All Nations Food Forest – A Project Not Realized

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“No one is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected.”

– Julius Caesar

 

Important Announcement: There will not be an All Nations Food Forest project!

Our contribution: We the founders of the project Angelo Eliades, John Pinniger and Charlie Si created the All Nations Food Forest project concept for a council built food forest in public space, and wrote the proposal with the support of the local community members who joined our team to help us put it together. John and I created the plant and tree selection lists, and volunteered our time supporting the project right through over a three year period. I even supported the community planting event of this other project that displaced our own by teaching the community how to plant fruit trees.

Something went terribly wrong with this project, but we should have heeded the warning signs that were there from the very beginning…

In our first All Nations Food Forest proposal meeting with council, we were told by the landscape architects manager that they “…would get their guy to design it…”  because “…he knows fruit trees”. Okay then, where do you go from there? Denial, disbelief, surely someone would not do that to us? We were gobsmacked but we refused to believe it, and stuck with the project, hoping for the best all the way to the end. Regrettably, they were true to their word and that’s exactly what they did.

So, for some strange reason, still unbeknownst to us, the council’s landscape architects got cocky and decided to take over our project (as they promised to do from the start), thinking they could in fact design a working food forest on their own! Why? We still don’t know why. Disappointed? Most definitely, considering that we were the only people on the project qualified to design a food forest. Council produced a design with only token consultation and built something which we did not agree with, under the banner of our project, which made things really messy and confusing for everyone, including the audience of this case study.

What they did build instead of our project could best be described as a landscape architect’s attempt at a food forest designed using aesthetic design principles only. Predictably they made a right royal mess of it too, which is sad, as there were many wonderful people in council who supported us and many members of the community who were really looking forward to seeing All Nations Food Forest built.

So what did they build? A description reads like a case study in “How NOT to build a food forest”! As a quick overview, the replacement project that was created for $70,000 was 72 sq. m narrow bed in an exposed location and , wait for it… planted beside a row of large established 12m tall eucalypt trees. Everyone who has ever worked in a community garden with eucalyptus trees in it knows that almost nothing grows under eucalypts, but no  this is not some kind of a cruel joke, this is serious. But it gets better, or is that worse…

So what does a garden created over the root zones of existing eucalypts need? You guessed it, more eucalypts of course! I’m serious here, an extra bed was created 3m away from the main garden bed, running parallel to it, about 57 sq. m  in size, in which six more eucalypts were planted planted closely in a row. This was a ‘native garden bed’ – somehow a native garden bed managed to sneak into our food forest project, and no, they are no native edible plants or bush foods in there, just ornamentals! In effect they surrounded a garden all round with eucalypts, planted in a line, 3m from all sides of the garden. My objections were immediately overruled when I was asked to review the landscape architects design, indicating the token nature of the consultative process. The first thing every horticulturalist who visited the site asked was “Did they consider what will happen and how it will look in ten years time?” I’ll let the readers be the judge of that.

 

The Review Process

After construction, as the professional horticulturalist on the project, I conducted a review and produced a detailed and extensive report on my findings. The importance of conducting a review as critical part of the design process and as the key learning phase of the project was discussed in the previous article All Nations Food Forest – Understanding the Design Process. The report also included some options to remediate any problems identified in case council wished to pursue them.

The assessment (which can be found here) identified:

  • 17 horticultural issues, the majority of them related to inappropriate tree spacing and the rest being issues of inappropriate plant location.
  • 4 major design issues which were identified to pose a significant risk to the success of the project.
  • 4 critical issues which are definite ‘red flags’, which, if unaddressed will definitely lead to the failure of the garden.

Council acknowledged the problems raised,  but did not wish to accept the extent of the critical issues, and chose to not pursue the suggested solutions to remediate the problems. They also declined to have the council arborists verify the technical veracity of my assessments in the report.

Curiously, we the project founders were further requested to advise council how the outcomes outlined in our All Nations Food Forest project proposal which was not built could be delivered through this other project which we did not design without making any of the critical changes we recommended. Regrettably we were unable to assist further as we had already suggested a possible redesign solution which was declined by council.

 

 

The Good News – Our Achievements!

  • The merits of the All Nations Food Forest Project proposal were recognised by council resulting in approval and the allocation of $70,000 of funding.
  • The events geared around public consultation and the launch of the project had an overwhelmingly positive response from the community who showed great support for the idea.
  • Two of the project founders, Angelo Eliades and John Pinniger, were awarded by the council in the Darebin Sustainability Awards for recognition their ongoing work in the community and their work on this project.
  • Working with the supportive members of the council, the project founders were able to generate huge community support and worked collaboratively to generate significant momentum to commence a project that no council in Melbourne had attempted before, to push the boundaries of urban agriculture and food security in public space.
  • A copy of the 9 page All Nations Park Food Forest – Tree & Plant Selection Guide was produced and has been made available for reference purposes for community groups to use. It details suitable low-maintenance tree and plant species for use in community gardens and public spaces in temperate Australian climates and the rationale for their selection.
  • This case study was produced as far as was technically possible, to provide information on understanding the design process in respect to functional garden designs.

Conclusion

From the review document, the conclusion that can be drawn is that the replacement project failed because it was an attempt by council landscape architects to design a food forest system using aesthetic design principles, which they are formally trained in, rather than permaculture design principles, which is what a permaculture designer is trained in, and which are required to build a functional, living ecosystem. The error of judgement was that  the council landscape architects grossly underestimating the design skills required for the ecological design of a food forest garden, and refused to heed advice from the project’s technical advisors. As the French proverb states “Good advice is often annoying – bad advice never is.”

The prevalence of  basic horticultural errors appear to stem from a lack of basic plant knowledge and insufficient plant design skills, a criticism commonly levelled at the landscape architecture profession, a position supported by a study within the profession itself, a self-admission if you will, see – “ Perceptions of the Importance of Plant Material Knowledge by Practicing Landscape Architects in the Southeastern United States” by Robert F. Brzuszek, Richard L. Harkess, and Eric Stortz – You can view the full study here. This is no great revelation as landscape architects are not horticulturalist (plants specialists that are formally trained to design with plants).

The important lesson for council here was that landscape architects can’t design food forests and don’t know edible plants (unless they have had additional training). If you’ve ever wondered why our cities public spaces are ‘food free zones’ and why cities are a food security risk, ask yourself which profession is responsible for designing public landscapes – your answer lies there…

From this case study it can be concluded that there is still considerable resistance within certain councils to stepping beyond purely ornamental design of public space and pushing the boundaries to experiment with more ecologically sound designs that represent evidence-based and appropriate responses to food security, climate change and many other challenges facing urban communities in the short and long term future.

As a result, this represents a significant missed opportunity to create a landmark urban agriculture project in public space that innovatively addresses the issues of food security and community education through food forest design, and as such, the title of “Melbourne’s First Council Built Food Forestremains unclaimed!

 

The council has indicated that they will persist with this project to deliver some outcomes, so I do encourage the community to use this available public space to garden, and the All Nations Food Forest team wish them luck with this endeavour and sincerely hope that council can deliver the benefits they hope to for the community.

Council has also expressed interest that they are still interested in pursuing a food forest project at a different site, at a future date, and we have continued to extended the goodwill by indicating that we are still willing to work with the council on such a project, albeit under radically different conditions and agreements in order not not repeat the mistakes of this project.

 

Footnote

This project and my attempts to document a useful case study for the community, all of which I have been doing for free, has left me in a very difficult position professionally. If I tried to explain the situation publicly, including in this case study, I would be seen to be critical of the council by drawing attention to a questionable series of decisions. If I did not, I would be associated with a project which I do not endorse and am not responsible for designing or building, which would reflects badly on me professionally, and more importantly I would also be complicit in hiding something from the community which they are entitled to know in terms of public transparency and accountability – what happened to the All Nations Food Forest project? We promised the community the project, they supported it, they contributed their ideas, and it was allocated public money so they have every light to know.

I trust I have chosen the most ethical path of action to provide the community and the readership with as much practical and useful information that can be drawn from this project as possible, and I sincerely hope that others can learn from our mistakes. All projects have their challenges, and one such as this provides many learning opportunities for all parties, the council, the project team and the audience of this case study. Let us learn and move on.

This article concludes this case study.

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16 Responses to All Nations Food Forest – A Project Not Realized

  1. Kerry Rodgers says:

    I’m so sorry to hear this news, Angelo. It must be very frustrating.

    How is the Northcote Library project holding up? Has it remained true to its design?

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Yes it’s quite sad that the community didn’t get the food forest garden it was promised.

      Thankfully the Northcote Library Food Garden is still very active and evolving. We’ve seen that beginner gardeners prefer simple garden layouts for the vegetable garden beds, so we’ve reverted to simple straight beds with paths between them rather than more complicated shapes. The ornamental areas of the garden have been cut back by the community gardeners so they can have more gardening space.

      The berries are a bit challenging to maintain for many gardeners, we’ve run workshops, but they take a bit more technical skill to manage. The raspberries, which run and sucker all over the garden, have been removed, but the thornless youngberries are going well and are quite productive, I help maintain those and try to teach the community gardeners at the same time. The children’s food forest area took a major hit with the drought and over 40 degree Celsius heatwave last year, we lost some of the smaller groundcover plants and need to replace them.

      The trees are really productive and the gardeners got funding and decided to build an enclosure around them to keep the birds and possums off the fruit. They also ripped up a lot of the companion plants in the process which I’ll have to guide them in replanting. We have eucalypt trees in some of the garden beds at the sides and nothing much will grow beneath them, so the gardeners are planning to relocate some fruit trees when the appropriate season arrives for the task. The macadamia nut trees in the bush foods area are growing nicely, and we’re going to have to get more Australian native bush foods in that part of the garden soon. The gardeners have informed me that they are running out of space and might have to remove fruit trees, and were hoping that we would have space in the All Nations site for them, the whole intention was to expand out in this way, but regrettably we’ll have to find homes for them elsewhere.

      Great thing is that the productivity of the garden keeps increasing, and the gardeners are learning a lot as they tend to the garden and gain first hand experience growing a wide variety of fruit and vegetables. Now that I’m free from the other project, I can volunteer some more time at the Northcote Library Food Garden once again, and frankly, I’m looking forward to helping an already established community garden once again and getting my hands dirty in the garden!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dianne Millett says:

    How very disappointing and what a waste of resources. I am thinking time, energy, money and community good will. I could say more, but I will hold my tongue.

    The Northcote Library Garden Food Garden is something to be proud of: a working, productive, permaculture garden, that looks good too–in that order. Gardens are always works in progress.

    And although this is a small thing, compared to bigger garden issues, I want you to know, Angelo and Charlie, that those blackberries you gave me have produced lots of big fat berries this year at the Northcote Community Gardens and I have made jam. Yes, they need a bit of work, but they haven’t got away from me yet.
    I had been hearing different things about the All Nations Food Forest …
    Thank you for this background.
    Remember: Nature is determined.
    dianne m.

    Like

    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Thanks Diane, great to hear you’re enjoying the berries too! That’s what’s great about community gardens, the sharing, the learning, and lots of yummy benefits! 🙂

      Like

  3. parlance says:

    I’ve been to workshops – run by you, Angelo – and my home garden is an ‘offspring’ of the Northcote Library garden, in terms of concepts and of actual plants. Change creeps across communities, via good will and companionship, so even though the other garden project didn’t turn out as it was planned, who knows how far the ripples of interest, information and inspiration have spread across the neighbouring suburbs. (I’m in Ivanhoe.)

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      So true, we community gardeners are a huge network that spans far and wide, and we all share ideas, information and plants too! In my mind this is only a minor setback, as the urban agriculture movement is growing worldwide, people wish to be reconnected with food and nature, and there are so many people doing amazing work to further the cause. The change has started, people are questioning why we have ‘food-free cities’ where nothing edible is ever grown in public space, and they’re doing something about it, guerrilla gardening when they meet resistance to their ideas, collaborative projects when their ideas are received and supported by those who control public space. There are so many great projects happening all the time, I aim to document some of them to share what I find inspiring!

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  4. Rid says:

    My deepest sympathy goes to you and your colleagues, Angelo. And thank you for writing this lengthy and detailed post describing why this is a sad news indeed.

    I know I’m probably being too naive here, and I’m well aware that there must be a lot of labour, planning, dedication and time needed for this whole thing to work, but I’m dying to hear your thoughts on this:

    I’ve been wondering if you’ve ever thought about going to people’s houses who have unused or under-utilised front/back yards and actually ask them if they’d be interested in having their yard transformed into a food forest by you and your team of permaculturalists (and with the house owners’ help eventually). Everywhere I go I always see so many frontyards that are just covered in useless plants or plain grass! (haha, sorry useless plants).

    I’m aware that people can hire the service of permaculture designers to help them transform their garden into food forest, but this strategy seems too passive to get a community interested in having food forest.

    I’m sure lots of people with front/back yards care deeply about living sustainably, but maybe they just don’t know how to utilise their yards, and most likely have never even heard about permaculture food garden. If you and your team actively seek and inform these people, and to show evidence and pique their curiosity, maybe there’s a chance they will let your team of permacularists transform their yards.

    I realise you’ll need your team members to be as knowledgeable and patient as you are. And perhaps places like nurseries can nurse fruit trees, so they are already mature before being transplanted. i don’t know.
    I’m just curious if you ever thought about spreading this great idea of food forest more directly and actively. Again, I’m aware you’ll need a lot of help but as you know more about how much resources (time, money, people power, etc) are needed to do this, I can’t say much! Maybe I’m just being ignorant and naive.

    I’m sure a lot of people would love to replicate what you’re doing at your garden, and a lot of enthusiastic gardeners are willing to help you do this. Maybe you can educate these enthusiastic gardeners about what they need to learn so that they can assist you in transforming backyards into food forests. I am aware your website does exactly this, but it might seem too overwhelming for people who just want to learn the most essential skills in the shortest period of time, like a fast track degree into backyard permaculture.

    sorry for my weird thought, just had to let it out or i won’t be able to sleep tonight.

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    • Angelo (admin) says:

      Your idea is not as strange as it sounds! I’m a permaculture designer and I get paid to design permaculture gardens in people’s homes, I don’t build them myself, I produce the design and give them all the information they need to build it – plant lists, step-by-step construction and maintenance instructions, and they build it themselves. I teach and assist. People learn more and feel a greater connection to the garden when they participate in its construction.

      Because I believe in what I do, and recognise the value of sustainable gardening, the importance of food security, and the health benefits of gardening, I volunteer some of my time to give something back to the world – I run this website which is a free information resource, and I work for free on community projects when I have the time. One of the objectives of the All Nations Food Forest was to create a demonstration food forest site which could be used for public education, and we volunteered to run public training workshops for free, something I normally get paid to do as a qualified professional trainer. There’s a saying that “people value things only when they have to give something of value to obtain them” – perhaps offering free services to councils/local governments might seem like a great goodwill gesture but might really be a bad idea in practice…

      Hope you’ll sleep well tonight 🙂

      Like

      • Rid says:

        Thanks for your reply Angelo, and I think I can speak for everyone when I say we’re extremely grateful for all the exemplary things you’ve done online and out there in the real world.

        I’m now very curious and would like to dig a little deeper into this permaculture designing.
        So what kind of education do you think is absolutely necessary for a person who aspires to become a back/front yard permaculture designer like you? and specifically to be competent and knowledgeable enough to create a small to medium scale “urban” food forest like yours?

        Google can be a wonderful tool here and I found http://www.permaculturemelbourne.org.au which has this as a description for its permaculture course:

        [PDC – Dandenong Ranges
        February 4 – July 4, 2015, Wednesdays 6:30pm – 9:30pm, plus four Saturday field trips.
        Cost: $700 or $550 with concession card.
        This is a 72 hour + Course which gives you an internationally recognized qualification; a Certificate is presented upon completion…]

        Now this is all great and I don’t mind the cost at all. They do talk about the “ethics of permaculture”, and also about “Food Forests, Soil Structure, Biology and Chemistry”, and I presume there will be practical workshops on the field as well.

        But I think what makes it harder for people who are interested in replicating what you’ve done in your backyard (an urban food forest), but have a job in the city, is the fact that this course requires long distance travel (not everyone can afford to do this), goes for such long period of time, and the knowledge being imparted on the students might be too broad. I’m sure this broader knowledge is needed for bigger scale permaculture design (like most of geoff lawton’s designs on huge fields that I’m aware of), but what if we are much more interested in applying the permaculture concepts to a back/front yard? Can we not find and then skip some of the unnecessary bits in our education and focus more on the knowledge related to the urban setting? In other words, is there a Permaculture class that takes place in someone’s backyard in the city and not too far way?

        I certainly would go to this course at Dandenong Ranges if I can (sadly for many reasons, I can’t) but to assume that everyone has the interest and resources to do a permaculture design course in a different setting to where they live can be a big turn off for a lot of aspiring city gardeners. This also involves a fundamental misunderstanding of human psychology: most people sadly lack the the foresight to see the beneifts, and the willpower to complete, this PDC course at Dandenong Ranges. It can seem too exotic and disconnected from most people’s lives.

        There are also courses on Horticultures. it feels very useful but we are left thinking about which one should one enrol in for the purpose of urban front/backyard permaculture?

        Being a minimalist about most things in life, I’d like to see a minimalistic approach applied to our education as well, and I think most of us would agree that we should learn only what’s truly necessary to succeed in an urban setting and discard some of the optional learning that might be worthwhile but may not be suitable for every city dweller. Besides, I think your website has talked enough about the ethics, general theories and even the practical side of big scale permaculture designing. I think what we need now is an institute of some sort (maybe you can start one =] ) that let students apply their more limited-but-sufficient permaculture knowledge (a curriculum designed by you, perhaps) into an urban setting, where the fight really takes place if we want to establish stronger food security, curb climate change individually and at a community level, and share with people the joy and benefits of food gardening.

        I think the battle has to be brought back to the city where most people live. It sure is great to have a half dozen huge permaculture orchards at the outskirt of town but in all honesty, we need to be more ambitious and practical about the whole thing. There are too many unused land in our neighbouring suburbs, and we need to somehow find a way to reproduce what you’ve so successfully done on a larger scale. I’m aware it will take time for each project (years at least) but we need a food revolution where there is a clear vision as to where this great idea should be heading, and we need it as soon as possible. We need to mass produce people like Angelo and his backyard, not with human cloning but with a curriculum of clear educational guidance and application.

        Again, thanks for your kind reply, I don’t expect you to reply to this one especially if I’m going to be taking too much of your time. But I hope your readers can help me by having some nice discussions on this =)

        Like

      • Angelo (admin) says:

        Thanks for your ideas and insights, there’s things in there for me to think about at greater length 🙂

        To design permaculture food gardens, you need to have a good understanding of sustainable produce gardening techniques, good plant knowledge and permaculture design skills. The PDC courses will give you a design framework to make your sustainable garden designs more holistic and ecologically sound, but a PDC will not teach you gardening techniques, they will only be mentioned as examples of principles.

        A PDC requires you to bring your own design skill set into the system of permaculture. The PDC is a design framework that can incorporate a wide range of disciplines, and provides an understanding of sustainable/ecological design across a range of climates that can be encountered all around the world. I know many ‘permies’ who have completed PDC courses, some are qualified horticulturalists, agriculturalists and architects, and as you’d expect, they all design different things within a permaculture framework. You can start with whatever garden skills you have, and as long as you’re regularly practising and learning, your skills will increase in time, as with all things.

        I’ve written an article on Starting Your Permaculture Garden which might be helpful too.

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      • Rid says:

        Thanks angelo,

        I found this today: http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/why-we-need-systemic-change-not-token-community-gardens

        what books (local or international) or website can you recommend to help beginners learn more about basic gardening skills?

        Like

  5. Aggie says:

    Oh, Angelo, reading from afar, and sending you my sympathy and wishes for future successes in the noble work you are doing.

    Like

  6. Julie Scott - Fort Walton Beach, FL says:

    Thank you for bringing the issues to print. Yes, this process must have been very difficult to endure. But may I bring a thought to this – Because of the conflict, because of the failures, more people became in engaged in the solutions. Bringing to light the difference between aesthetic landscape architects, and functional / permaculture architects, the image of what doesn’t work is played out day by day, week by week.

    Because you chose to remain involved, those local gardeners who are using the public land, are learning for themselves WHY it’s not working, and what can be ameliorated. Those gardeners are residents, and taxpayers, and possibly neighbors of the Council. Each of them are learning of the possibilities. And just think – even we (over here in America) are listening AND learning from your experiences.

    Thank you.
    PS – maybe you can slowly use the eucalyptus trees for hugelculture or biochar experiments 🙂 Or chop up and use as insect repellant!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Eve Inbetta says:

    This must have been an incredibly frustrating and disappointing experience for you personally. However, I agree with your “silver lining” assessment at the end. This has demonstrated community engagement with the concept and it did produce the guidelines. Something good will come of this; just not in the timeframes you would have preferred.

    Like

  8. What a terrible shame. I would like to hear more about this and why council went down that route?

    Jane Holroyd Merlynston Community Group North Coburg

    Like

  9. Sonia says:

    Dear Angelo,

    Researching your website after reading your article in City Permaculture 2, I, modest veggie gardener, found my way through this project and the case study for its failure to come to terms.
    Thank you so much for trying, your local community owes you a great deal. It can be said that you are their local “L’Homme qui plantait des arbres” ( title of a French book).
    Whatever you are doing, it is the right way of doing it as it can reach some of the mainstream naive gardeners like me, forcing us to look at our garden with new eyes and motivating us to do what little bit time affords to do better.
    I can see permaculture getting more and more attention and I hope that one day we will have lots of food forests in our beautiful Melbourne city.

    Kind Regards

    Sonia

    Like

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