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Forest Garden City: What a Forest Garden is and how they could change the urban environment

Last month, I had the great privilege to get up in front of a larger crowd than I had ever spoke to before. The occasion was TEDx Canberra 2014 where I had been invited to speak on Forest Gardening. It was a great day and I really enjoyed the opportunity to present on a topic that I am passionate about and also to see all the other great speakers on the day.

On stage at TEDx Canberra.

On stage at TEDx Canberra. Image courtesy of TEDx Canberra.

As I developed my ideas for my presentation I decided that I did not want to only present on the theories of Forest Gardening but rather try and show people that it is a technique that is based on working examples from the past which can provide for our needs in the future. Please enjoy the video of the talk below and let me know if you have an questions in the comments. I’ve explained some of the parts of the talk in a little more detail below aswell.

We have many great examples of historical edible forest gardens. The oak forests of California, The Arucaria forests of Chile, The Dehesa and Montado systems of the Mediterranean, The Bunya Forests of East Coast Australia and parts of the Amazon rainforest are but a few. These forests were all systems that were actively managed by humans so that they were producing food and remained as productive ecosystems. The idea that they were wilderness, untouched by the actions of people is ridiculous.

arucaria forests

I first delved into across the concepts of people actively managing landscapes for food when I was studying at Uni, but it was when I was working at the Botanic Gardens in Kauai’i that I really came to understand the extent to which people managed the ecosystems of the planet so that they produced food. In Kauai’i at the gardens was a remnant Ahupua’a system and we were taught how it had functioned and provided for the community that lived in each distinct water catchment on the island.

A cartoon of an A'hapua'ha system on Kauai'i. This systems of landscape management was used throughout the Hawai'ian islands and much of polynesia

A cartoon of an Ahupua’a system on Kauai’i, which saw communities being managed and coordiated within catchments. This systems of landscape management was used throughout the Hawai’ian islands and much of polynesia

In the Ahupua’a system (Ahapua’a translates as Stone Pig, as stone markers were placed on the boundaries of the catchment and carved as pigs) the forest at the top of the catchment was tapu (taboo) and was not cut or harvested from. This was because the intact forest was critical to the system functioning and supplied a refuge for wildlife. When Europeans began to cut these upper forests down, landslides and erosion resulted. Hawai’ian cultivated a secondary forest below the tapu forest where they would cultivate and harvest timber for building canoes, weapons and housing.

Further down the catchment, the Hawai’ian undertook both irrigated and dry-land agriculture. In the dry-land areas the main crops were Taro, Breadfruit, Coconuts, Bananas, sweet potato and Sugarcane which were cultivated according to their different requirements. Sometimes grown beneath the candle-nut tree which functioned as a suppourt species, providing shade. In the irrigated areas they grew abundant taro-crops with a stone aquaduct system. The taro-patch would be refertilised using the a fallow system, where exhausted patches where re-mineralised using the leaves of the candle-nut tree.

Working with my colleagues in the Taro-patch at Hana Gardens. The aquaducts are evident

Working with my colleagues in the Taro-patch at Hana Gardens. The aquaducts are evident on the left of the photo

The irrigation system on the island would mobilise a lot of nutrients and sediments into the river which was a big problem as it would kill off the reef fish which were another source of food. As a design solution, the Hawai’ians constructed fish ponds at the river mouth known as Lo’i. These trapped sediments and nutrients. Through a gate system fish were let in at high tide and trapped at low tide. The carnivorous fish would be caught and the herbivorous fish raised in the fish-pond in a poly-culture with edible and medicinal seaweeds.

These examples from Hawai’i and around the world show us that perennial poly-culture farming is possible and productive. But the next step is for us to modernize the practice so that is applicable to solve the modern problems of needing to produce more food for a growing population and a global population which is urbanising. In my presentation to TEDx Canberra I outlined examples of how any city could start to adopt forest gardens as part of their urban design.

Getting excited about a Forest Garden City

Getting excited about a Forest Garden City

In my city, Canberra, there is an abundance of green-space given it’s history as a planned city and its initial design as a garden city. This was idealised to be a city with 1/3 agriculture, 1/3 industry and 1/3 housing. Many cities around the world have productive space which is not realising it’s potential. A number of years back I met a friend and colleague who was transforming neglected green space into a productive edible forest garden.

A productive Edible Forest Garden in Canberra

A productive Edible Forest Garden in Canberra

Paul is now cultivating more than 50 fruit trees in his urban site as well as native support species and greens and herbs from the ground-layer. If one person can achieve this with an hour a day, imagine what a city could achieve if it started to integrate forest gardens into their urban planning. Rather than paying mowing contractors every three months, suitable areas could be transformed to produce food, aesthetic spaces and help to support urban wildlife. Canberra has a precedent in this with its redevelopment of several drains into urban wetlands. Just as the drains used to be un-productive and are now beautiful and ecologically vibrant, our parks with one or two species of tree could be transformed into thriving forest gardens.


An urban wetlands in the North of Canberra. It has high structural diversity and an abundance of flowers through the year to support native wildlife

Our cities are going to need to produce more of the food that they consume in the future. Urbanisation is going to continue and we need to integrate food production into cities through different forms of urban agriculture. Forest Gardens are unique urban agriculture solutions because in addition to producing food for the citizens, they can provide the ecological base that all organic food production systems need. Many cities around the world have urban horticulture programs and a city forest. It is not a far leap to redesign and reforest parts of our cities in a way that is aesthetic and productive.


Smaller steps that you might be able to undertake could include working with a community group to develop a community forest garden. I have been involved in assisting a number of projects around Canberra to start growing food in public spaces. In addition to applying to the local government for space it is worthwhile approaching local clubs and community groups that often have halls or buildings and are paying for someone to mow the lawns. With a good design and some realistic ambitions, these are great spaces to start growing more food in our cities. Indeed, if we start designing and planting today, then we will surely have fruit in abundance for our children and nuts in abundance for our grandchildren.

Please take some time to check out the video, and continue the discussion in the comments below. Gracias.

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Work In Progress

Hello everyone, hopefully you’ve arrived at my new site looking for information about the design work I do, forest gardens, ecology and permaculture.

I am working tirelessly on a number of projects at the moment indoors and outdoors this summer and only finding scant moments to develop the content for this site and assemble all my pictures and design files.

But it is happening. My details are under the Contact Tab if you’d like to get in touch. Hopefully you’ll be seeing and reading about what I do very soon.