Garden Update: 6 year Anniversary

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

Crimson Crisp apple 2015
Crimson Crisp apple 2021
Pink Lady apple 2015
Pink Lady apple 2021
Dwarf Royal Gala apple 2015

Dwarf Royal Gala apple 2021
Espaliered dwarf Fuji, Gala, Court of Wick apples 2016
No longer espaliered dwarf Gala apple 2021
Court of Wick apple 2021
Dwarf Fuji apple 2021
Josephine Pear 2015
Josephine Pear 2021
Packhams Pear 2015
Packhams Pear 2021
Pinkalicious Macadamia 2015
Pinkalicious Macadamia 2021
Nectarine 2015
Nectarine 2021
Hojiblanca Olive 2015
Hojiblanca Olive 2021 (it’s in there somewhere)
Verdale Olives 2016
Verdale Olives 2021
Sultana Grape 2015
Sultana Grape 2021
Red Grape (unknown cultivar) 2015
Red Grape (unknown cultivar) 2021
Gold Wattle 2016
Gold Wattle 2021

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!).

7 thoughts on “Garden Update: 6 year Anniversary”

  1. Thanks for sharing!
    Every place and person forms a foundation onto which a garden can thrive. Great that you tried out the “forest garden” concept and evolved into something that works for you and for your garden.
    There are lots of “models” of food growing systems, some of which are heavily evangelized, but I don’t think there is any silver bullet system.

    I encourage everyone to try a variety of plants and animals to see what resonates and what works. And then to share the results. So thanks for sharing!
    (I often rant about debilitating schooling that trains young people to only trust what they read in books, more than their own observations, which I think is quite unfortunate…)

    And I also would like to ask you to share your taste experiences! Which apple do you long for when the winter is dark and cold? Which of the pears waters your mouth when you smell it?
    This is an even more subjective domain, and I am curious about your favorites. Not every edible plant is interesting to ingest…

    Goran

  2. Thanks, Goran.

    That’s an interesting question. When people ask about the economic benefits of growing your own food, I always start with taste. Most things you grow yourself simply taste better. One of the big surprises for me was how much better backyard apples taste. I think the Pink Lady wins for me although this is the first year I’ve tasted the Court of Wick, which is an older heritage cultivar. It’s less sweet than the modern ones with a much more complex flavour to it. I prefer the Packhams Pear just slightly over the Josephine. I also grow a few different kinds of spinach and sorrel which can’t be bought at the supermarket (no, frozen spinach does NOT count). They are great on their own but absolutely delicious in a green omelette with some home grown fresh garlic (I grow mostly Russian Giant garlic) and, of course, eggs from happy backyard chickens.

    Do you grow stuff yourself? What’s top of the menu for you?

  3. Hi Simon,

    Your essay was like music to my ears. And yes, I have found the exact same problems in a slightly different ecosystem. As you know, the climate is damper and cooler here than where you are so the risk of plant diseases is greater here. Turns out the risk is real.

    Incidentally, the fruit trees are growing faster at your place, possibly due to more fertile soils and the extra energy you get from that ball of fire up in the sky – which curiously has been AWOL today and yesterday. Half an hour of sun was all that was recorded here yesterday with no wind to speak of – don’t bet on a bright future for renewables replacing fossil fuels.

    Turns out the old timers knew their stuff.

    And the moons have aligned! Appears we have both written upon the same subject this week from different angles. And you got in first too, not a good look for me, but oh well. What do you do?

    Cheers

    Chris

  4. Hey Chris,

    Great minds post alike.

    I’ve heard a number of times about failed forest gardens but am yet to hear about a really successful one. Mimicking nature sounds good in theory. But certainly our vegetables bear no resemblance to their ‘natural’ forebears and I doubt most of the fruit trees do either. Pretty sure apples, for example, originated on the Eurasian steppe so probably never had much in the way of shrubs or ground covers.

    Yeah, passionfruit vines can be good or bad. Actually, my Crimson Crisp was growing even stronger than the Pink Lady but when I rented the property for that couple of years the tenants let a passionfruit vine take over the tree. Then a morning glory vine from the neighbours joined in on the action. It’s only really in the last year that the tree has recovered. On the other hand, passionfruits are great anywhere you need to cover a wall or something quickly. I’m growing one on the back fence at the moment right in the root zone of the giant peppercorn tree and it still grows strongly. The fruit is great too. Just not those ‘Nelly Kelly’ ones which are rubbish. The hard shelled passionfruit are delicious.

  5. Hi Simon,
    I grow lots of stuff. I enjoy almost anything fresh, and I love to have variety in the taste. I don’t own much land, so I run a number of neighbourhood orchards/gardens, wherever I can borrow land.
    Right now I am starting a company to sell grafted chestnut trees (of six species and 15 cultivars)…

    I have seen two successful forest gardens, and they are both tree-heavy. One 30 years old, which counts as working. The other one, 13 years old, is not yet old enough to know if it works in the longer run. And I have seen many weedy “permaculture” gardens, where the myth of the “designer-is-the-recliner” and “lazy gardener” has won, over observable reality.

    There are no free lunches. But I do subscribe to tree-foods whenever possible. I think that the Chinese leek tree (Toona sinensis) is far easier to grow compared with annual leek, at least here in our climate.

    I was in Kirgyzstan a while back, from where the apples hail, and it is a very dry climate. In our north west Europe temperate climate, apples suffer from all kinds of fungal diseases. Wet leaves destroy the harvest. Pears and quince are much easier to grow here.
    However, every individual tree is different. We have to keep trying and experimenting to find which plants work in each location…

    Thanks again for sharing your garden experiences with photos!

    Goran

  6. Hi Goran,

    Interesting. If you don’t mind me asking, how do you organise it with the ‘borrowed’ land? Do you give the owner a share of the produce?

    I once did a horticulture short course and the soil lecturer was asked by one of the students how to know from the soil which plants to grow? He replied “plant anything and see what will grow”. Experimenting is all part of the fun. I think one of the cool things about growing annuals in particular is that you can choose the best ones from the season and save the seeds for the next season. In doing so, you can actually grow plants that will not only grow best in your area but also the ones that you prefer from a taste point of view. How much better a deal is that than buying the same bland thing from the supermarket every time.

    Hmmm, your mention of chestnuts has given me an idea for my yard. I (just) have space enough for two chesnut trees and they would be perfect as a shade tree as well as an ornamental and I’d get some tasty nuts out of it too. Might look into it.

  7. Hello Simon,

    The whole question of land ownership is quite thorny, and I suspect that it has always been. On one hand the owners want to have the possibility to sell and cash out whenever they want, and on the other hand, most owners are not very interested in doing much on the land.

    So far, I manage a few community orchards. One on municipal land, two on private property owned by individuals and one on a former palace orchard currently owned by a real-estate development company. The most stress and conflicts are at the corporate-owned plot…
    I do share some harvest with the owners. I bring in the trees and compost and do some maintenance. And I have a handful of tree-loving friends who help once a month or so.
    And we have a vegetable-and-berries-allottment, also on municipal land. This is the only thing I actually rent.

    Chestnut trees are great. There are several species and many selected cultivars. Check out what grows well in your area and buy two different cultivars to get good pollination. Some “modern” (Castanea sativa x crenata) varieties are male-sterile, so avoid those. Check what you can get and google for male-sterile or pollen-sterile. The tradeoff is that these trees produce more nuts, but no pollen, which is fine in production orchards, where you can have separate pollinator trees. (One example is the most popular cultivar in France ‘Bouche de Bettizac’)
    In the US, most growers use Chinese chestnuts (Castanea mollissima).

    And yes, my tree nursery business is on rented land, at an organic dairy farm. Minimal contract and great collaboration.

    Good luck!
    Goran

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