Food Forest Gathering results

On May 21st, I had the honour to facilitate the Food Forest Gathering for the Wellington region, hosted by Common Unity Project at Epuni School, Lower Hutt. We hope we can make this a yearly thing, hosted and facilitated by new people each time – so if you feel like that could be you, do get in touch!

Right now, I’m in the very last few days before leaving the country for some much needed holiday, and I finally manage to finish some stuff! I’m a chronic initiator: I start things, am enthused, and then struggle to bring them to closure… Our yearly trips really help with that, and bring me a pattern of concluding projects around May-June and leaving just after Matariki rising. And now, I’ve finished the report of the Food Forest Gathering!

This week I thought I’d share the results with you, so the post is very long. But I think you’ll find something in there that may be that little pearl of information that you didn’t know you needed. We had a full day, starting with a guided visit of the Common Unity Food Forest (big thanks to Julia Milne). This was followed by a double-session on soil in the morning and then two paralell sessions after shared super yummy lunch, and another two paralell ones after afternoon tea. Each of the session’s subjects and hosts were decided on the spot in the morning through Open Space Technology, and thanks to the fantastic participants who were there, it was a very enriching day. A lot of time was also spent in more informal discussions with people networking and getting to know eachother. So let’s delve in…

1. Soil

Hosted by Richard Self and Zoe Reid, 10.30-12

Biochar experiment

“How to play with fire and build the soil” presented by Richard Self

We made bio-char! Ripped up cardboard – you can also add bones and eggshells – into a metal bin that doesn’t have holes in the bottom. Put fire to the cardboard and aim for pyrolysis, where the fire is smouldering with a minimum of oxygen. Add cardboard regularly to the top to maintain a vortex in the flames: they will be spinning and pulling gases up from underneath. When it has burned a while, pour worm juice or urine on top to kill the fire. This liquid penetrates the very porous charcoal and charges it with nutrients.

The finished product is good for alkalising the soil, adds loads of carbon and a huge surface area, which bacteria and microorganisms can hide in from bigger soil critters. Using seaweed  instead of urine/worm juice will add more micro nutrients. One big handful has a surface are of a football field, but all folded up!! Use two big handfuls for each square meter of garden.

Soil biodiversity and carbon sequestration

“Maintaining Soil biodiversity + How to use food crops to reduce carbon in the atmosphere” presented by Zoe Reid

Is it worth inoculating the soil? Different opinions: either inoculate with as many different organisms as possible, some will click and stay depending on habitat and food availble. Maybe this can lead to one dominating and consuming all others…  Adding a maximum of different foods will feed different microorganisms: Compost, duff, vegetation from other places, animal dung…

Compost tea – purpose: are we feeding the organisms in the soil or adding new organisms? Aerated vs fermented.

Value of different microorganisms is they all break down different things. Feed the microorganisms just as much as the plants. Phosphorus deficient soils, imported phosphorus often contain heavy metals. We need to make our own phosphorus, using bone char and guano. Keep recycling the existing phosphorus! Urine 15% nitrogen, 3% phosphorus, needs to be diluted well … maybe sprayed wide? In a vortex …? General laughter 😀

Adding nitrogen in right proportions to carbon is crucial for soil biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

2a. Crops and Guilds in NZ Context

Hosted by Kelly-ann Barrett, 1-2pm

What is a guild? Like companion plants to boost each other. In food forest context, plants feeding the “main” crop while also providing useful yields.

No guilds stand out as being specifically well suited. A lot of trials have been contradictory.

Crops good for a food forest: what veges can you have in there? Depends on stage of food forest, access to sunlight when trees are young. Succession planting. You could get everything in a ff, considering staged patches.

In a NZ context / Wellington: plants hardy in the wind. Buy trees that are specifically selected for Wgtn conditions (Neville Chun).

If in doubt add  more, don’t take away!

2b. How to start in specific conditions

Small spaces & Steep banks

Pam (1-1.30pm)

An area that has been cleared and which is steep and semi-terassed, where to plant? if you need to dig, it’s best to plant as close to the bottom of a slope / beginning of a terrace as possible, to avoid erosion. And to cover all bare soil at all times.

But do we even want to grow food on very steep slopes? It’s possible to use kowhai and coprosma to support the bank and avoid erosion, and leave it to natives if there’s other spaces for growing food. Forming the land: spring at the top of the property, water sheeting down, recommend to use logs underneath the cover to allow the water to slow down and soak in. Use structures on top of the soil rather than digging in.

Volcanic soils & Pasture to Forest

Paul (1.30-2pm)

We were lucky to have a geologist among us who enlightened us on the different types of volcanoes. In NZ, we get ash and pumice rather than lava flows. So when looking at resources on growing on volcanic soils we actually have to consider the combination of soil & climate in other places of the world to find something similar. Not very old weathered-down lava flows! Areas similar to here are Etna and Vesuvius in Italy – grapes & olives grow well there.

Resources available: Awhi farm, Turangi, Market. Neighbors. Contact experienced growers. Look at what grows well on other properties: chestnuts, plums & blueberries grow well in the area.

Paul has been putting down carpet to kill grass, and is now looking at what to plant once the grass is killed. Julia suggested bio-dynamic peppering of the weeds: turn them into a tea and spray on. Or burn and grind and dilute if it’s an animal. Recipes and advice are available from the bio-dynamic organisation.

3a. City sustainability & Community support

“Are sustainable cities possible? What’s the viability of urban farming? How can we gain public support for these initiatives?” Erin Todd and Jack Leason 2.30-3.30pm

A lot of vision! Most of these visions are already out there as ideas, more or less realised. The conclusion is that we just need to keep trying, and keep track of what works and what doesn’t work as well.

How to gain community support for food forests on public land? Recommendations:

  • Gathering statistics, data and stories on other current projects.
  • Inspiration from Dig for Victory and other wartime initiatives, which seem to be only times when there’s a genuine ownership and willingness from the public to create sustainable food systems and cities. How to recreate this but without the war?!?
  • We want to encourage and take advantage of council investment in this
  • Remind the public that not long ago all food consumed in cities was grown in the city, only 100 years ago.
  • Point to the example of Seattle, food forests from one side of another of the city, vision to be able to feed the whole city; the Cuban example, which has inspired a study re Glasgow being able to feed itself. Palestine is also self sufficient in food because of the Israeli embargo.

Can we create an impetus to create this change without having such an extreme need? At the same time, there is a really extreme need in many parts of society, it just remains invisible for those who don’t experience poverty. Maybe start there! Dig for Victory were based in positiveness and the social obligation to contribute to the national efforts, not from fear. So it seems it is a question of encouraging more civic duty in our communities, and more education around this.

Community ownership for food in public spaces is crucial! When planting fruit trees, food forests of any type of food production in public spaces we want to have community buy-in from the start and also council support. Let’s continue to put in proposals for local initiatives and stay involved in the political and policy making processes so we make more space for food in public spaces, both in the debate and in reality.

Finishing with Brad Lancaster’s (permaculture water-catchment guy) story about the gardens in his neighborhood: one particular neighbour was very very negative and at one point they were absolutely opposed. The group baked a cake for the guy, using ingredients from the garden, and completely won him over, blew his defenses.

“The circle of life is stronger than a lifeline.”

3b. Food Forests and Nutrition

Adam Shand, 2.30-3.30pm

Can we feed ourselves from a food forest? No reason we can’t! But if your land is nutrient  deficient, you get deficiencies too. So it’s not so much about being self sufficient, but locally sufficient… And it’s not just how we grow food, but also storage and preparation.

Designing our food forests with our actual diet in mind rather than based on what’s easy to grow. Describe new foods like combinations of what we are familiar with – apart for FF in public space as unknown foods don’t get stolen!

Chicken rotations as part of a more nutrient dense FF: Animals need to be rotated, you can use fences or domes for chickens so they can turn the land without damaging growing plants. Move them on before they demolish the land. A limitation is to pay attention to where you plant perennials vs annuals so they don’t destroy the perennials. And the chickens will need a different location for winter. A good source of inspiration for this is Linda Woodrow’s A Permaculture Garden, mandala garden.

Other animals have always been present in natural forests. Megafauna in forests trample, prune, and fertilise. We can use mob grazing to prune one area at a time.

How to get slow sugars and protein instead of just fruit from a food forest? Choice of crops: nuts (hazel, almond, walnut, chestnut…) and animals and understoreys (roots and pulses such as peanuts, chickpeas need lots of plants, flour peas, cannelini beans, broad beans, runner beans, quinoa and amaranth (harvest & bird issues – may better for chicken feed)).

Ways of storing / transforming the crops to enhance nutrient quality are drying, fermenting and sprouting, rather than jams and pickles. Another option that shouldn’t be shunned is trading to avoid deficiency – we’re all in this together!

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