Edible Forest Garden in the Australian context

The Edible Forest Garden book was explicitly targeted at an American audience and, as such, many of the plants mentioned in it are foreign (although still purchasable in Australia where much of the mainstream gardening culture takes its cues from European traditions).  The book employs the concept of Guilds which is also prevalent in permaculture.  Essentially it’s a way to organise the garden design to facilitate the creation of a self sufficient system.  There are different ways to think about this but I took the route of using each medium to large tree as the starting point and working from there.  For example, I wanted to grow apples.  So I now had the concept of an Apple Guild.  In this guild you have the apple tree at the centre and you want to support it with other plants that will be beneficial eg. nitrogen fixers to help with growth, pest confusers to try and deter common apple pests from harming the crop or the tree itself etc etc.

Quickly the number of variables at play with this kind of idea explodes and you find yourself well and truly down the rabbit hole.  There is plenty of information online about what to plant with what and companion planting has a long history which means that much of it is valid information.  Nevertheless, it can definitely become paralysing when you are trying to figure out which plants to put in a guild.  This is all the more of a problem because until you have planted a plant, how do you know for example which pests will cause problems or what nutrients might be lacking in the soil etc etc.

The designs I uploaded in a previous post make reference to many plants that I found out about when researching the companion planting for the trees I wanted in my garden.  But I had essentially taken the view that given my limited knowledge and experience, these were just experiments and I would simply have to try them out see how they went.  It didn’t help that they were imported plants and I didn’t know how well they would fare in my local area.  I had even trialled a couple of these in the garden (eg. nasturtium) and they had failed quite miserably which didn’t fill me with confidence.

Then I was reminded about the several indigenous nurseries around Melbourne.  The most well known one is CERES in Brunswick.  This does have a decent range of plants and there are sections with edibles and various plants traditionally used by Koories.  However, the nursery mostly stocks the standard European-based plants and vegetables so I didn’t end up buying much from there.

A friend then put me on to a great nursery in Newport called the Newport Lakes Nursery. This nursery stocks only plants that are local to the Western Plains (of which Werribee is a part).  Among these are many banksias and acacias (which are reputed to be good nitrogen fixers) but also a number of edible plants and plants that attract beneficial native birds and insects.  From my first visit I could see its relevance to my garden design.  Here was a whole nursery of plants that were almost guaranteed to do well in my garden and many of them also had culinary and other uses.

From the nursery I learned that my particular location in Werribee is in what’s called a Riparian Woodland due to its proximity to the Werribee River.  While the Western Plains in general is mostly grassland where the shrub layer dominates, the Riparian Woodland has more of a balance of trees, shrub and groundcover.  Thus, I could see that I had the possibility of pursuing a garden design that more or less fitted with the original geography of the place.  Most of my trees would, of necessity, be imports.  However, I could populate the shrub and groundcover layers almost entirely with local plants.  In this way, I also hoped to strike a balance between feeding myself, and feeding the local native fauna.

One of the things that attracted me to the Edible Forest Garden concept originally was its deliberately experimental call to action.  The authors fully realise that the idea of creating and guiding an ecosystem gives rise to problems around control of variables and ability to draw inference.  For example, just because somebody in California got good results pairing borage with citrus trees, doesn’t mean that combination is viable in Werribee.  Only by extensive local trial and error can we hope to gather the knowledge over time about which combinations work and how this lower level knowledge can be applied to the creation of whole edible gardens.

In any case, the discovery of the Newport nursery was a kind of aha moment that allowed me to fix the nature of my particular experiment – can the Western Plains climate as well as its local flora and fauna exist symbiotically with the various different types of imported (both from other areas of Australia and overseas) fruit and nut trees that I would like to grow?  Time will tell.

Water Tanks

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Werribee area has the lowest annual rainfall of any location south of the ranges.  Given that fruit crops in general are heavy drinkers and avocado and macadamia in particular are from the sub tropics, my garden was clearly going to need more water than what nature would provide.

The commercial options for water tanks are very expensive.  That’s true for small tanks that you buy off the shelf and even moreso for the large tanks that require concrete bases to be built and underground pipes to be laid.  Luckily, in Melbourne there is no shortage of 1000 litre IBC totes that are used to transport things like olives, vegetable oil etc..  I picked up the first few full clean and ready to go for $100 each.  For the next batch I found a guy nearby selling dirty ones (that had contained vegetable oil) for $25 each.  A quick scrub and they were all set.

The setup for these was straightforward.  First I wrapped them in black plastic to stop algae from forming.   Then I located each one right beside its associated guttering downpipe and simply ran pvc pipes from the gutter to the tank.  As I had the roof and gutters replaced as part of my house renovation, this was easy but it would be just as easy to hook up to existing gutters.

The hosing connection to get water out of the tank depends on the type of IBC tote.  For some of the smaller outlets you can buy ready-made connectors online. I had 10cm wide caps on the first batch and couldn’t find anybody in Australia selling connectors.  I simply got an ordinary garden tap from bunnings, drilled a hole in the plastic cap and screwed in the tap. It worked perfectly.

The total cost for a 5000 litre capacity was just over $500 and that was only so high because I paid $100 each for three of the tanks.  If I was doing it again now with my new contact, the whole thing would cost about $150.  That’s compared to about a $5,000 quote to have a single 5000 litre tank installed with concrete base and underground pipes running from the guttering downpipe.  As well as being financially a no-brainer, the distributed nature of the tanks has allowed me to change my mind about placement which I’ve done a couple of times as the garden design has evolved.  That’s a luxury I wouldn’t have had with a single tank and its associated infrastructure.

Anyway, here’s a few photos to give you the gist of my setup.


Initial Designs and Analysis

Doing site analysis is one of the first steps in designing an Edible Forest Garden.  Obviously you have to know what can be grown in your area before figuring out what you will try to grow.

I had always known that there was an interesting East-West divide in the greater Melbourne region where the east would get more rain.  Turns out that Werribee is a particularly unusual area.  It gets the lowest annual rainfall of any location south of the ranges.  On average, the area gets only just under 500mm of rain a year.  About 40% less than eastern suburbs.  More interesting still, it’s about 40% less rainfall than locations only 30 to 40kms due north.  This puts the climate in the semi-arid category as far as rain goes.  In general, the climate can be categorised as somewhere between semi-arid/Mediterranean and warm temperate.

Next step was soil analysis. I found a very useful site from the Victorian Government by which I gather that the soils in my area are of a sandy clay loam.  Pretty good.  What’s been interesting is the variety of soils on the property itself.  In the back south-east corner, there was significant topsoil which was dark brown, friable and loamy.  Only 5 metres to the west was the browny red sandy loam mentioned on the government website.  And just 10 metres further north of that was a hard, rocky section that had very little topsoil at all.  In any case, the pH is consistent across my property with readings mostly between 6.5 and 7.

My block faces N-NW, is dead flat and gets full sun all year round.  In addition, there is a very large peppercorn tree in the neighbours house due south which provides very nice protection from any southerly winds and also some nice free mulch.  However, the property is very open to cold winter northerlies and hot summer northerlies.  I aim to mitigate this by planting some windbreak trees on the nature strip and have also taken other design measures to counteract it.

With that basic analysis in mind, I turned to figuring out exactly what plants I wanted in my garden.  Starting with the trees which produce food that I already eat a lot of seemed sensible.  My initial list of desirables therefore included macadamias, almonds, avocados, apples, pears, lemons and olives.  I also had many other exotic and enticing examples on the list but, in the end, I have elected to focus on the main crops I am sure to eat.  As such, I’ve mostly planted at least two of the trees just mentioned.  Sometimes there are necessary reasons for this (eg. requiring pollinators for apples and pears) but I also think it’s a good strategy to mitigate the risk that a particular tree or a particular location in the yard might lead to low yields or outright failure to survive or produce.  It also means that there are less variables overall and I can try slightly different approaches with each tree to see which works best.

In any case, I’ll put here my initial three backyard designs.  None of these ended up being much like what I’ve ended up with and they reflect a basic assumption that I later discarded (more on that in a later post).  Nevertheless, they give the gist on how I went about the initial designs and they are quite similar to what is recommend in the Edible Forest Garden books.

australian garden patch design mediterranean garden patch variation 1 orchard patch design

My Edible Forest Garden

Part of the reason for setting up this blog is simply to prod myself into documenting in more detail some of my current activities.  It’s not something that comes naturally to me and yet I do really enjoy looking back on old notes and photos when I have kept these.  I guess most people use Facebook for this purpose these days, but I’ve never really got into that and, although I do love Twitter, it has its limitations. So, to blogging I turn.

As little as a year and half ago, I had precisely no intention of buying property.  However, for many years I have been interested in the online communities and thinking around Peak Oil.  Much of this thinking involves ideas of home gardening as a more efficient and environmentally friendly lifestyle as well as being rewarding in its own right.  Given my early childhood years were happily spent growing up on a large farm in northern New South Wales, this aspect has resonated with me even if for purely nostalgic reasons (although there is no doubt that food freshly picked from the garden has tangible gastronomic advantages over what can be bought in the supermarket).

As my personal circumstances evolved and the idea of buying a property began to make financial and logistical sense, the idea of gardening and in particular food growing was at the forefront of my mind.  A large part of the reason why I chose Werribee as a location was the fact that it is still a place where you can buy a house on a roughly quarter acre block.  While one can do some gardening in almost any circumstances, I have been interested from the start to find out what kinds of yields are available on (what used to be) a standard suburban block.

Therefore, the very first thing I did upon moving in after buying my house was to get a vegetable patch up and running.  Maybe I’ll post about that at a later time.  For now, it’s enough to say that I did get some decent yields particularly with broad beans, cauliflower, corn and pumpkins.  Nevertheless, the amount of work required was quite high.  There’s a whole interesting economic dynamic at play there.  Venkatesh Rao has written on the subject of “hipster economics” and I think on this subject he is very much in the right in that a lot of this movement is done by people who have leisure time to fill and need something to fill it with.  Filling my leisure time with interesting activities has never been my problem and so the vegetable garden was starting to grate a little for me.

So, when I came across the books “Edible Forest Gardens” late last year, I was instantly intrigued.  Over the Christmas break, I devoured both books and eagerly began formulating plans and schematics for turning my land into an edible forest garden.

I think I’ll write some more about my take on the Edible Forest Garden concepts over time.  But the basic idea is to create a self sustaining and self reinforcing mini ecosystem which just happens to meet a large part of your dietary requirements.  There’s quite a fascinating history involved, both in relation to the deliberate ecosystem management of Australian Aboriginal and American Indian people, and to the British man called Robert Hart who, to cut a long story short, wanted to grow his own food but didn’t want to (and couldn’t!) do much manual labor to achieve that goal.

This resonated with me both as a way of getting more yield for less time and effort and also because of the inherent challenges in deliberately attempting to create and manage something as complex as an ecosystem.

Over the coming posts I’ll aim to document my work to turn my yard into an edible forest garden.  I’m currently about halfway through the initial planting and already there have been several interesting twists and turns.  Happily, I’ve kept my initial designs which just go to show that Eisenhower was absolutely correct in saying that a plan is a most useless thing but planning is indispensable.