food forest

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

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edible-forest-gardens

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…

 

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Second try needed: straw bale garden

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Our bedraggled first attempt at a straw bale garden.
Our bedraggled first attempt at a straw bale garden.

When I came across the idea of straw bale gardens, it seemed like the perfect way of getting greater productivity out of the guerrilla-gardened food forest out the back.

As can be seen in the photo above, the garden didn’t work out well in practice. There were two main reasons: the hailstorm, which wiped out most plants; and the local birds who ate the rest.

I had a second attempt by planting a new round of seedlings, but we were then deep into winter.

So I decided to call it quits — but this is where straw bale gardens deliver their second benefit — by providing free mulch to spread around the garden.

Composting down straw, spread around the fruit trees.
Composting down straw, spread around the fruit trees.

It was easy to break off ‘cakes’ of the straw, and to layer them around the fruit trees. Fifteen minutes of work, and it was all done.

The hay now spread evenly across the whole garden, thanks to the chickens!
The hay now spread evenly across the whole garden, thanks to the chickens!

Of course, the chickens thought this was great! So within a day, they’d re-spread the hay so it was evenly covering everything. With a bit of rain, this is all breaking down nicely.

The idea of straw bale gardens remains sound, even if the first attempt was a dud. So I’m going to give it another go, this time earlier in the season. I’ll report back…

Our first proper harvest of apples

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Our first real crop of Jonathon apples ready for harvest.
Our first real crop of Jonathon apples ready for harvest.

Four years ago we started planting out our guerrilla-gardened food forest in the land behind our house. This included nine different varieties of apple trees, alongside a mix of citrus and other fruit trees.

While we had a tiny harvest two years ago, this is the first year that we’ve had a reasonable harvest.

The Jonathon variety is by far the strongest tree, and the most prolific producer of fruit. We’ve also got a good crop of local Granny Smith apples on the way.

The trees have been very hit-and-miss so far. Some years it’s been the weather, with a lack of rain during key spring growing period. Fruit fly attack is also a constant problem (I’ll post shortly about our bamboo-and-netting solution.)

Still, we’ve harvested two full bucket loads of apples so far this year, with more to come. That’s a lot of apples for two people to eat.

While a many of the apples are blemished or marked externally, they have wonderfully pale green flawless flesh. Not to mention a crispness and depth of flavour that you just don’t get in supermarket apples that have been sitting in a cool store for upwards of six months. Yum! 🙂

Expect more posts shortly on apple-related preserves 🙂

A full bucket of apples, ready for a wash -- and then eating!
A full bucket of apples, ready for a wash — and then eating!

Two books on edible weeds

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Everything you ever want to know about eating weeds
Everything you’d ever want to know about eating weeds

Living in the inner city, there’s no shortage of weeds, in the street and in our garden. Thankfully not one but two books have been published to make the best of it:

The first is a self-published book covering common weeds, their identification and use. Don’t be fooled by the name: this book is applicable throughout temperate regions in Australia, including Sydney.

The second book is professionally published, and covers much the same ground, but with more pictures.

Both are truly excellent, and they make you look at “weeds” in an entirely new way. Many of the most common weed plants are edible, as salad ingredients, steamed or in stir-fries. They also have many medicinal uses.

Using the two books, these are the weeds that we identified growing in our garden, or in the food forest out the back:

  • Amaranth
  • Blackberry Nightshade
  • Catsear
  • Chickweed
  • Cobbler’s Pegs
  • Clover
  • Dandelion
  • Dock
  • Fat Hen
  • Onionweed
  • Oxalis
  • Plantain
  • Sow Thistle
  • Sticky Weed

That’s quite a list! With the plants growing at different times throughout the year, we’re going to make an effort to make use of what’s growing wild, to supplement our garden crops.

We’re also using them to give our chickens a green feed every morning, which is probably why their yolks are so yellow!

(The fact that 80% of the weeds out the back are edible does gives pause for thought. Perhaps they were seeded deliberately at some point in the distant past?)

Our first apples

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Our first apples, Granny Smith I think
Our first apples, Granny Smith I think

Some years ago, we started guerrilla gardening some of the convent land to make it into a food forest. This included nine different varieties of apple trees.

Much to our surprise, the trees started flowering after only a year, although they produced a very small amount of fruit. (All of which was attacked to death by the fruit flies that year.)

So the apples above represent our very first harvest. They’re not the biggest of apples, and frankly, they’re not the best. But they are ours 🙂

It’s been a tough year for the trees. After a very wet summer, we then went into 6 months of drought, with less than 50mm per month. (Until the skies opened up two days ago, dumping 150mm on Sydney.)

The ground was parched, and even the weeds were brown and dying. The trees only survived by weekly bucket watering, which is far from ideal growing conditions.

So we’ll enjoy these first apples, and look forward to an even better harvest next year 🙂

Making apple juice

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Thanks to Michael Mobbs, I’ve stumbled across a great set of instructions on how to make apple juice from fresh apples. There’s even a beautiful photo gallery to accompany the article. Highly recommended.

(Once our food forest is productive, we’re hoping for an avalanche of apples that we’ll make juice from, cook with, and make cider and vinegar. At least that’s the plan, it’s a few years off yet!)

Tree planting map for the food forest

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Rough map of the food forest tree planting

For your interest, and to help us keep track of things, this is what we’ve planted so far in the food forest:

  1. Fuji apple
  2. Cox’s Orange Pippin apple
  3. Granny Smith apple
  4. Sommerset Red Streak apple
  5. Golden Delicious apple
  6. Jonathon apple
  7. Kingston Black apple
  8. Sugar Loaf Pippin apple
  9. Maiden’s Blush apple
  10. cumquat
  11. Meyer lemon
  12. dwarf Kaffir lime
  13. Wurtz avocado
  14. dwarf Washington Navel orange

Not a bad collection to get us started! I’ll keep this page up to date, as we fight back the weeds and fill in the gaps…