Other than wanting to really see this country from north to south, one of our primary reasons for heading down to Invercargill – even though we were flying out Queenstown – was so that we could visit the home of the Riverton-famous Guyton family and their 25-year-old food forest. We had discovered their permaculture mecca after coming across a video posted to YouTube by Jordon Osmond that featured Robert and Robyn Guyton. Click on the link. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. The way that they have transformed a field of broom and gorse into a thriving forest of edibles, medicinals and native plants is absolutely jaw dropping. I’ll post pictures and videos below, but Jordan and his team at Happen Films happened to have some amazing camera equipment and a drone to capture the property in a unique way. Go ahead, click the link above and watch the short film. It’s okay. I’ll be here when you get back.
We set out from Invercargill full of optimism in spite of our broken tent poles. After our delicious breakfast at the Zookeeper’s Cafe in Invercargill, we headed west towards Riverton along the path that Google Maps insisted would be bike-friendly. Will we never learn? We were stopped by a locked gate on the edge of town so we headed north towards the highway where Google Maps rerouted us along a rural road, which was fantastic for the first ten kilometres in spite of the vicious westerly headwinds that seemed hellbent on keeping us in Invercargill.
That road was great. It would eventually become a sleepy gravel road, but the winds continued to pick up and we were eventually stopped by another locked gate.
We were worried that we’d have to turn around and surf the wind back east, but a car passed us heading north along a nearby road and that eventually put us on track to the highway. All in all, our trip to Riverton would be one of those 44-kilometres-that-felt-like-an-88-kilometre trip because of the wind. We were looking forward to taking a few days off and connecting with the Guyton family.
It was totally worth it. Robyn and Hollie (Robert and Robyn’s daughter) greeted us in the driveway with a hug and showed us where we could put our bikes. After being shown to our diggs and introduced to Robert, we showered and settled in for dinner before getting down to our WWOOFing duties the next day. Hollie made us a delicious meal (the first of many) and we chatted for a lovely first evening. Robyn suggested that Robert take us on a tour of the property.
The place is really amazing. If, for some insane reason, you haven’t watched the short YouTube video I linked above, I’ll try my best to describe what’s going on. Robert and Robyn have taken a forest mimicry approach to their gardening, preferring to allow the natural wildness of the plants they work with, fill the different layers of space. You’ve probably seen an orchard before, and most of you have probably have tended to a garden at one point or another, but Robert has really figured out a way to plant and tend a forest garden that really takes the term forest garden to the next level.
Try and imagine trees of varying heights and widths, shrubs and woody perennials beneath them, various understory plants among them. Picture berries, apples, plums, pears, peaches. There are roughly-defined paths that change and evolve as the life within the forest takes advantage of a gap in the space. In spite of all that competition going on, there is an abundance of food and habitat. There are pockets of surprise with every turn you make.
This forest is a curated wild wonderland. So many people are afraid to just try things when they set out to have a garden of their own. We are paralyzed with the worry that we might make a mistake. Robert has made a life’s work of encouraging the plant life on his property to show him what it wants to do. As a result, he’s learning from observation and experimentation.
The Southland Region – and Riverton especially – sits on the southern coast of New Zealand in a place where wind and cool temperatures prohibit the growth of stone fruits and many vegetables, if you’re to believe what people might tell you about the place. The Guyton Food Forest is proof-in-point that such a thing is possible. The trees on the property all have a myriad of jobs to perform beyond fruiting and feeding. The taller trees on the western edge of the property create an amazing windbreak for the younger plants and trees. Their deep roots drill down and mine water and minerals to the surface. The soil is being built and improved by the constant accumulation of biomass on the surface. Robyn likes to mention that the soil on their property is some of the healthiest in the area; a soil analysis of their forest floor indicated that it was showing an off-the-charts reading for nutrients, biological activity and minerals, particularly when compared to a denuded field next door.
Robert and Robyn also run the Southland Environmental Resource Centre in Riverton with a handful of other local volunteers, a space that serves as a home for the Riverton Organic Food Co-Op and Resource library for all things environmental. Bronwyn and I spent two of our WWOOFing days helping out in the centre and built a little miniature version of the centre as a donation box: the organization is currently renting the space but are hoping to buy the building to give the Environmental Centre a permanent home in Riverton. The different ways that the centre impacts the community are too numerous to mention in the space of this blog post.
I’d like to believe that we made a difference in our short stay on the Guyton property; we picked plums, netted berry bushes to reduce pressure from the birds, planted potatoes and thinned herb seedlings. It will be hard to know, though, since to outside eyes the plantings get lost in the incredible diversity that lives there. We wish that we could have stayed longer, but I suppose it just gives us yet another reason to come back to New Zealand and visit.
We are so grateful to Robert and Robyn for hosting us in their home. We learned from their experiences and were so happy to connect with them and exchange ideas about a world that desperately needs everyone to be planting forests (or even trees on public land under the cover of night, if you’re to follow Robert’s anarchistic guerrilla gardening approach to improving the world). I know that we’ll be thinking over our experiences in Riverton for a long time. Perhaps we’ll get the chance to host the Guyton family in our own forest garden one day. A food forest of inspiration.
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Next: our ride north towards Queenstown and a 55-kilometre head start thanks to Robert’s generosity.
Middle school teacher on hiatus/budding permaculturalist currently cycling the world. Sometimes he acts in plays and film. Mostly he travels and blogs about it. Christian is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com