Edible forest gardens
Following on from our first patch of dwarf citrus, a family work gang has helped us plant out our second patch. This is of full-sized citrus, with supporting guild.
A few notes:
- With full-sized rather than dwarf citrus, patch 2 is a little under twice the size of patch 1.
- The ‘spine’ of the planting are three Elaeagnus Ebbingei a nitrogen-fixing plant that increases the fertility of fruit trees, and is highly-recommended for permaculture gardens.
- There’s a mix of native citrus (eg finger lime), introduced citrus (eg navel orange) and a few that are hybrids of the two (eg sunrise lime).
- I’ve snuck a few berry bushes into the understory on the Eastern side (currants and gooseberry). I want to test how they perform in increasing shade, as well as seeing whether all the fruit is eaten by birds, etc. Consider it a living experiment 😉
- As before, everything is sheet mulched, with a bunch of ‘in-fill’ plants to go in shortly to shade out any weeds.
With Spring coming, lets see how this patch goes!
The transformation of our 22ha property overlooking Nowra will take several decades. A core part of this journey is creating an “edible forest garden”, as described by Dave Jacke in his books with Eric Toensmeier.
One of the starting points is to document a clear vision or goal statement. There’s a few reasons for doing this:
- it’s hard to get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re headed!
- an edible forest garden requires long-term planning
- there are many different ways of creating a garden
- there are often multiple people involved, with different goals, but with the need for a common vision
In our case, Priscilla is all about country gardens & flowers, and I’m all about big-scale transformations. So we sat down, did some brainstorming, then some wordsmithing.
I’m sure this vision will change hugely over the coming years as we learn a heap, but this is where we’re starting. (Note that Jacke recommends writing the vision as we’ve already achieved the outcome)
At the centre of the property, the country-styled house is surrounded by a delightful cottage garden. Laid out in neat shapes, it provides a relaxed environment and a year-round supply of cut flowers.
Surrounded by vibrant rainforest on all sides, the broader property is devoted to an Australian ‘edible forest garden’ that provides an abundance of fruits, nuts and native bushfoods. Arranged as interconnected fields and ‘garden rooms’, the local micro-climates have been exploited to allow a great diversity of spaces, each with a very different feel and mix of plants.
There is also a tranquil pond with ducks, productive bee hives, a vegetable patch and a greenhouse for propagating plants.
Our friends and family have also enjoyed the escape from the city, as well as helping with every stage of the transformation. The small eco-cottages set in the more distant fields are rented out to provide a modest income.
This has been a decade-long journey, with the learnings shared with the wider permaculture community. We’ve been able to show how much can be done by part-time farmers, and how Australian rainforest plants can be integrated into a food-growing system. (1 August 2017)
This week we took the first steps towards this big vision, with the planting of our first fruit trees.
The trees were all transplanted from Lewisham, with the bulk being citrus trees:
- Ruby grapefruit (dwarf)
- Cumquat x 2 (dwarf)
- Meyer lemon x 2 (dwarf)
- Kaffir lime (dwarf)
- Pomegranate (full-sized)
- Aniseed myrtle & Cinnamon myrtle
- Acacia (various, all shrubs rather than full-sized trees)
The plantings were carefully designed in advance to ensure that we get the most out of the trees, with the least maintenance work:
The design was laid out accurately on the ground using triangulation, to ensure that reality matched the plan.
After planting, the patch was sheet mulched, with a layer of cardboard covered by hardwood chip mulch. This should keep the weeds down long enough for the cover crops to do their work.
A few notes on the approach, with references back to Jacke’s book:
- The planting is done in patches, with are then combined to create the overall garden design.
- In this instance, it’s a polyculture patch (design pattern #44 from the book), which is a set of complementary plants that support and assist each other.
- As outlined in our post on citrus guilds, there’s a big focus on nitrogen-fixing plants to support the hungry fruit trees.
- The diagram above shows the eventual size of the trees (which will be some years off), and to achieve this an approach of instant succession (pattern #31) has been taken. This involves interplanting the gaps in the short term, to direct the eventual outcome.
- There are at least three layers in the patch (pattern #38), from ground covers, to the dwarf citrus up to the pomegranate (which while full-sized, is deciduous).
- A lumpy texture (pattern #39) of larger and smaller plants gives better light access, and confuses the pests.
- I’ve used a number of native species (pattern #43), including acacias (for nitrogen-fixing), plus aniseed and cinnamon myrtles (for culinary purposes).
- Underneath all the plants will be a thick ground-cover layer (pattern #49) that will be a mix of flowering plants to attract insects (pattern #42), and further nitrogen-fixers.
- The patch was fenced, with five strands of tensioned wire. This should deter the wallabies and wombats (note I didn’t say stop the animals, as that would be optimistic!).
All the preparation and planting work was knocked off by dad and myself in three days, making it about a man-week of work in total.
Phew! It’s been hard (but rewarding) work this week to get our first patch in place. I’m sure there will be huge successes and crushing failures to come, watch this space!
It always amazes me to see trees planted by themselves in a sea of grass.
Not only does the grass compete fearsomely with the trees, but the grass encourages a bacteria-dominated ecosystem in the soil rather than a fugal ecosystem, which trees require. Trees also prefer to live in a tightly-bound forest of their peers, where their roots are interconnected, making it possible for them to share resources.
No wonder then that the two lonely fruit trees planted at Lewisham Farm have been struggling. We think they might be peaches, but we won’t know until we’re able to get them to a point of being healthy enough to fruit!
The starting point is to cut away all the grass directly around the tree. We then sheet mulched with cardboard, and then weighed down with wombat poos (which we have many of, which is another story!).
(As a side note, there is a danger that the sheet mulching could stop water getting to the roots of the tree. In our case, the farm gets heaps of rain, the ground is well and truly moist.)
The trees will need much more help than this, and they’re also heading into winter dormancy. Still, it will hopefully give them some breathing room, while we find them a better home on the farm…
Whether you’re in the city or the country, you have to wage a constant war on weeds. Many are hard to kill, some are poisonous.
Others, however, are hard to identify. And if you don’t know what it is, how do you know whether to pull it out (and how)?
When down at the recent Small Farm Field Day, I visited the stand manned by the Department of Agriculture. They pointed me to an excellent phone app, called NSW WeedWise.
This contains a comprehensive collection of weeds, including photos and descriptions. It also indicates how serious a weed is, and whether you’re required to destroy it.
A lot of the weeds I already knew about, but I was pleased to learn about Moth vine. This looks quite like choko, and it’s growing on the back fence of the convent.
Far from being edible, however, it has sap that’s poisonous, and it spreads itself liberally when the seed pod bursts open.
Another day, another weed. Download the app from the Apple Store or Google Play.
This is like the “food forest” concept described in permaculture, but on steroids.
The overarching idea is to create a forest-like ecosystem, but with as many of the niches filled with food-producing plants. For example, this could consist of a:
- canopy of fruit or nut trees
- a middle layer of food-producing bushes (rainforest plants should be a good fit)
- ground layer of supporting plants, adding nutrients or attracting beneficial bugs
Contrast this to a typical orchard: the trees are carefully spaced to maximise production, but underneath there’s nothing but grass that needs to be constantly mowed. The trees themselves need constant feeding and management.
The orchard produces the most fruit, but only the fruit. The edible forest garden has more competition between plants, so the canopy produces less. But when you add up all the food produced at all the layers, it wins hands-down. Better yet, by mimicking a normal forest, only a little management is needed, and hopefully no maintenance.
Has this been done in Australia?
The original ideas come out of North America and the UK, and this is where most of the real-life examples come from. I’ve heard of a few small-scale gardens in Australia, but I suspect there’s not many in total.
So my goal is to fully explore this concept in temperate Australia, utilising native bushfoods and rainforest plants wherever possible.
The books are very heavy-weight, and the approach requires a huge amount of planning. It may be 6-12 months before even the first plant goes into the ground.
I’ll write up our journey as it progresses, starting with our goals for the edible forest garden, and then working steadily down into design details.
Give us 10-20 years, and voila, there should be an edible forest! Lucky for us it’s the journey we’re looking forward to 🙂
PS. the pair of Edible Forest Gardens books are excellent, and I’d highly recommend you get a copy if you want to take food forests to the next step…
At Lewisham House, we love growing citrus. But it’s a hungry crop, and high maintenance.
Now one of the core concepts in permaculture is that of a “guild”. The idea is that instead of just planting a tree by itself, you plant it with a community (a “guild”) of other plants, which provide supporting services. This might include extra nutrients, attractants for beneficial bugs, and the like.
If you search the net, you’ll find plenty of diagrams for apple tree guilds, hazelnut guilds, and other northern hemisphere deciduous trees. But not for citrus trees (that I could find).
So I did a fair bit of reading and thinking, and these are my draft citrus guilds, for Australian warm temperate conditions. All feedback welcome!
- Citrus trees are gross feeders. So the guild has to produce a lot of nitrogen, and other fertilisers, to support the citrus.
- Design for full-sized and dwarf trees. Dwarfed citrus trees are widely available, and can be very useful in a permaculture context.
- Minimal maintenance. Ideally, once setup, the guild runs itself.
- Plants have to be available in Australia. There are plenty of great permaculture plants (like goumi), which I just can’t find in Oz.
- Australian natives wherever possible. Rainforest plants are particularly useful, as they’re acclimatised to shade and competition.
- Warm temperate or sub-tropical. Some of the species I’ve chosen would likely struggle in colder conditions.
Citrus guild (full-sized trees; version 1.0)
Citrus guild (dwarf trees; version 1.0)
Notes and questions
- I’ve packed in as many nitrogen-fixing species that I can, with a mix of native and introduced species.
- Acacia (wattle) are great nitrogen-fixers, and they thrive in most conditions. But the big question from what I’ve read is: do acacias release that nitrogen into the soil for the benefit of other trees, or just keep it for themselves. An answer please! (I’ve done a lot of looking, and I’m still uncertain.)
- A linear arrangement is just one possibility, and it happened to match some other design work that I was doing at the time.
- Does this guild work in practice? I’m just starting to experiment in the real world, so all feedback and suggestions welcome.
- Have I missed any good plants that can serve a productive purpose in the guild? Again, all suggestions encouraged.
- Are there other citrus guild drawings that I’ve missed? Please post links in the comments below.