Edible forest gardens

Weedy resources from the Department of Agriculture

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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.

One of the many weeds listed in the NSW WeedWise app.

Creating an edible forest garden: the start of a 20 year journey

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The big plan for our rural property is to create something called an “edible forest garden”, as described in the book by the same name by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier.

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…


A permaculture citrus guild (in Australia)

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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!

Design principles

  • 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, drawn to scale (version 1.0)
Citrus guild, drawn to scale (version 1.0)
Linear arrangement of citrus guild (version 1.0)
Linear arrangement of citrus guild (version 1.0)

Citrus guild (dwarf trees; version 1.0)

Dwarf citrus guild, drawn to scale (version 1.0)
Dwarf citrus guild, drawn to scale (version 1.0)
Linear arrangement of dwarf citrus (version 1.0)
Linear arrangement of dwarf citrus (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.