Growing a ‘food forest’ in Valla

Claire proudly presents her daikon radish.

VALLA resident Claire Marshall is living the latest trend in gardening.

With her partner she has pulled up the lawn and planted a ‘food forest’ in its place.

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Food forest design mimics the diversity of a natural forest, where a variety of plants grow together as an ecosystem.

By modelling this concept in the garden, plants grouped together complement each other, take advantage of niches and microclimates, increase biodiversity and ensure healthy soil and plants.

Claire is the founder of If Labs, and works as an ‘experiential futurist’.

Essentially, futurists explore trends and make predictions around what the future may look like.

Through her work, Claire was exploring the burgeoning movement involving home-grown veggies and local food markets.

She also began seeing people all over the Nambucca Valley planting their own food forests, in particular syntropic food forests.

It resonated and last year she took the plunge.

“We planted a food forest last year for a few reasons,” Claire told News Of The Area.

“The first is to rely less on the big supermarket chains, as we have all seen how fragile they can be when one big supplier has an issue, or we have issues with distribution like in the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our garden is just over six months old and we have already been selling the produce in the local markets.”

Another big driver for Claire is improving the soil health by growing a diversity of plants, rather than just lawn.

Underlying all this is her worry about the future.

“In part this is my job both as a futurist and as a mother of two small boys.

“Planting a food forest was a way to not only feed my family and community, but also a way to return to a way of living that respects the ecology of this planet.

“Plus, my partner was a big fan of less mowing.”

With a smattering of small gardening experiences while in rental properties, Claire had always dreamed of a garden that was like a forest.

“[A place] where my kids would pick fruit straight from the tree and eat it right there.

“I have made millions of mistakes, but I have also met amazing people like Joseph Fairburn from Golden Dawn Permaculture, who has generously shared their knowledge and helped me see the garden as a way to reconnect to what matters,” she said.

The family has focused on planting things they can eat.

“We have fruit and nut trees, vegetables, herbs, flowers and support plants.”

To get a spot in the garden a plant usually has to fulfill at least two functions, providing them with something (fruit, nuts or vegetables) and providing the garden something (nitrogen accumulation, attracting pollinators, biomass accumulation etc).

The food forest has “grown at a crazy rate”, while also being far less work than Claire thought.

“Only a few hours a week,” she said.

The family’s foray into the markets started with too many eggplants.

“We simply couldn’t eat even one more,” Claire said.

“So, we spoke to Tim who runs the community table at Bellingen Farmers Market and started selling our abundance there.

“The funny thing is we spend all the money we earn at the community table buying the fruits and vegetables that we don’t grow yet.”

With the garden giving Claire and her family joy while saving them money, she’s planning to use her experience and her garden to benefit others.

“One of my amazing teachers, Joseph Fairburn, who is a food forest specialist, suggested we hold a workshop, which will be on 22 and 23 June at home in our Valla Garden focusing on soil health, composting and perennial systems.

“It will be a weekend of planting, enjoying the butterflies and bees in the garden and learning how we can each help heal the planet.”

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