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Food Forests, Part 2: Looking for Clues

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As people become urbanised, they start looking at the world in urban ways. What does that car or house say about that person? How does that person’s occupation affect their social standing? People may not admit it, but they understand the answers to these questions intuitively. As permaculturalists, we need to apply these same observational skills to our permacultural adventures.

These observational skills are important for permaculture because they allow you to read a landscape. No two pieces of land are ever the same! Whether that land is in an urban area or a rural area you can gather a huge amount of information as to its suitability for your next permaculture project simply by observation over a period of time. These skills will also allow you to identify ways to adapt your land to your particular purpose.

Reading a landscape is an observational skill so I have decided to take you on a virtual tour of the mountain range that I live in and tell you what I see in the different spots that we stop off at. I will highlight things at each location that I have learned on my food forest permaculture journey, and that I hope to impart to you the reader. I hope you enjoy the tour!

As a bit of general background before we start the tour, the Macedon Ranges are an hour north of Melbourne, which is the capital city of Victoria, Australia. The ranges are an extinct volcanic massif (a group of connected mountains) which rise above the surrounding elevated plains. The highest point in the range is 1,015m (3,330 feet) above sea level (ASL), whilst the elevated plains at the bottom of the range are around 450m (1,476 feet) ASL. The massif itself is about 25km (15.5 miles) from end to end.

In global terms, it is a pretty small mountain range, but it is full of different micro-climates. In addition to this, the climate itself is very variable. For example, rainfall can vary from between 500mm (19.6 inches) in a drought year to 1,400mm (55.1 inches) in a very wet year. In the past seven years, I have seen both.

The prevailing winds affecting the mountain range generally travel from the West to the East. When they originate in the North West (which is the centre of the Australian continent), they are warm to hot and very low in humidity. When they originate in the South West (which is from the ocean to the South of the continent all the way down to Antarctica), they are cool to cold and are very high in humidity.

Enough of the background, let’s get on with the tour (for the northern hemisphere readers please change references from South to North and North to South). Refer to the map (top) for each location in the mountain range.

Location 1 – 700m ASL

The land slopes gently downhill to the South. You can see in the photo that the forest, whilst being relatively open, is quite tall and straight. The over-storey trees have a reasonable diameter too. These are an indicator of deep soils and good water availability in the landscape. However, given the openness of the forest and the orange-brown coloured soils, you can also tell that whilst the volcanic loam is quite high in minerals, it is at the same time very low in organic matter.

Being only a gentle slope, rainfall has a chance to infiltrate the soil. Farm dams at this point in the mountain range also drain quickly, exactly like a swale. This is an indicator that the soil is very well drained (i.e. a loam) and most water is held below the surface – even in the local creeks, which run only after rainfall. Most of the local earthmoving contractors no longer accept jobs to build dams in this area, although there are a couple of shonky contractors who will.

This area is suitable for growing a wide range of trees because of the good drainage, however as the soil is low in organic matter, it must be brought in or generated on site.

Location 2 – 750m ASL

The land slopes gently downhill to the East. Facing East means that this land receives mostly morning sunlight which is much cooler than the hot afternoon sunlight (from the West) and as a consequence there is very little loss of water through evaporation. You can see that the over-story trees are very tall and very straight. There is also a dense under-story of trees and shrubs. This tells a story about deep rich soils and lots of water.

The soils here are also a volcanic loam, but because there is so much more vegetation with higher levels of diversity than the previous location, those soils contain a lot more organic matter.

This location is very high in the mountain range too, but has the bulk of the mountain range between it and the prevailing winds. As such it is sheltered from the worst of the winds. Strong winds have two adverse effects on a landscape: The tops of tall trees get blown off; and the wind results in higher rates of evaporation.

This area would be perfect for growing trees that like high levels of soil moisture. Apples and pears come to mind.

Location 3 – 600m ASL

The land here slopes down to the East. You’ll also notice that the photos of this location includes a reservoir for drinking water. Having the ability to hold water above ground is an indicator that the soil contains high levels of clay. The soil in the photo has a more yellow colour than previous soil photos which indicates a lower mineral content than the previous photos of volcanic loams.

The trees in the photos are also much shorter, less straight and tend to have spreading canopies. This is indicative of shallow soils.

Just like the reservoir, there are farm dams here, which means that this location is suitable for animal grazing (horses in particular) and you can see paddocks in the photos for this purpose.

Location 4 – 600m ASL

The land at this location slopes down to the North East and is in a valley in this range. A creek runs down the middle of the valley, whilst several other creeks also feed into this valley, originating from higher up in the mountain range.

The aspect of the land to the North East means that this area receives useful sunlight for the majority of the year.

The soils are volcanic loam but are also high in organic matter which has washed down from higher up in the mountain range over time. You can see in the photo that the soil has a darker colour.

The downside of this area is that, being in a valley, there is a certainty of frosts. Cold air always moves downwards from higher up in the range until it becomes trapped — usually in the bottom of a valley (or river/creek). Frosts usually occur during winter and spring. It can be counter intuitive, but it is actually warmer at higher elevations in amongst the trees during a frost than at the bottom of a valley in an open paddock!

However, the combination of fertile soils, water availability and year round sunlight means that this area is prime agricultural land for a variety of purposes including cattle fattening. In past times, potatoes and berries have also been grown here.

Location 5 – 850m ASL

The land here slopes down towards the North. As such, the land receives excellent sunlight for the entire year and the high elevation ensures good rainfall.

The dominant trees in this location are the long lived broadleaf acacia’s (acacia melanoxylon, which are leguminous) and also a large number of exotic species. This indicates that the soil will have both high mineral and organic content. There are no farm dams in this area which is an indicator that the soils are also very well drained.

At this elevation, some snow can be received over winter which may be a problem for cold sensitive plants, although the snow would rarely settle for more than a few hours to a day at most.

The agricultural pursuits at this location include: cattle; potatoes; chestnuts and grapes. The chestnut trees and vines are deciduous which negates the impact of the few snowfalls received during the year.

Location 6 – 950m ASL

This location is on the top of the main ridge of the mountain range and has a very high elevation. The first thing you notice is that it is windy and that there is little protection from the wind.

The second thing you notice is that the forest is very uniform in age and growth. By this I mean that the over-story trees (mountain ash) and the under-story trees (black and silver wattles) are all about the same height and age. This is an indicator of extreme disturbance in a forest (logging or wildfire). In February 1983, 295km2 (114 square miles) of forest around this area was burnt, along with 628 buildings and the loss of 7 lives. This was the ‘Ash Wednesday’ fires. What you see in the photos is regrowth from that time as the fire in 1983 favoured the germination of the mountain ash forest which is growing today.

It is quite a harsh environment at this location, thanks to constant exposure to drying wind and sun, and there are no attempts at agriculture. However, on the southern, more protected, side of this ridge there are extensive plantings of the exotic Douglas Fir trees which are harvested in small quantities at irregular intervals. This is one of the few locations in Australia for this particular timber species and as an interesting side note this species has naturalised as well as exotic maples in this mountain range and the seedlings can be found popping up in all sorts of unexpected locations.

Location 7 – 850m ASL

The gold rush in Victoria from the 1850s, along with the exploitation of the local grass lands in raising vast herds of sheep for fleece, produced great wealth. Some of those wealthy families chose to spend their wealth building hill stations and ornamental English style gardens in the cool climate of the south west edge of this mountain range. The purpose of a hill station was so that a wealthy family could avoid the heat and disease of a typical Melbourne summer at the time. With no sewerage facilities in Melbourne back then, cholera and typhoid were rampant and the people also believed that disease was carried in the air itself, hence the preference for higher elevation in their summer retreats.

The land slopes away to the South East so it receives little direct sun even during summer which allowed the residents and gardeners to plant trees of European origins and the area has some of the oldest and tallest examples of these specimens in Australia.

There are two creeks which run through this area, however being loam soil water is only stored above ground in constructed dams and ponds of which there are many.

It is sometimes steep at this point in the mountain range so there are no agricultural activities, but it is worth noting that many of the historic hill stations have areas set aside for market gardens, orchards, berries and chickens just like any small holding.

Location 8 – 600m ASL

This location is elevated, about midway through the mountain range towards the Southern end. It has the unfortunate luck of facing West which means that over summer the area receives the hot afternoon sunlight. Evaporation at this point in the mountain range is very high and the soils are poor as a result.

The photos show that the trees are low, twisted and the canopy is quite open. There is very little undergrowth and the soil is exposed to the sun. Another indicator of a dry forest environment is the presence of the Australian grass trees. These grass trees are very slow growing and the examples here in the photo could easily be hundreds of years old. They are very hardy and only flower after fire and are indicative that conditions have not changed here for many years. There are no agricultural activities on this west facing land.

Lessons that I have learned

  • Disturbance (Fires / Logging) are indicated by uniformity of forest age and growth
  • Water in the landscape / rainfall indicated by creeks and visible water storage facilities
  • Good drainage capacity of soil indicated by the absence of farm dams
  • Prevailing winds impact on the evaporation of water and the growth of trees
  • Depth of soils / organic matter in the soils indicated by vegetation height / diameter / canopy spread and the colour of the soil
  • Aspect of the land to the sun N – E – S – W and its impact on evaporation rates
  • Frosts are a risk in a valley or in and around creeks and rivers
  • The sorts of animals being grazed is usually indicative of the quality of soil (e.g. cattle fattening usually indicates good soil)
  • History of land use – the current land use is probably indicative of potential future land use.


I hope that you have enjoyed the virtual tour of my local mountain range.

Observational skills are the vital first step in your permaculture journey. As you can see above, not every location can be adapted to any permaculture or agricultural activity. Just imagine trying to rear ducks and geese in location 1 with the farm dam rapidly draining after having spent thousands of dollars on excavating that dam in the first place. All you’d be left with are some very grumpy and thirsty ducks and geese! The best advice I can give you is to look, consider, learn and apply.

Stay tuned for Part III….


  1. Chris, great article! Oddly enough thorough observation and landscape reading is the skill/step most lacking in permaculturists I meet. We need more articles like this to emphasize the importance of arriving at design solutions instead of imposing them. Good work!

  2. Great one Chris – like Jason, I find that careful observation and landscape reading is a sorely lacking in permie thinking.

    We need to be spending way more time knowing and connecting to our land.

    Would be great to have more people doing this from lots of different bio-regions.

    Look forward to part III.

  3. Thanks Chris, enjoyed the reference to exotic species that fit comfortably into a particular niche of the mountain landscape. It reminds my of how easy it is to slip into viewing exotics as something to get rid of.

    I’m battling what’s known as nut grass in my fledgling food forest in the north coast of NSW at the moment, but I found it breaks up the clay beneath the topsoil and the kangaroos and wallabies seem to love it. So I’m learning to appreciate its upsides.

  4. Thankyou for a wonderfully interesting tour of an area I remember from childhood. Such a great skill to read the landscape after taking the time to really look at it. This is a skill for all of us to develop not just permies.

  5. Hi! Thanks for the comments.

    7 years ago I was thinking about setting up various animal systems here, but after observing the place for so long, I realise I just couldn’t provide them with water necessary for their survival as the above ground dams drain away quicker than a swale.

    Then, a few years ago, after more observation, I realised that I actually had animal systems. The native animals: kangaroo’s, wallabies, wombats etc. act in the role of the farm animals here, it just didn’t look like I thought it would, but they all play their part!

    Without the observation, those native animals would have been shut out.

    Onto part 3 – soil.


  6. Great to see your instructive and practical walk n Talk through actual woodlands. I am a hort scientist, my husband a Cooperative extension forester .. who also studied soil fertility has taught me how very different soils affect the woodland and potential farm ecosystems…. and how trees species can indicate the soil type… a point not really emphasized in my old formal training. Great to see you doing this in Australia.. It is so critical in any system …. now, as a fellow follower of the Archdruid… i pick your location nearest to area 7. I hope i win,,, if I do , let me know! Will losers be notified? ;)

  7. Interesting post, I like seeing the photos of environments halfway around the world from myself. One thing I’ve noted form reading David Holmgren is that there are more fast growing trees in (at least some parts of” Australia than there are in Missouri, USA where I live. It’s hard to get the perspective of exactly how tall the trees in your photos are, but those trees in location 6 that date to the 1983 fire look taller than any tree that young in my area would be. I especially love the look of the forest in location 2, I am partial to tall trees and lushness. The woods in my area tend more toward the forms of your location 3, although with very different species.

    I’ll take a shot at guessing which is closest to where you live. My guess is location 1, going from the few clues you’ve given in the comments on JMG’s blog.

  8. Very similar to the Mount Dandenong Ridge where I live. The west side facing Melbourne is dry sclerophyll forest baked in the hot western sun, subject to frequent fires (aided by idiots with matches). Pop over the ridge and down a little, where we are in Mt D, and it is classic temperate rainforest, and has never burnt. Surrounded by mountain ash and blackwood, it’s tough to grow much though. Deep fern gullies, a distinctive range of sub-systems, and fauna, across the Ridge and down the sides. Hills are complex.

  9. Hi all. Thanks for the comments.

    Hi Andrea. Exotics are such an important part of the food forest here and it’s fascinating observing their spread throughout the range. I don’t worry about them as it is pretty unlikely they’ll ever take over and they add to the overall diversity and resilience.

    Hi Betsy. You two have some awesome skills between you. Forestry and hort science would have to equal a great garden / forest!

    Hi Ozark. Most observant, well done. The tall trees in location 6 are eucalyptus regnans (mountain ash) and can potentially grow to 100m+. They’re the tallest flowering plants in the world and they’ll live for many hundreds of years although they encourage wildfires with long ribbons of bark hanging down their trunk. The one’s at this location are about 30m as they’re only young. The forest at location 2 is a fave of mine too – although the citrus trees wouldn’t like it at all and the solar power would be a bit sad. The over storey trees there are eucalyptus obliqua (messmate) and they can grow to about 90m+. The specimens here are in excess of 50m+. Some trees of this type escaped the loggers and pre-date European settlement. They’re massive! Location 3 is actually a good place to farm animals, I’d love to see a photo.

    Hi Brian – Spot on. The Mt Dandenong range is a beautiful spot and although it is several hundred metres lower than here, it captures far more moisture laden southerly winds. Good point, hills are very complex. Given that you are only about 80km south of me, it’s amazing the difference that that can make.

  10. Coming from an area where a tree 100 feet (around 30m) tall is considered quite a tall tree, the heights of yours are impressive. At 30 years old, even our fastest growing trees would be lucky to be half that height. Are trees that tall commons to the wetter parts of Australia? Also, I’m wondering whether your trees down there tend to grow in a short burst in the spring or over the entire season? Where I’m at, most of the native trees do all their growing for the year in a short burst in the spring, often over just a month’s time starting from when they leaf out (our forests are deciduous, except for some stands of cedars and pines). A few of our trees will keep on growing more into the summer if there’s enough rain, but most of them grow chiefly in the spring.

    P.S. Did you know that there’s another mountain ash, a totally unrelated tree to yours, in North America and Europe. There are several species in the genus Sorbus. They are small trees, and like cold climates. It’s too hot in Missouri for them, but I’ve lived farther north in the past where they grow.

  11. Thank you for your observations on soil. Hadn’t thought about tree height to soil depth and quality. Here in the U.S. Pacific Northwest even the short trees seem pretty tall, but some areas support true giants. Probably those areas have deeper, richer soils.
    I enjoyed reading about Douglas Firs as an exotic species. They’re as common as ants here. Every spring I have to pull up handfuls of volunteer doug firs and big leaf maples to keep them from crowding out my garden plants and fruit trees.

  12. Hi Ozark – The native trees are particularly tall on the south east and south west coasts of the continent + Tasmania (particularly Tasmania). If you head north on the east coast, you get plenty of rain but extreme wind events tend to knock the tops off trees in regular massive natural pruning events. Growth tends to be a year round thing depending on available moisture on the mainland. During dry years, the trees drop limbs and leaves which can be pretty interesting if you live near them! Day time temperatures here over winter can get down occasionally to about 0 degrees celsius, but the ground doesn’t freeze. I have many citrus plants outside and after the first winter or two they get pretty hardy. Very few of the local native species are deciduous (only three that I know of – a beech and white and red cedar) and nothing that grows naturally around here. Snow gums will keep their leaves at elevations of upto 1,800m above sea level where they can be snowed in for weeks. Eucalypts and Acacias are some of the great adapters and survivors in the plant world and they both grow at very fast rates and will hybridise in only a generation or three. I’ve seen stands of them in strange parts of the world and I wonder how they’ll look in the future and whether it was a good thing to introduce them because of the bush fire risk.

    Hi Sue – Thanks. The tallest trees always grow in protected areas like gullies too. In the Otway forest (SW of me) someone back in the 1930’s planted a grove of Californian redwoods along the side of a creek in a protected gully. They are huge now! It’s a surreal experience walking amongst them.

  13. Hi Chris,
    It’s so nice to see your beautiful landscape. I see why you love it. I notice your lessons learned seem fairly universal and are similar to what I have learned here in mostly flat Illinois. I hadn’t thought about tree height indicating soil composition before.

    In my watershed where there was prairie, the silt clay loam is black, deep and fertile. Yet in the riparian woods and bottomlands along the river, because of runoff and leaching, the soil is yellow clay. Back a bit from the river, there’s a heavy layer of duff, mainly oak leaves. Nearly everywhere there is lots of organic matter and lots of water. Before there were sewers people dug ditches to drain the soil. Drainage tiles are extensively used. Rain gardens and bioswales are now increasing in popularity.

    You have mild winters compared to here (except this year!) You get down to 0 Celsius. We average about -2 C in midwinter days but often approach -10 C or even -18C nights (and during fifteen or so days). We average 35-40 inches of precipitation, including our often abundant snowfall, though the last couple of years have been wetter.

    Sorry to go on, but, as I mentioned at ADR you are helping learn about places on the other side of the world, where I may never go.

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