I realised just last week that this autumn is the 6 year anniversary of my attempt at establishing an edible forest garden. Honestly, I thought it was much longer. It feels like a lifetime ago that I spent the summer devouring the book Edible Forest Garden by David Jacke, marking out the dimensions of my yard and drawing up intricate plans for the different guilds of trees, shrubs and ground covers. Since those heady days, my grand designs have tested themselves against that pesky fellow known as the real world. What better time to then to do a garden update post and see how they fared.
How it started
How it’s going
If there is one thing which separates the photos on the left with the photos on the right it’s the lack of shrub and ground cover layers on the right. That’s right, the edible forest garden concept did not work out. There were two primary reasons for this. Firstly, and perhaps not surprisingly, was the failure of a number of the shrub and ground cover plants. This wasn’t just the failure to survive (that was a relatively rare problem) but the failure of the plant to ‘take over’ the niche and keep out weeds. This was mostly my failure in understanding how the plant would grow. Most of my problems were in the ground cover layer where you need a variety of plant types including spreaders, clumpers and a few others whose names I forget. There are niches within niches. If you plant only clumpers, a spreader weed will find a niche and take hold. Once the layer of cardboard and mulch had disappeared, weeds became a major problem. If I had one recommendation to people starting new edible forest gardens, it would be to over-plant. Of course, that costs money if you are not propagating the plants yourself. But if you don’t do so, you’ll end up with weeds galore.
The second problem is a problem with the edible forest garden concept here in south eastern Australia. Thick plantings tend to attract rodents and rodents tend to attract snakes. Although I have never seen a snake in the garden (I have seen rodents), there have been sightings of the eastern brown in this area and stepping on one while tending to a fruit tree is not my idea of a good time. The risk is magnified if you have young children. For this reason, I think the edible forest garden concept doesn’t really work in a suburban setting unless you are planting only one or two guilds and keeping them nicely separated from the rest of the garden.
So, a couple of years ago, I abandoned the edible forest garden concept. The fruit trees are still there, however, and I have opted either for grass as the ground layer or a mulch/chicken manure combination which makes a lot of sense now that I have chickens free ranging in the garden and which will both fertilise and reduce water requirements. These are both low maintenance options (especially with the help of the chickens in keeping down weeds and grass) and also allow room for children to run around and climb trees as well as lazing about on the grass or enjoying the cool shade of a tree in summer; all activities that don’t work in the edible forest garden concept.
The garden is now converging on its final design and it’s going to end up as an old-fashioned orchard with separate vegetable garden. How very traditional! Maybe the old folks knew something after all.
Along the way, there have been a number of fallen soldiers who either couldn’t handle the Australian summer or just don’t like the soil in this area. Among them are a number of avocados (oh, how I would have loved to have avocado trees but it just ain’t happening), a cavendish banana, two figs, a lisbon lemon and a washington orange. Fortunately, the only fruit tree that was here when I arrived is still going strong; a eureka lemon which has had a bumper year. Given that lemon prices at the supermarket here often exceed $1 a lemon, that tree really is an economic boon which probably explains why back in the day if you only had room for one tree, you planted a lemon.
The fruit trees I planted are only five or six years old but the yields so far have been impressive. The pears produced heavily last year and the apples this year. I also got some very nice grapes this year. The olives are growing well but, olives being olives, it will probably be another five years at least before I get any decent harvests. The almonds are growing slower as they are in the more difficult conditions of the north facing the front yard and I have not irrigated them at all. Considering that, they are doing very well. They do produce fruit now but the cockatoos clean the fruit out in mid December well before it is ripe. One day, if the yields get big enough, I might attempt to net the fruit but at the moment it’s no great loss.
This autumn I’ll be adding one more olive and one more pear to finish off the orchard in the back yard. I’ll also be turning the side of the house into vegetable beds. I have room for one more tree in the front yard and have dreams of a beautiful big elm tree to provide shade in the summertime. Still tossing up between that option or perhaps a couple more olives which will enjoy the heat and provide more food (in another ten years!).