A Permaculture Food Forest in Three Years

While much of our eco-thrifty renovation involved converting an old villa into an energy efficient eco-home, we also put considerable effort into turning a rubbish tip into a Garden of Eden. Much of the latter work was guided by permaculture design.

The most visible difference between permaculture and what otherwise might just be called organic gardening is the presence of a “food forest.” The word permaculture was formed in the 1970s from a contraction of the words permanent and agriculture. The choice of these words represents the emphasis on perennial crops over annuals – in other words fruit trees over vege plants.

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This is not to say that permaculture excludes growing annual veges like tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins, it just tips the scales toward apples, peaches and feijoas. Among the reasons for this emphasis is that perennial crops require less tilling than annuals. Tilling disrupts natural soil ecosystems, can cause erosion, and requires lots of energy.

A food forest differs from an orchard in a couple of ways. First, it consists of a wide range of species and even a number of varieties within each species. For example, we have planted a food forest with apples, apricots, peaches, plums, feijoas, guavas, pears, figs, paw paws, olives, and nectarines. Among the apples, we have over a dozen varieties.

Second, permaculturists tend to choose cultivars that are resistant to diseases, making them easier to manage organically. For example, Black Boy peach trees tend to be more resistant to curly leaf than other varieties.

Alongside disease-resistance, another characteristic that might be selected for is storage life. I remember 15 years ago when I was buying my first apple trees I selected varieties that were both “good keepers” and blight resistant. With a cool cellar underneath my home (in the U.S.) the apples would remain fresh for many months with no specialized cooling equipment. Screen shot 2014-11-28 at 10.30.51 AM


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Another characteristic of food forests is the presence of “nurse trees.” A nurse tree is one that provides services that help the fruit trees establish themselves and thrive. As the fruit trees grow up the nurse trees are pruned away.

Tagasaste (tree lucerne) is a common nurse tree. On our Castlecliff property we have used it extensively to nurture the fruit trees. Tagasaste is a preferred nurse tree for many reasons: it is fast growing – reaching a height of 2.5 metres in 18 months; it fixes nitrogen in the soil; it is relatively wind-tolerant and drought-tolerant; it’s foliage is good stock fodder; it’s flowers attract beneficial insects; it is a great chop-and-drop mulch for fruit trees; when it is no longer needed it can be cut down and burned as firewood.

Tagasaste is also a good companion for native saplings. For example, I inter-planted it with hebes and was amazed at how well the two grew together. At Te Kura Kaupapa Maori O Tupoho I inter-planted tagaste with wind-hardy corokia and grisselinia around the outdoor play space for the kohanga. In the short term the tagasaste will protect the tamariki from wind and sun, but in the long term those roles will be filled by the slower growing natives.

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Along the same lines, in our food forest the fast-growing tagasaste provides much needed wind protection for the fruit trees until the natives take over that role. I often refer to this type of planning as four-dimensional design because it involves a distinct time element.

Another example of four-dimensional design in a food forest is integrating fowl such as chooks and ducks. We have successfully rotated our “ladies” through the whole of our Castlecliff property for pest control, ‘weed-eating’, and building soil fertility.

Next weekend we will be installing a food forest in Gonville, and thought it would be a great chance to offer a very hands-on workshop. See sidebar for details.

Peace, Estwing



Food Forest Design and Installation

Sunday, 7th December, 3-5 pm.

Designing a food forest for wind, sun and water using fruit trees, natives and tagasaste.

Space is limited. Registration essential.

theecoschool@gmail.com, 06 344 5013


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