One of the defining features of an edible forest garden is the process of instant succession.
As the planner of an edible forest garden, I have a (reasonably) clear idea of the end state that I’m looking for. This includes having all the ecosystem niches filled, so the garden is as stable as possible, requiring the minimum of maintenance effort.
Instead of just hoping for the best, instant succession involves planting a whole set of plants at the outset to shape what direction the garden takes. So in the one hit, you plant the edible trees, mid-storey bushes, herbaceous plants and groundcovers.
One of the key players in an early edible forest garden are pioneer species. These grow very rapidly, even in low fertility soil, to provide protection for everything that follows.
In an Australian context, acacias (wattles) provide an ideal pioneer species. There are hundreds of varieties, that grow from prostrate bushes to large trees, so there’s an acacia for every situation.
Best yet, acacias are nitrogen-fixing. They can also be pruned heavily, which adds this nitrogen into the soil, from the roots and fallen branches.
But that’s all in theory. In practice, the wallabies (or wombats?) ate all the acacia seedlings we planted, and the drought conditions probably didn’t help either.
Thankfully things are now going better to plan. As you can see from the photo above, the more recent acacia fimbriata seedlings have burst out of their tree guards and are heading for the sky. These will be allowed to grow into small trees, providing a temporary canopy for the fruit trees below.
In due course, they can be heavily pruned or coppiced, or potentially removed entirely, as the fruit trees reach full size.
I could hear my neighbours thinking, when I proudly showed off our first citrus patch:
“This is what he’s been blogging about?!? What a mess! He must be mad!”
I can understand why they think that. The mainstream advice for an orchard, described in the most recent Gardening Australia magazine, is: “space the trees widely enough apart that you can easily mow between them”.
This isn’t what we’ve done. Instead, we’ve been creating a citrus guild.
To recap: the goal is to plant around the citrus tree with a variety of beneficial plants, bringing nutrient up from the soil, attracting beneficial bugs, and controlling grass (the enemy of all fruiting trees).
This is was my sketch of what it would look like:
But seeing the reality, you can understand why our neighbours are having second thoughts:
The growth has been extraordinary, a testament to the quality of our soil, and the benefits of breaking up compaction from years of horses grazing. Still, it’s hard to even spot the dwarf citruses amongst everything else.
The rapid growth of the bracken ferns has been a surprise, but I think in a good way. Since these ferns are known to act as ‘dynamic accumulators’, bringing up nutrients from the soil, they seem like an ideal groundcover. The grass certainly doesn’t stand a chance against it.
The salvias have pushed through and are flowering profusely. The rue, yarrow and fennel are all flowering to the benefit of beneficial bugs. The comfrey is growing, but is struggling against the bracken ferns, so we’ll see how that goes.
The citrus trees all suffered heavy transplant shock, but I’m hopeful they’ll start to take off in earnest next season, pushing above the ferns. The pomegranate at the centre of the patch also hasn’t thrived, but we have just had the driest summer in 20 years, so I’m hopeful for next year.
Watch this space, and I’ll continue to report on the journey of our edible forest garden patches … to success, or ruin.
(I’ll also post some aerial photos and videos shortly, which will give another perspective on how it’s progressing.)
Too many properties are landscaped as an afterthought, with plants going in long after all the other work is done (or not at all). This is not how we’re tackling Lewisham Farm.
We’re intentionally planting as we go, entirely with Australian natives. This includes a wide mix of callistemons (‘bottle brushes’), grevillias, banksias and leptospermums (‘tea trees’).
There are good reasons for these plantings:
- Most flower heavily, attracting native birds and feeding the bees.
- They will flower throughout the year, providing Priscilla with cut flowers.
- They will screen things like the shed and water tanks, blending them into the landscape when viewed from the house or road.
- They help to define ‘garden rooms’, breaking up the acres into smaller spaces with their own character.
- When planted densely, they will keep down the weeds, at least to some degree.
- They will be beautiful, making the farm a lovely place to spend time.
By planting them early, they get a head start in the disturbed soil, before the grass and weeds have had a chance to reestablish themselves. It also means that we’ll get the benefits sooner!
By largely using tube stock plants, the cost of plants for a given area is only $50-100, which is nothing in the scheme of things.
And there’s much more planting to come…
As you can see from the “before” fly-over, our farm came with a lovely farmhouse, but not much else! Certainly not enough considering we’re totally off-grid in terms of power, water and sewage.
So while we’ve started planting out the first few patches of the edible forest garden, the focus has been on getting the basics of farm infrastructure in place.
The centrepiece of these efforts has been the new farm shed (aka “the barn”). The local council required us to position it away from the road, so it ended up half-way down a slope.
Echoing the design of an American barn, the shed is 10.5m wide and 7m deep, with a big 3m x 3m central door for the tractor.
Since the barn is now in the middle of a field, a new internal driveway was required. Befitting the location of the house, we decided to go all-out to create a pretty road.
This meant a road surface of crushed granite (on a solid road base), with brick edging (on a concrete edge laid alongside the full length of the road). With Priscilla’s keen eye for aesthetics, we laid the road out with elegant “swooping” curves. We put a single car-parking spot in front of the house, plus a large parking area in front of the barn.
The final phase was the addition of two 22,000L plastic water tanks below the barn, to catch the run-off from the roof. This triples our overall water storage.
Oh, and with the barn in place, I was able to purchase a brand-new 46hp Kubota tractor, which will be vital in reshaping the property 🙂
This is, however, still just the start of more work needed on the basic infrastructure. Activities yet to be done:
- One final water tank on high ground, which we’ll switch to using for the house, plus the garden. That will get us up to about 100,000L in total.
- A water pipe laid from the barn tanks (at the bottom of the property) to the new water tank (at the top), with a solar pump used to get the water up the slope.
- A power line run to the final tank, for a good-sized pump.
- A vegetable patch and greenhouse, with a water line run from the tank.
Phew! Still, a lot of this can be done with the new tractor, and everything is more fun with a tractor 🙂
This video was taken a few months after we acquired Lewisham Farm, 22 hectares of paradise overlooking Nowra. The property is completely off grid (water, power & sewage), and the land is 2/3 rainforest.
In this aerial view, you can see:
- The farmhouse, which is lovely, but requires a lot of little fixes
- The new solar PV, which we had to put in quickly when the old system died in week one
- One small water tank containing 15,000L, which ran dry at the beginning of Summer
- The concrete pad for the farm shed (now constructed, photos to come!)
- A single beehive, now kept company by two others
- The first two citrus patches, starting our journey towards an edible forest garden
- Plenty of open fields, some of which have been heavily eroded by horses
- The beautiful Australian bush that surrounds our farm
A heap has happened since this has been taken, follow us on instagram for more photos and videos to come!
One of the great things about acquiring a 22 hectare (56 acre) farm is that there are still many hidden corners and surprises yet to discover.
One was the discovery of a small spring that feeds into the gully that runs beside the farmhouse. This has been running (slowly) even at the end of the recent very dry winter and spring, so that’s a good sign.
What we also stumbled across was a patch of watercress growing in the mini wetland at the top of the valley. The steady flow of water is exactly what it likes, and I can only guess that the previous owner must’ve planted some (?).
Anyway, it tastes delicious on a sandwich, and we have every reason to expect that it will keep happily growing indefinitely…
The big news for us at the farm is the completion of our new ‘American barn’ style shed … which will finally allow us to get a tractor!
The new driveway to the shed is designed to shed the rain off one edge, to prevent the shed from flooding. While this is a good design, the first heavy rain we had immediately started eroding the 45 degree earth slope beside the shed.
So I spent a weekend creating a “rubble drain” to ensure that water doesn’t cause any more damage.
The starting point was digging a trench that followed the line of erosion. This was lined with weed mat, and then filled will rocks that I lugged up the hill by hand. (A wheelbarrow’s no use on a 45deg slope!)
The first part of the trench also has a slotted ag pipe, to ensure good water flow, all of which is hidden by the layer of rocks.
It’s a great way to get fit (ha!), and the result is rather lovely I think. Tick that job off!
I’m a big fan of Warré hives, and I have five in total, with most in Sydney and a growing number at Lewisham Farm down the coast.
When I was first learning from Tim Malfroy, he showed what he called a “coffin hive”, but I’d prefer to call a “Horizontal Warré hive” (much less scary!).
With a little bit of spare time at the end of winter, I decided to make one of my own.
This is basically a Warré version of a Kenyan top bar hive (there’s also a “long Langstroth” that I’ve seen pictures of). It holds the equivalent of three boxes worth of frames, give or take.
It offers some of the advantages of a top-bar hive, such as easy access to the hive, with no heavy lifting. It has an entrance at both ends, which can be used to easily split a hive in summer to create two hives (the second entrance is normally kept closed).
It’s obviously also interoperable with a normal Warré hive, which makes it more versatile.
It’s important that the hive doesn’t warp, otherwise the frames won’t fit. So I constructed the hive from 30mm thick recycled hardwood (mostly Sugar Gum).
I was able to get the wood at half price from the odd-ends pile at my local lumber yard, but it still ran to $403 of materials. So not a cheap experiment, but something worthwhile nonetheless.
Now I just have to catch a swarm, and I’ll be off and running!
I’ll report on how the hive works as the season progresses, watch this space…
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)