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.