a sympathetic way”. This from Bev Trowbridge in Northland, from Uk, worked as ecologist for 20 years and says there, organic/biological farming is considered much more mainstream than here.

    3. Some interesting words by a Professor who knows stuff about climate change
    Andrew Guzman and he talks about growing food and declining water and the climate change refugees who go to the city as the only way to survive. And the cities will burst at the seams. Huge numbers of people will be on the move.

    Already huge numbers are on the move because of callous, calculating political wars, not just from climate change, but connected. The warmongers are ready to adopt the ugly motto of ‘Destroying the village to save the village’. Which means destroying the people’s living in order to stop the ‘enemy as seen by the invaders’ from occupying it and staging further attacks from there. I think we should pay attention if only to watch that we don’t end up being victimised by the callous, ie having our water stolen by the operators of farms requiring large amounts of water for their ventures that are at present very profitable to them.

    Latest from Andrew Guzman
    Climate Change : Time is Running Out
    Climate Change: More Than An Environmental Challenge: Prof Andrew Guzman
    Climate Change: More Than An Environmental Challenge: Prof Andrew Guzman
    NASA has a great site about the facts: http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/. Read more. Show less …
    Professor Andrew Guzman on Climate Change
    (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMhM8M4Kiu8 (on book Overheated)

  6. Hello greywarshark. You’ve many interesting thoughts.
    Disease is best managed garden-wide, in my view. Hedges are usually monocultural and there’s the issue right there. I’d be replacing ailing plants with other types to create a hedgerow. Hedgerows are superb examples of managed “forests” long and thin admittedly, by diverse and fruitful. I’d love to see hedgerows across rural New Zealand. A serious plant disease calls for burning, traditionally. The ash can then serve as a bonus to other plants. I don’t compost. All of the plant material etc produced here, pruned and otherwise felled, stays put. I do try to reduce it to the smallest size by breaking or cutting but not to the chip or saw dust size which is unnecessary here. I try to “process” materials in a wild way, rather than industrial, that is, no machines, noise, angry postures and fumes 🙂 Pathogens are best managed in the way weeds/unwanted plants are managed, that is by crowding them out, corralling them with beneficial organisms. Soil shouldn’t be pathogen-free just as roses shouldn’t be aphid free. Where will the predators feed if there’s no prey at all? Management, not annihilation.
    I do meet and talk with other enthusiastic people such as you are describing, surprisingly large numbers of them in all walks of life and situations. Today, I spoke with a Swiss cheesemaker about the beginnings of agriculture and the effect that has had on the wild world. Yesterday I was visited by two Australian forest-gardeners who talked about xeriscaping, two Canadian orchardists who knew all about tropical fruits (?) and a couple of children who called themselves “half Canadian, half Kiwis”. We get a lot of informed visitors to our garden. In a fortnight’s time I’m speaking in Tauranga about all this and I’m sure to meet interesting folk there. And so on. There is a lot of cross-pollination of ideas in this field. As well as talking though, it’s important to have something to say 🙂 That’s why I spent the morning in my garden. The weather is perfect – it’s sunny and warm and in any case very sheltered in here.

  7. greywarshark 7

    Hi Robert
    You and your wife too could be said to be in a beneficial symbiotic relationship with your garden, each thriving and vital and in a living relationship with each other. Reading your plans is in itself very invigorating to me and to the others here. Ata maarie.
    Kia pai te haere to Tauranga.

  8. Kia ora mo tena e hoa. Ka pai ki ahau i ou kupu tautoko.

  9. greywarshark 9

    Kapai. He pai to koutou reo Maori. Oku mihi ki a koutou. (I had to look this up – I’m not onto phrases.)

  10. Mine’s fairly new-entrant, greywarshark but I like to have a go. Tomorrow, I’m reciting my councillor oath in te reo tuturu o enei motu and that’ll stir up the others one way or another. I remember when Hone Harawira tried that in the House and was shut down by the Speaker. Given that ex-Deputy Speaker Eric Roy will also be intoning the oath in our chambers tomorrow, there’ll be fun 🙂 He’s been offer the same opportunity, so perhaps he’ll surprise.

  11. greywarshark 11

    @ Robert
    If you’re around, tell us how the speech turned out will you? You’re putting the kaarearea amongst the kereru!

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