A community orchard

Innermost community gardens

Innermost Community Gardens is a living example of permaculture ethics and principles in action right in the heart of Wellington City, New Zealand.

Through the hard work of many dedicated folks over the years an old bowling club has been transformed into an urban oasis that includes annual beds, a model orchard and a developing food forest.

Innermost Gardens is about ‘Community Hands in the Soil’ Our product is not just the produce we grow its about the community connections we create

Tim

The team at Innermost run regular garden days, host workshops and training around sustainable production practices. The gardens and hall facility provide a meeting place for the community in a park like setting with walkways surrounded by natural art forms and sculptures.

Innermost is and always should be a Sacred Grove of Aotearoa, an Island of biodiversity, available to all who want to connect with nature and to explore sustainable principles applied to the art of making high quality produce. Permaculture ethics and principles serve as the foundation on which Innermost operates.

Back in 2011 development began on converting a lawn space into an urban orchard.  The aim was to produce fruit for the community and to demonstrate an orchard system that could be easily accommodated into small back yards such as those typical in Wellington.

The soil at the time was rather waterlogged with dense clay layers supporting a nice friable loam but biologically lean soil type, discovered with visual soil analysis techniques.  So the task at hand included elements of soil remediation. Standard lab soils tests as well as reams tests were conducted and it was no surprise that present and available minerals were also lean.

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Visual Soil Analysis – This soil profile was supported by a solid clay layer at 100cm

The design elements, techniques and implementation aspects for staging were modeled after those described in the permaculture practitioner journal series.

On a very cold and wet winters day in 2011 a brave band of volunteers planted a range of bare rooted deciduous seedlings, mostly heirloom sourced from a local supplier with rootstocks appropriate to local conditions.  The trees were planted at intervals closer than you might leverage in a typical country orchard.  The trade off for more produce from less space would be a more regular and structured pruning program, an element we were prepared for and in fact suited us as part of regular workshops we might run every season.

The tree trenches were prepared the week before, square holes to challenge the new seedling roots, with seaweed at the bottom.  At the time of planting a combination of existing soil plus compost enriched with an organic mineral amendment was added to the top soil layer. The seedlings were planted in the same direction they had been raised in so the roots didn’t need to adjust too much to their new orientation.  The normal protection mechanisms to prevent pest damage and stakes were in place (see the Tagasaste section for more detail)

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August 2011 – The best time of the year to plant as the seedlings are still dormant

Come spring that year and the task of soil restoration began by breaking the ground to disturb the established grass layer with spades and picks and hands.  A rototiller helped to disturb the soil across a large area that was immediately amended with Innermost compost, a biologically active compost enhanced with specific raw material waste from hundreds of kitchens from the Mount Victoria community [we consider our compost bins as the heart and soul of our gardens]

A seed mix described in this resources was amended with coffee husks, to observe application, and sown over the compost, raked and pressed in thoroughly.  The understory species planted would over time condition our soils, accumulate and distribute minerals and nutrients, to shelter and attract beneficial insects and deter other insect pests.

The applications rates for seed application were double the portion than those recommended, not really necessary but we wanted to be sure of getting a reasonable strike rate up front.  in the following 8 weeks, despite feeding near every bird in Wellington, the orchard understory had sprouted and was taking hold.

You know it takes quite a mental shift for many of us to look at what appears to be a messy orchard full of weeds to one of complex organic nature by design.  It was easier for those involved in the project because we had indeed implemented the design.  Bit for passers by who may have preconceived notions of an orchard it would be more difficult to grasp our design.  As a result offers began streaming in from people who wanted to weed for us and a near tragedy occurred in some well meaning folk who decided to mow our developing understory for us. 

Sometimes to protect nature by design a good fence comes in handy, and that’s what we implemented fairly soon after.

Tim

Whats interesting is that the understory fought back and where it had been mowed, to the north of the orchard, was now and still is dominated by broadleaf varieties. It’s apparent the area in this part of the orchard has had more soil conditioning, through the persistence of a range of taproots, than others.

Come summer, early 2012, and the understory had bloomed, now dominated by blooms of Phacelia, Queen Anne’s Lace and Yarrow and  and you cant hear yourself amongst the bees and other bugs, the beneficial insects have arrived.

Fast forward 12 months and the makeup of the understory was quite different, understories are a constantly evolving landscape.  The orchard was now dominated by the broadleaf species and Chicory. The soil, while dry from a long hot summer, was mellow and as dark as chocolate for at least 20 centimetres.  The soil has transformed and the trees were showing no signs of disease.  The citrus however were struggling showing signs of magnesium and nitrogen deficiency.  More compost mulch is added as is 1 teaspoon of Epsom salts to a bucket of water for every tree.  Whenever land a fish is landed from the harbour the carcass finds it way under the shallow roots of the citrus trees.  Despite the best attempts two of the four citrus are lost.  Comfrey plants sprouted from root cuttings have subsequently been planted in rings of 4-6 plants around every tree in the orchard.    

February 2013 – Broadleaf succession

In an attempt to add to the understory with flower species a technique pioneered by Masanobu Fukuoka is employed [see journal entry 4 on understory] to make seed balls. 

The seed balls were made from both bentonite clay and red clay, 5 parts clay to 1 part compost and a number of flower seeds were combined with cayenne pepper in the mix to prevent birds from eating the balls. The mixture was watered down until consistency pliable enough to roll the balls was achieved.  It took an afternoon to make a couple of hundred and then they were left in the sun to dry and harden.  The general concept is that the balls protect the seeds from predators, pests, the environment and then when rained on they begin to germinate.  This technique promises to germinate seeds without tilling the soil.

At the next gardening day the seed balls were into the orchard. I must admit it was hard to determine how effective these were over time.  In areas where grasses dominated I don’t think we had a good germination rate.  Though where there were areas where clover dominated or in the mulch layers around the trees they certainly did germinate well.  Our timing was also a little off deploying this technique at the height of summer and I’m sure we would have had a better strike rate perhaps twelve weeks earlier.

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March 2013 – Seed Balls to supplement the understory with flowers

Three years on and the fruit trees were developing well to the point where most were close to 3-4 metres tall and apart from ties for pruning no further supports or protection were needed.  The pruning regime involves a combination of single leader to multiple leader type so we have canopies forming at different levels.  Some damage from cicadas and split trunks, perhaps a potassium deficiency, were treated with a biodynamic tree paste made with some of the spare clay from our seed ball exercise [See journal entry 6 on Biodynamics]

Perennial crops were also planted, mostly berries, as part of the understory.  And a beneficial insect home made from old pallet timber. It had 3 spaces, one for bumblebees, one for spiders and bugs, and another for Wetas. 

For the first three seasons most of the developing fruit was removed on or trees so the trees could put their energy into establishing their root and trunk systems as opposed to producing fruit. In 2014 we decided to let some of the trees go to fruit.  An abundance of small plums were quickly consumed by both human and avian species.

January 2016 – An abundance of fruit supported by healthy trees

Early 2016 and everything is now in fruit.  We have thinned fruit in order to mitigate any stress on developing branches particularly with the Monty’s Surprise Apples, which are very large fruit. Plums that were small and abundant last year are now more substantial though less in quantity.  Some of the berry crops are in fruit now.  Overall we’re pleased with the health and vigour of our trees, apart from systemic peach leaf curl problem there are not other signs of disease, treated in the past with a fungal dominant aerated activated compost tea and some copper.  The understory has done it’s work and we are now mulling where to take that into the 2016/17 season. 

For me success is reflected in the comments of those who visit our garden. I remember a very knowledgeable biodynamic gardener who runs a local community support agriculture scheme, came to talk to the innermost team and unprovoked commented that he sensed a profound and positive energy transformation in the gardens following the orchard deployment.  It’s great to get that sort of feedback and now with an additional food forest development into the second season of implementation we are hoping to build on that unique inner city natural capital.

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If you’re keen to get involved with Innermost Gardens you can find out more here – http://www.innermostgardens.org.nz/