Community ProjectsUrban Projects

Mulberry Gardens Food Forest


Original asphalt

It began with a large area of asphalt and a dream of expanding our community garden. Mulberry Gardens is in Glenroy, Melbourne, Australia and operates entirely as a communal space. All members share in the upkeep and harvest the produce — which is mostly shared amongst attendees at the Saturday morning communal sessions. The number of fast food and alcohol shops vastly outweighs fresh food outlets in the area so a community garden was established to help give locals access to fresh organic produce and share the skills of growing produce.

Last year we were lucky enough to get some funding from the Australian Open Gardens Grants to rip up a large section of asphalt and put in a food forest. (Reclaiming the hard surfaces of the city — every gardener’s dream!)


Compacted ground after asphalt removal

The Rough Design

Our starting point was four established mulberry trees on the edge of the site to be reclaimed and some apple and citrus trees in the main vegetable beds that would be moved into the orchard later. Our main aims were:

  • move existing fruit trees out of the market garden and extend the variety of species
  • have the orchard to function as a secondary run for the chickens
  • to incorporate lots of herbs and companion plants as understory. We decided to plant understory plants in groups for ease of identification (and hopefully prevent weeding out of useful plants). This is a challenge of communal spaces in community gardens — making sure everyone knows what plants are intentional and what ones may need controlling. We found signage is essential and developed a quick reference system for plant uses. We planted the usual herb suspects — for bee and human fodder and traditional combinations such as mulberry and grape.
    • to use native leguminous support species, to add nutrients to the soil — essential to food forest design. There were some experienced revegetation people in the garden group who were alarmed at the inclusion of tree lucerne in the original design. This is considered a weed in some areas and can colonise natural bush land. As we have no livestock in the garden to consume fodder crops such as tree lucerne we decided to experiment instead with using local native plants as support species. These can be used as chop and drop plants, and hopefully increase the birdlife of the area, which will help to control pests. Vimineara juncea and Acacia acenacea were chosen for their fast growing but smaller size and are also potentials as bee fodder.


After adding recycled top-soil and freshly planted

Moving Fruit Trees and Compaction Issues

12 months before moving the trees we dug out halfway around the roots and filled the trenches with sand to prepare their roots for moving. New roots can then grow into the loose sand and be dug up without too much damage. They then grew as much this season as they had in three years since planting thanks to breaking of the drought! We held a workshop on pruning to trim them down and give everyone some hands on experience. Most trees shouldn’t be pruned more than 1/3 or they go into shock, so some follow up pruning will be done next year after the move.

We knew the soil under the asphalt would be in need of some serious resuscitation. With some friendly advice from the Ground Grocer, we decided to drench the plants in beneficial fungal spores, worm juice and molasses to help with the reestablishment of a healthy soil biota and reduce the compaction. We also added many bags of gypsum, mushroom compost and some top soil salvaged from a the new school going up on a vacant patch of land.


Quince forming three months after moving the tree

The compaction was however much worse than we imagined. There was an area of the orchard which didn’t seem to drain at all, holes dug for trees were bone dry and cracked then became permanent pools after rain! It was going to be a bit harder than we thought (no pun intended). Originally the plan was to put apples and other stone fruit in this moister spot — but we then discovered it would be too wet. Rather than trying to repair this by digging or some other hard work we decided to reorganise the tree layout, moving apples to the drier side and putting fig and pomegranate into the boggy spot, as they will tolerate dry soils but also wet feet. We also decided to mound up all the fruit trees we planted to give the roots a chance to spread out before they hit the very hard substrata, and stay somewhat above the pooling water before the compaction eased.


Three months on and everything growing well

We also plan to sew lupins as a green manure in spring, and a whole lot of daikon radish — which helps to reduce compaction as it is able to push through the heavy soils.

Things we learnt:

  • soil repair is the best place to start for a garden — but like a herbal remedy it does take some time. It is best to take the time in the beginning and hold off planting rather than always playing catch up
  • it’s best to be adaptable in a design and move plants around to fit into microclimates as you become aware of them
  • in communal gardens good signage, especially of unusual plants, is essential to prevent them being ‘accidentally’ weeded out!

Despite the soil problems and trees being bigger than was ideal all of them survived the move and had a fresh flush of spring flowers. We are now sheet mulching to give the understory a chance to establish and out-compete the weeds that came in with the donated topsoil. The final step in the design will be the chickens — when get around to building a coop!


Sheet mulching to give understory a chance to get a hold


Ground covers, apple mint and pyrethrum, starting to take off.

3 Comments

  1. Must say congratulations on an excellent effort!

    As a food forest advocate for three years now, driving an educational campaign to inform and educate people about the benefits, design and construction of food forests, there are a few things that I need to point out.

    Firstly, you’ve built an amazing companion planted orchard, but that’s NOT what a food forest is. Since a food forest can have up to seven layers in a stacked design, you only have two, the canopy layer and the herbaceous layer. It’s basically an under-planted orchard.

    Secondly, what makes a food forest such is that it is a living ecosystem that resembles a real-life forest. One layer under the trees will not create a living ecosystem, as there is minimal opportunity for the synergy of plants that occurs through having multiple layers, minimal micro-climates, and little space to provide home for all the insects and animals that will bring the space to life.

    Thirdly, you have no succession planting happening as you would have in a real forest, or a food forest design. A food forest design uses a wide variety of edible perennial species that populate the seven levels of the stacked forest design. The vegetables don’t belong in separate vegetable beds in a food forest, they belong in there with the trees!

    By separating the two you are creating a conventional mini-farm, where the orchards grow in one spot, and the vegies in another. You’ll still have to carry out crop rotation of your vegie beds, which will get eaten by pests still, and still need weeding, your orchard area will still get weeds growing because it’s not at the climax stage of forest succession ecologically, and you’ll get none of the benefits of a food forest. For those unaware of the concept of ‘ecological forest succession’, please look this term up, then you’ll understand what a forest is, and what is not.

    Unfortunately, in the Permaculture world, the term food forest is incorrectly applied to orchards, under-planted orchards, even vigorously growing vegetable gardens without a single tree!

    Please people, ‘food forests’ are a technical term for a very specific way of building highly productive food production systems that very closely models nature own forest, and gain all the benefits of a natural system. By misapplying the term, people see these projects when they fail to deliver, and the word gets out that “it doesn’t work…”

    A few helpful tips:
    Gets some shrubs in there between your fruit trees.
    Use vertical space, climbers can considerably increase productivity in a food forest without occupying much garden bed space.
    De-compact your soil using plants with deep tap roots, and set up areas with earthworms and lots of organic matter. You’d probably do well to let the place fill with dandelions!
    Forget giant nitrogen fixing leguminous trees in an urban setting, and don’t bother with natives either, put broad beans in winter, climbing or bush beans in spring/summer, and peas in between for faster turnover.
    Best to spend a year in soil repair next time round – natural ecosystems start with healthy soil, build the soil and feed it, the plants will take care of themselves, just like a real forest!

    It’s an excellent start, I’m excited to see this happening more often, and it’s great to see more urban food production. If you’re interested in extending this orchard design into a fully functional and highly productive food forest design, please feel free to contact me, I’m working (voluntarily) to help establish as many working demonstration urban food forests in Melbourne, Australia as possible, and I would dearly love to see this project become an outstanding success!

  2. We have an asphalted area we are planning on using for an edible food forest. I’m interested in knowing if you did any soil testing and if you were concerned about any petroleum by-products from the asphalt.

    Thanks

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