We have enjoyed 29 years of produce, delights, building know-how, and ethical social enterprises. Our food forest sustains our Permaculture lifestyle. Here are some of the lessons from our demonstration site.
We thrive on the unceded ancestral lands of the Dharawal, Wadi Wadi, and Yuin people. We acknowledge and pay our respects to elders past, present, and emerging. And to environment itself. For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal people successfully farmed crops, developed complex fisheries, managed forests, and wildlife. We treasure their wealth of bioregional experience and knowledge such as techniques for the strategic use of fire. Resources were far more abundant and diverse. In particular, the water sources, were treasured. Today, 3 of the 5 creeks on Mt Kembla are forever cracked from longwall mining. And the local Koala and platypus are gone.
Our Food Forest Roots
In 1993 we began our permaculture demonstration site in Mt Kembla. We started out with an acre of Kikuyu lawn with some mature trees. It was a lovely parkland style of remnant orchard and ornamental trees. But the village has lost most of the creek water to destructive long-wall mining. Luckily, it still has good rainfall and condensation from ocean breezes.
This ‘dry’ rainforest of the area enabled us to build a rich permaculture lifestyle. When we started out our children were babes. Back then, it took 6 hours to mow the acre of Kikuyu. So, the upkeep was exhausting. There were also large tracts of woody weeds including lantana, honeysuckle, oleander, and tobacco plants. Also, we didn’t know how to catch a chicken, graft a seedling, manage snails or pickle a chili.
Today, we share our abundant produce, delight in the wildlife, share know-how, and support ethical social enterprises. For us, Permaculture is much more than a food forest, the food forest sustains our interest and wonder. Permaculture is a lifestyle.
Key Actions – Observe, Analyse and Engage
The design process is a series of plans rather than a static end goal. At first, we have a vision of what success looks like and each plan works towards meeting that vision. Then, we adapt the strategies and techniques. With observation, the process evolves and accepts feedback from the living system.
Different Microclimates support rare species.
Tropical plants such as Jackfruit grow around the bend from temperate fruits like raspberries.
As it turns out, we were the first in our bio-region, [and possibly the most southern reaches of Australia] to grow Jackfruit, Peruvian custard apple, Lychee, Longan, Sapodilla, and Jabuticaba. Back then, we didn’t realise how many firsts we had achieved at the time. Instead, we were curious and adventurous. Our grandparents taught us to marvel, respect and value nature.
Overall, a key part of our journey has been the wisdom of our elders. And we continue to learn from indigenous people and other cultures.
Since raising our sons on this site we are proud that our eldest is now also a first. He has established an eco-hair salon on our site.
We are just ordinary people having fun trying extra-ordinary things! After 26 years the lawn was finally extinct and replaced by an abundant food forest. Eventually, we renovated the home using recycled components. Then we created an environmentally friendly office. We started to reach out and become an active part of the community. But we still had time to spend on experimental projects like the upscaled rocket stove. Now our adult children work and live part-time on the site.
Living on the City Edge
- Location: We are located in an old mining village near the university and industrial city of Wollongong. There is a working mine at the top, a school, a pub, and a small Church with a cemetery. Near here was where Koalas discovered white man. In the great depression, Koalas were hunted to extinction regionally. The local mine also is the site of our nation’s first industrial disaster in 1902 where more than 90 workers were killed due to open flame style gas lamps.
- Aspect and Climate: The ideal slope in our climate would be nor-north-east. But this site is sloped to the west with limited solar access or wind. When we bought the site, the soil was severely compacted pasture with some mature orchard trees. Most years, there is good rainfall year-round. The minimum temperature is 4c. Whereas, the maximum was recently 40.2c. In brief, the site is sloped, shady, humid and warm site with valley breezes.
- Site Size: We now know that 0.44 hectre is too big for a small family. So we would prefer to be part of a permaculture village or have multiple occupancy to share the harvest and the workload.
Fungi and lichen, self-seeding trees including strangler and sandpaper figs carried by a wide variety of birds (wrens, bower birds, Kookaburras, Cockatoos, King Parrots, Owls, Cat-birds and Brush Turkey). The Cockatoos and Flying Foxes are active pruners and eat fruit that is well out of our reach. Occasionally, large birds destroy crops and falcons eat the chickens.
Occasionally, King Parrots damage delicacies such as snow peas. Wonga Pigeons and Satin Bowerbirds love to eat any freshly planted seeds . So, we now have two anti-aviaries. One for growing salad greens and the other to protect young chicks.
Other residents include Lizards, Water-dragons and Ringtail and Brushtail Possums. Flying Foxes come early in summer and eat a lot of the fruits and berries. Other regular visitors include Brush Turkey, Echidna, Native eastern long neck tortoise and, of course, snakes (including the golden crown), butterflies, frogs and froglets (including Perons Tree frog), insects and spiders. Non-natives include feral deer, neighbours cows, dogs, chickens, mice and sometimes horses.
Site history: The site had a few very large and bountiful plum, peach and apple trees. They were about 80 years old. At the bottom of the garden lies a small, natural wetland, which has been preserved for the diversity value and as a good firebreak. The land use had involved market gardening, cattle, horses and a poultry farm.
Focus on Regeneration
There was a history of toxic sprays used on this site. So, we avoided growing and eating tubers from the soil for the first 15 years. We have managed all weeds (see more about the weeds below) without any chemicals.
Soil type: When we started here the soil was badly compacted, potters clay. It still is rock-hard in many areas. The acidic soil has been improved by the addition of humus (sheet mulched beds with worms underneath).
Modern History of Site:
Most of the upper garden beds are zone 1 and 2 mixed herbs and vegies under orchard trees. These garden beds were made using Esther Dean’s no-dig method without soil. This method helped combat Kikuyu an invasive grass and improve the heavy soil structure. However, this method is not recommended in areas containing native groundcovers.
The middle section has a steep slope. We removed the coral trees and lantana by hand and without herbicide. We also covered areas of Kikuyu with dense cardboard. By the 10th year, the trees were mature enough to survive the next drought without any hand watering.
Balancing old and new
We slowly expand the forest whilst maintaining the established area. So, the immediate rewards of quick crops sustained longer term projects. Following this, In 2006 we embarked on a solar passive extension of the house. So, the new shape of the house formed a nurturing windbreak and suntrap and immediately and the Mangos were able to hold their fruit better.
Layers in our Food Forest
Over the decades, the existing tall trees form the structural framework of emergent trees. But there are new emergents such as Davidson Plum and Jelly palm. Tall grasses include Clumping Bamboo (7 varieties) and Bananas (dwarf, yellow, sugar, and red).
The existing canopy species of this site included winter citrus and summer prunus fruits, a large Sycamore and Pines, Red Cedar, Grevillia Robusta and Kurrangong. Eventually, many of these larger trees were removed as fuel. Over time, the Avocado and Macadamias will become canopy species.
The interplanted canopy species includes a variety of black, pink and white mulberry (different varieties) which we use for fruit and for many years kept silkworms. We like mulberry because it doesn’t get fruit fly, the poultry, birds and water dragons love it. And there is always enough for us and friends.
The remaining trees vary in height. They include Blackbean, Davidson Plum, Eugenia, Gingko, Maple, Mango, Coffee, Avocado, Jackfruit, Wax Jumbu, Finger Lime, Olive, Tamarillo, Tamarind, Carob, Canistel, Pomegranate, Jaboticaba, Persimmon, Lilly Pilly, Malay Apple, Custard Apple, Guava, Native Rosella, Paperbarks, Fejoa, Lychee, Quince, various Figs, Longan, Babaco, Irish Strawberry Tree, Ice-Cream Bean, Jak Fruit, Bunya nut, Apple, Chestnut, Macadamia. Today, the main canopy species are Mulberry, Macadmia and Citrus.
Shrubs include Hibiscus (edible flowers), Tea trees, Camellia sinensis (Tea), Lemon verbena, Lemon and Aniseed Myrtle, wormwood, various Sages, lavender, hazelnut, native raspberry, lychee, Jabuticaba. Sunflower Daisy Tree (tithonia diversifolia) has delicious flowers. Tree ferns now self seed.
There are many plants beneath the trees. These include Loganberry, strawberry, raspberry, arrowroot, Taro, Yacon, sugarcane, monstera deliciosa, mixed salad greens. tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, edible ferns, stinging nettle and Asian greens. Living Mulch plants include: warrigal greens, nasturtium, and sweet potato. Also, there are numerous bulbs, Peruvian ground apple, jerusalem artichokes, arrowroot, potatoes, onions; and culinary and medicinal herbs, low sage, lovage, aloe vera, mints, cardomon, tumeric, rosemary, lavender, lad’s love, rue, wormwood, bromeliads including pineapple, ferns, and native palms (including walking-stick palm) and orchids. Water Plants include: taro, watercress, water celery, kang kong, water chestnuts, lotus and Thai basil.
Passionfruit, Kiwifruit, and Epiphiliums (Dragon Fruit), different varieties of grape, and Choko thrive in different micro-climates.
The most prolific food plants are: chilli, tomato, mulberry, sweet potato and grapes.
Special Interest Plants: In the early years there was a strong emphasis on rare and heritage non-hybrid breeds and supported Seed Savers Australia. Now the system has become more self-seeding and self-governing. We have some unusual species to share such as the highlands Custard apple (Annona cherimoya sp.).
Integrated Pest Management in the food forest
At first we had ducks to help control snails. But we learned that they are very vulnerable to dogs. So now we keep geese to deter foxes and dogs. Other pests include borers, cabbage moth and stink bugs. These are controlled by hand and with the use of Neem oil. Fruit fly requires yeast baits and the chickens to eat infected fruit. But after years of struggle to combat fruit fly, Bill Mollison suggested that we “simply grow what the fruit fly don’t eat”.
The Chickens are trained at a young age to eat specific weeds of the food forest. Liquid manure in made in big recycled drums and it converts the most invasive weeds such as Madeira vine into liquid manure. Over the years, old chickens have been welcomed. The truth is, the chickens are more valuable as weeders than for their eggs.
The story of Old Ginger
An old silkie hen: Ginger was 9 years old when she suddenly decided to have chicks. She hadn’t laid eggs for 5 years but she saw how the others did it – demanded attention from the rooster then locked herself in her own nest and made it happen.
We also pick and use the leaves and tubers of invasive vines as bedding in the poultry houses. The biggest threat to the food forest is Madeira vine (Anredera cordifolia). Because we use no herbicide, our management depends on the chickens.
The Role of Noisy Geese
Our geese protect the chickens from neighbours dogs. In the early years they ate the kikuyu. But it long gone. So we slash banana stools and bamboo for their feed. They also deter foxes during the day but they require strong protection at night. We have some recent problems with deer eating young trees so we now protect the young trees with wire cages and a maze of solar-powered electric fencing. We also cover saplings with tents of stinging nettle and woody weeds. The birds regularly eat our fruit but we have plenty to spare.
Impact of Climate Change on the food forest
In 2013, the extreme high temperatures began to impact the food forest, the mulberry trees fruiting time became confused. The usually abundant and reliable crop failed until 2020. Grapes shrivelled on the vine. But not those grapes the were hidden under the leaves. During 2016-2018 the mulberry trees fruited twice a year because the winters were too warm.
Wollongong has 6 seasons. We would always experience a false spring around August, just before the winds. The mulberry would normally fruit in mid-December. But they started fruiting in the false spring, and again in mid-December. Neither crop was palatable. Then, finally, the mature trees adapted. This year the mature trees fruited well for the first time in 7 years. They fruited in late November before the heat and after the windy season. Many of the younger trees fruited in the conventional season and got dried out. Some varieties faired better than others. So, it pays to have many different mulberry varieties.
Planting and Harvest Plan
We plan for continuous tree planting of endemic species as well as new varities of rare edibles. At first, we would plant at the rate of one plant per day. Most weeks we would start new beds, each day we could collect food. Now, we rarely plant new plants, sometimes we might start some new seed in pots and every day we can find something to eat in the garden. We often share produce with friends and relatives. Often other people share with us in return. After just a few years implementation there were over 60 different edible tree species and varieties, over 160 different edible and medicinal species and varieties of herbs, bramble berries, vines, shrubs, and tubers.
Each new planting get watered daily for a week, then once a week for a month, then once a month for a year. This is our approach to test for suitability and hardiness. Some plant species did not thrive with our YOYO [Your On Your Own] approach. Perhaps they were not given the ideal micro-climate and the soil was probably inhospitable. But many plants did thrive including the rare tropical and bush-tucker plants. The native orange shrub and native raspberries are comfy in the understorey of this food forest.
Finally, after 25 years the soil was black and friable. The garden beds had risen with organic matter. The edges on the gardens are protected with edging and shade-tolerant plants. Nowadays we interplant bush-tucker plants. These like the shade.
‘Weed’ Management and Uses in Food Forest
Our definition of a weed is a plant that “does not respect diversity”. The main weeds include Madeira Vine (which can collapse whole areas of rainforest), coral trees, Kikuyu, turkey rhubarb, lantana, croften weed and non-native wandering jew (white flowered) which is mostly gone. Fleshy invasive plants such as Madeira vine and grass are controlled well by chickens and geese.
Use of weeds
Weeds work well to mine minerals so we keep our mineral on site. We have found various uses for invasive plants. Most woody weeds such as lantana and privet are cut and burnt in the fuel stove. Some are dried in raised piles on top of tarps so they can’t seed, then later used as mulch. Fleshy plants are put into the poultry house – nothing survives in there! We weave a tent of woody weed branches (not when they are in seed) to protect young seedlings from the chickens and Wonga pigeons.
Our Fuel Stove heating system
Our Fuel Stove and our hydronic heating system are our only domestic heating. Here is a picture showing some of the features.
One of the most important developments for us in using a fuel stove is learning how to reduce effort in providing fuel. We cut and stack the wood only once. We cut dried branches with our electric chainsaw (we use 100% green electricity) or drop saw.
Our Hydronic Heating System
Our Solar Cooking
Even though we are solar challenged, we get enough sun to cook on sunny days, the temperature in the oven gets up to 115 which makes the best porridge, Curry and Italian sauces. Cooking with the Solar Oven, you don’t have to stir. Also, it requires no cleaning (only once did it boil over), And it never burns. But best of all, Solar ovens have no moving parts to break down.
Who Manages the Food Forest?
The regular work involves animal care, mulching, planting, cuttings, grafting, seed management, harvesting. But as Ted Trainer said, it isn’t work when you’re having fun. Most of the work is done by April. It takes an average of 3 woman/man hours per week. Paths run mostly along contour and they only require raking. By having ramps rather than steps, the site is accessible and more manageable.