My philosophy about what to do in the world isn’t, go to a pristine area and live there
and enjoy your life.
It’s to find a place that’s degraded and fix it up.
Twenty-three years ago we started developing the food forest system here.
A food forest is a permanent planting.
So you want to set it up just like a forest system.
The big trees and the middle-size trees, the bottom layer and the ground layer.
They work together, some plants take up some minerals and give others back and another
one does something else.
It’s really lovely to put them together and create a forest system that’s for birds
and insects and for us.
We’ve got 480 different species of plants at last count and that doesn’t include the
80 different types of apples and the 16 different types of gooseberries.
Growing out in the forest garden there, aside from the native trees, which I’ve used as
a framework or a platform for building everything else – and those provide me with shelter
from the wind and also nest sites for the birds, and the birds are a really important
player in the management of the garden.
In the second layer down to that we have our fruit tree layer, which is our heritage apples
and pears and plums, and nectarines and peaches, apricots, those kinds of “production trees”,
I suppose you’d call them, but that’s not really how I think of them.
In our forest garden I’ve got about 120 fruit trees, there are 80 different apple
trees alone of all different names that I’ve got from the old heritage orchards.
The apple trees are a special favourite of mine because each one has a different story
and history, and some are more than 500 years old.
So as I walk around here I know each of the trees very well and the… some are eating,
some are cooking, some are sweet and crunchy, some are quite dense and firm, and, like humans,
they’re very individual and they’ve all got a special way that they’re worth passing
And then below that a layer of berry fruits and currents, red currants, black currants,
white currants, and gooseberries, worcesterberries, all of those sorts of shrubby plants that
like to grow in the semi-shade.
In December you start getting berries and then the plums come on, then the pears and
apples, and so we have fruit here to harvest 10 months of the year.
Wrapping around all of that are the biennial and perennial herbs, some of which are edible,
some of which are medicinal, and then below that there are bulbs and root crops that grow,
such as parsnips and wild carrots – those kinds of things.
And then winding their way up through these things are vines like grape vines and kiwifruit
and Manchurian gooseberries and hops and all sorts of things, which kind of bind everything
together and tie the forest together.
So what I’ve tried to do here, even though it’s Southland and grapes struggle a little
bit to produce – good grapes down here, good crops down here – is that I’ve multiplied
out, propagated out dozens and dozens of grapes that I’ve collected in from all over Southland
and Otago, grown them and planted them at the base of the various trees that we’ve
Like this one underneath this cabbage tree here – this one’s been in for a few years
now and has really taken off up into the canopy.
But I’m taking that idea and spreading it right throughout the whole forest garden – in
a way trying to bind together the canopy in a way that I’ve never seen before in any
other forest garden.
And not only will it give a different layer or level to the garden, it may even get to
the point where we could travel along those vines, if we were adroit and nimble enough!
We’re in the temperate zone at the bottom of the South Island and quite exposed to the
elements, especially the sou’westers that come in off the southern ocean.
We’ve got a hill behind us sheltering us from the southwest winds and we face north,
looking over the estuary and the mountains and the hills, so it’s a really ideal situation.
When we first came up to have a look at this place it was ramshackle, to say the least!
This area where the house is now was completely covered in junk and the remains of the old
house that had caught fire.
So, most people would have not even crossed the threshold of the property to have a look
at the property, I don’t think, because it didn’t look very appealing.
But to us it did.
Because I thought, well for one thing, nobody wants it so it’s probably going to be cheap,
and it was: cheap to buy.
And secondly I thought: I can fix this.
One of the really fortunate things about this piece of land, and we saw it the day we came
here for the first time, was that it had a creek flowing through it, although initially
it wasn’t flowing at all.
It was just a muddy sink-hole, really.
The creek and spring that we discovered had been the neighbourhood rubbish place.
They threw all their things in there.
So at first we got all these aluminium cans and then coke bottles and then we got right
down to hobnail boots and Victorian pottery.
And now it is this beautiful open spring running across a rocky bed and even the spring over
here to my left.
With that in place and opened and planted out I noticed that there were fish in it,
swimming up stream.
The stream runs right down to the estuary, the Jacobs River estuary, at the bottom of
the landscape here.
And the galaxhids, the native whitebait family, of which there are 7 or 9, a whole lot of
different ones, they swim up these streams, heading up as far as they can possibly go.
We don’t feed them, we don’t fuss over them, but I do sneak up and look at them as
often as I possibly can.
But it’s a huge bonus because, because of the approach that we’ve taken, rather than
having it grassed down to the edge of the creek or straightened into a drain the way
so many people do when they see a water body that they can’t control, by leaving it natural
with all of its stones and its fallen leaves and so on, these fish find it good, good habitat
to come up into and we’re kind of blessed by having them here.
I think that as a forest gardener one of things that you do come to realise is that you’re
a bit-player, you’re not, you’re not the main driver out there!
And really, you’re responsibility becomes learning more about how that works, stepping
back, being a bit more relaxed about the whole thing and just watching those processes and
even changing the way that you think about harvest and about what you eat, or what you
need from your garden.
And so your diet could changes, as ours has, and rather than looking to eat lettuces, we
might eat alexanders or a perennial French sorrel.
If you really want to live off your land and have everything that you want, you have to
diversify your food.
And so we have things like nettle soup and those kinds of things that you otherwise wouldn’t
eat, but you realise these actually are really good vegetables and they are really good for
But we do really like to have kumera, but can’t grow it here so we still buy kumera
and avocados and things.
So we’d say probably about 70% of our food comes from here.
What I really love about living in a forest garden is the change of seasons.
So this is early spring, it’s early October, and it’s time for the apple blossoms and
at this same time the, all the herbs that pollinate insects come up, and they start
At the same time the undergrowth comes up from being just a ground cover, protecting
the ground, it comes up and becomes, like this level, and in two weeks’ time they’ll
be this high.
And we use all this lovely herbal lay sort of stuff to feed the tress and to put around
We do have cabbage trees, which are really wonderful, as our canopy.
They don’t give a lot of shade, but they do provide homes for the starlings.
In the ti kouka, the cabbage trees, that I’ve got growing there, the starlings nest in almost
all of them, and those starlings as they’re feeding their younkers, their babies, are
flying out and finding any soft-bodied caterpillar or grub they can, so there’s our pest management
for that kind of thing.
Hundreds of birds and insects come and live here naturally.
So it’s really lovely, once we’d set up the trees and the insect-attracting herbs
and the insects came, the birds came, and we have a huge range of native and English
And we do introduce some: we’ve got some chickens – you can hear them in the background.
Three seasons of the year they roam in the forest garden, so they’re free, all the
hens and the rest we’ve got, but in the spring we’ve got little seedlings going
out we have to keep them in because they know where we plant them – they’ve got instincts.
So I think they’re pretty lucky and it’s nice when they’ve got an acre of a forest
garden to walk around.
They’re very happy.
There’s a profound difference between a forest garden and a conventional vegetable
garden with a forest growing beside it even, even a vegetable garden surrounded by shrubs.
And I think it’s more to do with how you think and of course how you think affects
But, I think it’s the invitation for some wildness to come into your garden, forest,
and play its part.
Because that’s the most powerful factor in any growing situation like this, is what’s
going to happen anyway, what the natural world’s going to bring to you.
The more intervention you make, the more mistakes you’re likely to make.
So I like to think that I often stay my hand.
I see what I think is an issue or a problem and instead of rushing in there and clear-felling
it or destroying it or burning it or whatever I would have done in the past and generally
seems to happen in the wider agricultural/horticultural world, often I’ll stop and think, Oh hang
on, maybe I just need to change the way I think about this.
Which saves my back of course.
I don’t have to lift anything, or dig anything.
One of the biggest challenges to any gardening or food production system is the management
of weeds, or the understory.
In our forest garden here we’re wanting to have as great a diversity of plants as
humanly possible and when you do that you get this wild vibrancy as an understory and
so you have to manage it in a minimalist way if that’s, if you can get away with that.
So what I’ve done here is use as many plants as possible, such as comfrey, which we’ve
got here, fennel, cardoons.
But the main player is cow parsley, or wild chervil.
When we first introduced cow parsley to the garden I was using the usual tools, sickles
and scythes and so on to manage it.
But then I began to wonder about, was there an easier way.
And I discovered that there was.
And that’s simply going about your business, checking on your trees, and as you do that,
walk on the plant – particularly striking its crown, so that slows… it doesn’t kill
This is a biennial plant.
But it does knock it back sufficiently so that anything else you’ve got planted there,
such as these raspberries, or red currents, black currents and so on, can get away, get
plenty of light, as those cow parsley recover and can come back up again in order to flower.
Because we need them to flower because they’re attracting hover flies as part of our integrated
pest management programme.
So just walking around on top of these very crunchy cow parsleys, without using any tools
at all, it’s a bit like making a salad on a grand scale.
It’s very pleasurable to do and very effective.
It’s not annihilation of the plant, it’s just suppressing its growth for long enough
for everything else to flourish.
In a forest garden like ours, the major player is wildness, is, you know, the natural world
and all of those things that happen in there, and my job is just to kind of mould that to
suit our purposes – to a certain extent.
We really enjoying living in a forest garden because you can sit on the veranda in the
morning and you look out and there’s no lawns to be mowed and there’s no weeding
to be done and all the birds and insects are just having their life in the paradise you’ve
created for them, so it’s very peaceful.
Your conventional annual vegetable garden growing in rows needs a huge amount of input
and control from the gardener.
There are not many people who would run a rowed vegetable garden and say, Oh I don’t
really do much in there, because you have to.
I haven’t done anything clever at all; I’ve just stopped interfering with my garden basically.
I’ve stopped destroying stuff, and I’ve allowed it to become wilder and do what it
wants to do, with just a little bit of management from me.
From the early days when we were setting up the forest garden I chose to use native plants.
That was the thing I was interested in most at the time, so I knew how to propagate them.
I had a lot of them already – I didn’t have to buy them from a nursery.
I had seed resources and I knew how to propagate from cuttings.
So that seemed to me the logical choice.
I felt also that they were long-lasting and somehow more appropriate for the land because
they used to grow here and I kind of had a very strong interest in indigenous everythings.
From that time to now I’ve undergone something of a change about what’s appropriate and
More so that I think everything’s appropriate and I’m more interested in biological diversity
and multiplicity and complexity.
So what I’m doing is bringing in a lot of the exotic plants that produce some product,
such as food or medicine or, or even fuel, and easing them into this native plant area,
which we’re standing in now surrounding the creek and the spring.
Even though we’ve set up what we’re calling a forest garden, it’s constantly developing,
as we the people who live in it, think about what it really means.
It’s so peaceful when you walk about, and it’s just the, all the different flowers
and the energy and the action and all the insects.
And the birds have their own little life.
And so the birds are doing all their thing up in the trees and coming out and feeding
and the insects are flying around and having babies and flying off on missions.
It’s like being in a, in another universe, it’s just amazing.
And it’s, to me it’s how life should be with that livingness and that interconnectedness
of all the plants and the bees and the herbs.
It’s nice that the bees and the birds can live here and we can also come and get everything
Like, we’ve got herbs for medicine, we’ve got herbs for food, we’ve got things that
you can eat.
And so it’s like living in a, within a greengrocer setting: you just go and pick everything you
We’ve got probably 30 different plants in the carrot family and this is my particular
It’s called Sweet Sicily.
The leaves are like stevia: they’re a natural sweetener.
So if you boil them like a herb tea and put them in a pot with your rhubarb you don’t
need so much sugar.
So it’s really nice.
It smells like aniseed.
The seeds, at this stage in spring and summer, the seeds are like little aniseed lollies.
When we have school groups visiting the children love eating them and they’re really gorgeous.
And when they get older the seeds go dark and you can use them to polish fine furniture,
they’ve got an oil in them.
It’s a really useful plant.
I’ve got probably about 90 different herbs here, so I don’t have to buy herb teas,
I can just go out to the garden all year round and get some lemon balm or lemon verbena or
apple mint of raspberries.
So it’s really wonderful to have this garden here as your supermarket.
And your chemist.
All the time that I’ve spent here, learning about and developing the forest garden, I
like to think has actually had quite a, quite a significant effect outside of the boundaries
of this garden.
Not only because I sneak out at night and plant things along the roadside!
The Environment Centre that Robyn and I conceived of and started many years ago has been a powerful
player in all of these things that I’m talking about, because it’s offsite; it’s not
Some people might not like the idea of this kind of gardening, but they will go in and
buy a beautiful scented natural organic soap from the Environment Centre.
So that allows a whole new layer of society to be involved at the periphery, at the start,
in some of the ideas that we’re doing here.
You know we have workshops in there, we have visiting speakers, it attracts a huge number
of volunteers, so there’s that whole generosity thing coming from the wider community into
the Environment Centre and then of course it goes out in terms of things we offer people.
So yeah, it’s a beautiful little focus in a town, which is quite different from – or
a village – different from being in a garden like this.
In terms of making a positive change in the world, creating a forest garden has to be
one of the most effective things a person, a community or a city council can do, especially
if it’s done in a way that respects the natural rhythms of the world and doesn’t
fight natural processes.
Through building a forest garden an incredible amount of life is generated and sustained.
The microorganisms in the soil, the birds, the insects, the fish, the plants, and the
people, who are just as integral to that web of life.
It’s really important at this stage in human development and where we’re at in terms
of what we’ve done, you know? we’ve been so powerful, and we’ve impacted so much
on the wild world around us, that if we don’t do something fairly soon the wild world is
going to consume us, and so, let’s make a deal with the wild world, or at least get
an understanding of the wild world, and that understanding is around lack of separation.
We are not separate from the wild world.
We are as wild as it is.
We’ve worked towards a form that is not fitting in with the wild world at all well,
and it’s going to… it’s going to realign us, fairly soon, in my view, unless we can
recognise that we need to be fully integrated into, into that world, you know?
There’s lots of things that could depress you out in the world.
But if you take each negative act as an opportunity or a provocation to do your thing, which is
the opposite of that, you know give more life, then it’s fun, then it’s a winnable game.
That’s how I see it.
Thanks for watching the third film of the Living the Change series.
This is the first film that we’ve shot and edited while being on the road.
We’re in Christchurch at the moment and we’ve been experiencing a few earthquakes,
but we’re heading north now for the last leg of the journey.
If you want to learn more about the Living the Change project you can check out Happenfilms.com.
I wanted to say a special thank you to Pierre Blom, Bronwyn Plarre, Joshua Richmond and
Greg O’Keefe for their generous donations to the project.
Thanks again for watching, guys, and I’ll see you all in the next film.