Edited: 1 August 2022 to correct content error
Perhaps, like me, you are in search of new places to wonder so it doesn’t feel like 2020 all over again? Consider a saunter along the Gardiner’s Creek trail to the Winton Road Reserve. You may not have noticed, but there is a Food Forest tucked up in the corner. It began in 2011 and continues to grow with the help of a small and devoted group of Ashburton residents.
What is a food forest?
A ‘food forest’ is a system of gardening based on the sustainable and organic principles of a forest. It is not a community garden or orchard so it does not contain beds of annual vegetables and rows of the same fruit trees.
Instead, a food forest consists of carefully selected perennial plants chosen and arranged to compliment and support each other. This approach helps minimise weeds, pests and maintenance while also providing a rich variety of harvests.
How did the Winton Road Food Forest begin?
The Craig Family Centre planted the seed for what would become the Winton Road Food Forest in 2011. The long-running Ashburton institution received a grant to employ someone to create community projects along an environmental theme. The eventual appointee, Shau Teo, began to cast around the community for ideas.
Enter Ashburton resident Petra Kahle. Backed by her years of expertise in permaculture, Petra proposed the food forest idea to Shau Teo. He recognised how the forest would create an opportunity to bring the community together through sustainability and improved food security.
‘It’s setting up a resource that will benefit present and future generations,’ he told the Progress Leader in 2011.
The response was very positive.
‘I think it’s a very innovative idea with much potential,’ wrote one correspondent to the Progress Leader.
‘I only hope this forest inspires more,’ wrote another.
‘What a wonderful idea!’
‘Fabulous idea, I look forward to hearing more and I’m happy to help out.’
Of course, there was that one person. ‘The project would only devalue the properties in this area and provide no worthwhile benefit to the community,’ he wrote.
Selecting a site
With the support of (almost all) the local community, The Craig Centre approached Boroondara Council with the idea. Supportive of the concept, the Council proposed three potential sites of Council land for the new Forest: Huon Grove Reserve, the east end of Markham Reserve near Warrigal Road, or Winton Road Reserve.
The Craig Centre next canvassed the local residents for their thoughts.
‘Winton Road was always the best option,’ Petra told me. ‘One of the other sites had one guy who threatened to go to court if we put it near his house and the other had a guy who was supportive, but then when we said we would go ahead, decided he didn’t want it. Winton Road residents were all happy to have it and be involved.’
The volunteers had a lot of work ahead of them. The entire area proposed for the Food Forest was covered entirely in well-established grass.
Work began in Spring 2012 with the hard labour of digging up the grass and setting the paths. Boroondara Council provided the heavy machinery needed to drill tree holes in the rock-hard Ashburton clay that passes as soil. Grass tends to strip soil of nutrients without replacing them so the site required masses of cow manure to give the new plants and trees a fighting chance. The poor drainage in winter also needed to be taken into account to reduce the risk of flooding.
The first trees selected for planting were a mix of foreign and indigenous nut and fruit trees: walnut, two carobs, a macadamia, lemonade, almond, plum, apple, white mulberry, apricot, finger lime and quondong. By November, the understory plants had arrived in the Forest.
The battle begins
As even the more reluctant gardeners know, unwanted nasties in the garden can be a constant battle. But through the dedication of Petra and her group of volunteers, careful planting helped balance out nutrient inadequacies in the soil and provided natural pest resistance.
But the real battle was with the grass. If cockroaches are the only creature that will survive a nuclear holocaust, then Kikuyu grass is the frontrunner of the plant world for the honour.
The exact properties that make it so appealing – hardy, cost-effective, drought resistant and attractive looking – made it compete aggressively with the new plants of the Food Forest.
Volunteers fought tirelessly to remove the grass without resorting to chemical spraying. They used eucalyptus oil but it only killed off the green shoots and not the roots. So they scraped off a layer of soil and removed regrowth over three months. Eventually, the regrowth disappeared. This method continues today to keep kikuyu out of the Food Forest without resorting to poison or chemicals.
Stage 2 begins
As the stage 1 plantings began to bear fruit, the principles behind the Food Forest became tangible and edible.
In April 2016, the Council installed a shaded seating area for visitors to enjoy the Food Forest and the playground. Planting for stage 2 began in earnest the next month. This time, all the trees were back-breakingly planted by hand and 20 volunteers over four weekends shifted 12 metres of soil and wood chips. Smaller plants also accompanied the trees. The Forest now included: quince, pear, plums, hazelnuts, fig, guava, loquat, persimmon and mulberry trees.
As any home gardener knows, there are always losses. Birds took produce and in one patch of earth, according to Petra, ‘three trees have successively died, indicating a potential poison in the soil around them.’
However, by 2017, the Forest grew sufficient produce to encourage community engagement through food swaps and working bees.
Glyphosate vs weed-steaming
As the Food Forest reached maturity, the problem of keeping the kikuyu to the outer edges of the food forest took root.
The idea of weed-steaming appealed but needed to be undertaken by Boroondara Council, not the volunteers. The problem would continue to vex the group.
The primary challege was that the organic principles of the Food Forest conflicted with Boroondara Council’s use of glyphosate (among other chemicals) on weeds. Glyphosate is the key ingredient in Roundup, a common herbicide designed to prevent weeds from making the proteins they need to grow.
Glyphosate has a 40 year history of controversy, particularly connected to the practices of its original American manufacturer, Monsanto (currently owned by Bayer) and suspicions around its contribution to the development of cancers. Long-term class action suits in the US awarded significant damages to workers and groundskeepers exposed to the product.
The official position of the Victorian State Government on glyphosate is that it is safe to use. However, the American class action suits prompted many local councils to ban its use across Australia.
Boroondara Council was not one of them.
After advocacy from long-term Food Forest contributor Moira Tobin, the Council chose the Winton Road Food Forest to run a trial of weed-steaming in June 2016.
Weed-steaming is exactly what it sounds like: using steam to kill weeds. The steam heats the offending plants downward towards the roots long enough to kill, or at least greatly harm them.
Although the weed-steaming trial was successful, it did not change the Council’s position on using chemicals on its land. One recent Council publication reported a variety of ‘weed control strategies’ –hand weeding, brush cutting, solarisation, burning and steaming - to reduce herbicide use. But it contained no breakdown of the percentage of non-chemical strategies used to chemical ones.
By September 2019, the Council still used glyphosate weed killers but ‘alternatives were being investigated’. Nothing further has been made public about its investigations. Council workers have been photographed using chemicals around the Winton Road playground and the Food Forest. The outcomes of a State Government-sponsored six week review of the use of glyphosate by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning in June 2019 has not been made public.
The Council’s May-June 2021 weed management plan referred only to the use of herbicides and no non-chemical techniques.
Winton Road Reserve is not included in the plan.
The Covid Effect
2019 was a successful year for the Food Forest, with a series of events and workshops attracting donations and people to the working group. Then in 2020, three of the group’s core volunteers left due to physical injuries.
The lockdowns took a serious toll. ‘The one hour limitation on exercise was just not enough to keep the weeds under control,’ Petra said. ‘It wasn’t long enough and it wasn’t enough exercise. Nobody wanted to work wearing a mask.’
Petra still has ambitions for the Food Forest. ‘I’d like to get compost going, that’s the main goal.’
She is always on the lookout for extra hands to help with the physical work and administration of the community group.
Like to know more?
To find out more about the Food Forest, you can visit their website at https://foodforestashy.wordpress.com/ or follow them on Facebook.
To get involved, give Petra a call on 0420 961 695.
NB: All images taken in June 2021.