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