The Essential Forest-Gardener

Written By: - Date published: 8:30 am, October 9th, 2016 - 21 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. 

If I was transformed into an orangutan, and could choose where to spend my days, I’d stay here in the forest garden I created in my previous human form. It’s got everything a brachiator needs; branches from which to suspend myself using my hairy arms, a canopy to sleep in, under the stars and out of sight of any tourists to the garden below, fruit aplenty and nuts for Africa. I’d be a happy ape here, swinging about the place with a full belly. There’s even a source of fresh water to quench my simian thirst, should all that aerial cavorting create one. I could hang out with the birds, of which there are many, nibble on the leaves of dozens of varieties of edible annual, biennial and perennial plants, scratch myself with the twigs and branches of trees from around the world and even spend time with the gardeners as they do some of the very few tasks a forest garden demands of its keepers. It would suit me just fine, especially if a mate was provided for me, to prevent me from pining.

As it is, I’m not likely to go ape overnight but even as a puny-by-comparison grown man, I’d want to stay here, in the woodland I’ve developed in the southern reaches of New Zealand’s South Island. The combination of vine-bound trees and shrubs that constitute the framework of the forest garden, along with the supporting annual, biennial and perennial plants that provide edible flowers, fruits, berries and leaves make an ‘edible landscape’ that anyone who eats would enjoy foraging from and I count myself a keen forager of the sort that likes to collect their own food in preference to buying it at the supermarket.

I’d continue to live here, as I do now, in the house that my wife and I built 28 years ago, when we made the decision to create a forest rather than find a ready-made one and set up there. I’m very glad we made that choice, along with the one to raise children here and have them roam the leafy glades of our own garden, like little forest creatures. They’re adults now, and seem to have benefitted greatly from being raised a little feral, being both intelligent and broadminded, as we’d hoped they would be.

Although they’ve moved off-site for now, the garden still bears testimony to their habitation; a trio of circular flower gardens in the lower orchard where my daughter grew wild flowers for the table, radishes and turnips for the kitchen, the remains of a brick castle built by my eldest son when he was 10, in which he and his warrior brother and sister could crouch during bow and arrow battles with the neighbouring children, and a wide clay-pit excavated by our younger son, in preparation for the construction of a windmill he’d carefully drawn up on paper and begun collecting the necessary tools for the building of.

Like Ankor Wat however, those signs of previous occupation are being swallowed up by the jungle and have to be searched for if they are to be seen and marvelled at. The house still stands though, a tribute to my wife’s single-mindedness and love of history. Modelled on the pioneer cottage at Brightwater near Nelson in which the young Lord Rutherford of atom-splitting fame was raised, our home is a lovely nest from which we have all enjoyed spending time growing up. It’s many paned windows look out into the greeness of the forest garden and provide shelter from the elements that can drive even me, a confirmed plant-o-holic, back indoors in seek of shelter. From the north facing upstairs window, I can survey much of the forest garden, its canopy anyway, and get great pleasure from doing so at least twice a day; when I first get up and just before I retire for the night. It looks different everytime I look and it always makes my heart swell with pride, even knowing as I do, that the vast majority of the achievment there must be credited to nature, not to me.

This post is part of a series appearing over the next 12 Sundays. 

21 comments on “The Essential Forest-Gardener”

  1. Glenn 1

    What a surprise. An enjoyment to read. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Jester 2

    Very much looking forward to your posts Robert. And congrats on your election to the Southland Regional Council.

  3. vto 3

    Good stuff Robert, I have seen your place in the media before and admire what you have created. We follow a similar grow-lots path but nothing like what you have done, especially the edibles aspects, but are slowly heading in that direction.

    Inspirational..

    .. and I hope you don’t mind me saying this but …. always follow the hippies

  4. Jenny Kirk 4

    Great to bring some reality from nature into what is essentially a political scene – thanks Robert G.

  5. Stuart Munro 5

    NZ could use a bit more of the sustainable growth you model – great stuff Robert.

  6. Thanks all. I believe also that the hard grind of political commentary needs to be tempered with gentler stories where ordinary people are finding a sweet spot in the often-gritty world. My “stories from the forest garden” will, I hope, reflect the pleasure and rewards that wrapping a natural cloak around one’s self brings and the ease with which such a mantle can be assumed (a bit wordy, I know, but I’m still very chirpy following yesterdays election result 🙂 This post is the first-toe-in to what I hope will be for you all a refreshing dip in the very deep pool of forest garden life. I’m more than happy to field questions about anything that might occur to you as you read. That said, I’ve a new clutch of chicks hatched yesterday that I have to keep a watchful eye on today, so I’ll be in and out as the day goes by. Talking to Tony Murrell on RadioLive this morning, I learned that much of the North Island is sodden, making me even more grateful for having chosen Southland as my place, given we’ve enjoyed the warmest, driest spring on record. The sheep farmers have declared it a “gym-shoe” lambing, it being one where gumboots have sat un-employed at farm house back doors across the province. That’s something no one saw coming.

  7. Thanks Robert. You are showing us a real legacy we can leave for our descendents and an example of now-action for us all.

  8. RedLogix 8

    By describing to us what is important to him, Robert is making real the values which motivate him. Each of us can take a portion of what he has shared here, and can add what we choose to the picture of our own lives.

    This is how human lives are nourished, how they expand, how they flourish. It is mana in action. And it is a wonderful way to use The Standard.

    This is a series of 12, so I’ll be patient with my questions. Given that it is a rule of life that nothing worth achieving was ever easy, I’m interested to hear about the challenges and setbacks. The mistakes and wrong-turnings … and most importantly the insights you’ve garnered along the journey.

  9. Thanks, marty – I’d love to tell you all about the archipelago of orchard-parks we’re establishing across Southland as well, but should probably wait for another time 🙂
    RedLogix, I’ve described a lot of the things you’ve cited in “chapters 2 to 12” and agree wholeheartedly with you when you talk about the value of perseverance – there’s great value in being patient, something I learned from being a planter of trees in an environment that can punish the vulnerable. I planted 12 ginkgo trees last week and have no concern at all about the slow pace at which they might grow – I’ve a dozen other “tree projects” running concurrently and never find myself drumming my fingers in frustration at the pace at which nature moves.

  10. Karen 10

    Thank you Robert for sharing your garden with us.

    I heard about you and your wonderful garden many years ago and was very pleased when you started making comments on the Standard. There are very few who comment here that I bother reading any more, but your contributions are always worthwhile (even when I do not agree). Now there will be a weekly treat.

  11. feijoa 11

    Thanks Robert. Have seen lots of pictures of your garden in NZ Gardener over the years, along with great advice- it’s always a must read section for me.
    Great to see someone giving back to the earth. I try a much reduced version in the city, but it’s great to see what’s possible.

  12. Thanks, Karen and feijoa, your comments are very encouraging. I’m really delighted with the NZ Gardener’s “reach” and how so many of it’s readers, like yourselves, identify with a “wilder-than-the-average-garden-columnist’s” world view. Gardening is good but writing about it is wonderful!

  13. adam 13

    I like your post Robert. But many in Auckland are locked out of owning land, let along the ability to plant anything.

    There are options I know, like having a plot at a local community garden like I do. This however comes with no long term hope. For example, it could all be over in seconds if the council want the land.

    As for being a renter, landlords end tenancy, and goodbye garden.

    I’m in the wonderful world of having a container garden at home, with bits and pieces leafy greens mainly. So if worst come to worst, and I have to move, then at least I can still have my greens.

    • RedLogix 13.1

      True. Some of the smartest solutions don’t involve any digging up dirt at all.

      I’ve a great personal fondness for these:

      http://www.backyardaquaponics.com/

      • Draco T Bastard 13.1.1

        My sisters got a few of those on her back deck constantly full of greens, reds and yellows.

    • Hi Adam – yeah, but “King of the Sprouters” is a fine title and a powerful capability. “Prince of Micro-Greens” too. Sometimes being free to move and able to create food in a short time-frame is more enabling than being a landowner and having to labour day in and day out to pay the mortgage and work the soil. Then there’s foraging and mooching – these are Noble Arts. Mahi nga kai has many faces.

      • weka 13.2.1

        “Then there’s foraging and mooching – these are Noble Arts”

        Especially if people are planting trees/plants on wild/marginal/council/abandoned land 😉

  14. Ad 14

    This reminds me a lot of Yi-Tuan’s Topophilia.

  15. Philj 15

    Thank you Robert for being a fine example of positivity. Can’t wait for your series. Courage to face the future rather than fear, is what is required IMO. Your input to The Standard is welcome relief from the usual narrative.

  16. Thanks, Philj. I reckon it’s “getting-ready” time and that requires verve and pep plus lots of planting, so there’s not really a place for gloom. In any case, there are great people everywhere who are doing these things also and I want to be part of their movement.

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