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Letters from New Zealand – a Permaculture Food Forest in the Far South

The home of Robert and Robyn Guyton stands amidst an abundance of food
All photos © PRI

Robyn Guyton stands in the Zone 5 area of her food forest

Riverton is a quaint little windswept fishing settlement on the far-south coastline of New Zealand’s beautiful South Island (map). As well as being one of the southernmost inhabited towns in the world, and one of New Zealand’s oldest European settlements, Riverton has another, more relevant, claim to fame — that of hosting one of the best food forests I’ve ever seen! With this post, and the video included, I want to give you a bit of a look at this temperate climate, biological cornucopia.

Watch the videos!

Riverton, New Zealand

Looking eastwards over windswept Riverton

I use the words ‘temperate climate’ here a little loosely. This particular food forest is located on the 46th parallel south. The northern inverse of this (i.e. the 46th parallel north), puts you in the frigid Great Lakes region, and the border states of southern Canada and the northern U.S. of A. — definite cold climate territory. Being surrounded by the tempering effects of the southern Pacific Ocean, however, Riverton is excused from those kind of extreme cold temperatures — although this is not to say that it is totally excused. The southern New Zealand coastline is regularly battered by the biting — sometimes downright ornery — southerly winds that come up from Antarctica…. Creating a food forest in this part of the world has its own challenges, and not a few benefits, as we shall see.

The supply line for the kitchen is very short…

It was twenty years ago when the Guytons moved onto their two acre property. Tough gorse, broom and coxfoot grass were the only plant species that had volunteered in the poor soil and in the face of the bitter winds the property endured. Robert and Robyn set to manually clearing the land, replacing those unpopular pioneers with fruit trees and other plants. Many of the conventional varieties and modern hybrids they planted took exception to this environment, and didn’t survive, but after discovering heritage European varieties in old orchards around the area, they met with more success.

The Guytons were not content to just keep their emerging food forest to themselves. They soon set about creating an "Open Orchard Project" with the purpose of sharing and circulating seed from the valuable heritage fruit tree varieties they were gaining experience with. Through Robert’s regular magazine and newspaper articles, this project quickly attracted a lot of interest and enthusiasm.

Today their work has created something of a South Island counterpart to the North Island’s seed-saving Koanga Institute.

Robert shows me some of the seed store held at the Environment Centre —
seeds from the Southland Seedsavers network’s bank of seeds, which
the Guytons are members of.

At that time in New Zealand, tax-payer funding was providing school children with fresh fruits — like apples and oranges — from supermarket chains. The Guytons saw a vision of these schools providing their own organically produced fruit instead, and so began another arm of their work. Several schools in the area now have their own climate-appropriate heritage fruit trees.

Not long after, after seeing Bill Mollison’s Global Gardener TV series, they were inspired towards a design approach and maximising diversity. The human-managed succession that ensued transformed their section, bringing life, diversity and abundance. Today, when the Guytons step out of their front door, rather than defending themselves from a biting southerly wind, they stand in a sheltered, sun-soaked microclimate that is the envy of the many people of the area who come to learn and be inspired.

In 1988 Robert and Robyn started an organic gardening group. Out of a population of only 1000 people, already 57 came to the first meeting, and it’s grown steadily since. And for the last several years the Guyton’s have been the backbone of the not-for-profit Environment Centre that is well-positioned on the town’s main street. This centre (run by volunteers and sometimes receiving government grants due to its wide educational role in the community) provides educational resources, seed, and healthy, chemical-free food and is the organisational hub for many ecological offshoot projects for the region.

I very much enjoyed talking to the like-minded Guytons, and have great respect for the historically appropriate community work they’ve undertaken. Both Robert and Robyn were teachers, but for the last few years Robert has taken his political enthusiasm and focussed it into his new role as a regional councilor. Robert — sometimes referred to as "Mr. Nature Man" in political circles — also tried at one time to become a Member of Parliament represending New Zealand’s Green Party. The town of Riverton is lucky to have the Guytons’ influence on local policies. Indeed, today Riverton could be described as somewhat of an eco-town.

The Guytons and other community members were preparing for an autumn
harvest festival for the area, an age-old tradition I hope we’ll see in resurgence
everywhere over the coming years.

"We live on the exposed south coast of the South Island of New Zealand and feel the bite of the chilly winds that blow in from the sub-antarctic ocean. Our forest-garden is shaped by the need for shelter from those conditions. Our canopy needs to be open, in order that our food crops can receive enough sunlight to be productive. The windward edges of our forest have to be tight and pliant in order to survive long-term and consist of coastal native species that are salt-resistant. We’ve planted our shelter belts in ‘waves’ across the property, rather than in a single tall edge. Our nearness to the ocean means we are mostly frost-free, in contrast to the rest of our region, so we enjoy an advantage there. The freshness of the winds also mean we have few pest insects. Our rainfall is sufficient such that we don’t need to create swales. ‘Maritime’ plants such as seabeet, asparagus and sea-rocket do especially well here. Our northerly aspect and complete protection from the winds from our leathery-leafed shelter plantings mean we are warmer than anywhere else along the south coast. This means we can grow fruits such as figs and feijoa which are generally found further north." — Robert Guyton

I only had a few hours with the Guytons, but would loved to have stayed longer, not least because their food forest — with over 460 recorded plant species (Excel doc) — is such a pleasant place to explore. It was in this developing Garden of Eden that the Guytons raised their three children. What an environment to grow up in! It should be regarded as the birthright of every child on the planet — and I can only imagine how different the world would be today, and how eco-literate would be its citizens, if this was the norm. Unusually, all three of the Guyton’s children were Dux students (an educational achievement similar to the United States’ ‘valedictorian’). I’m sure the diverse garden, and the whole-systems thinking one can gain from it, is implicated in this success. Today the Guyton’s children are all outspoken and active on the ecological front.

Robert and Robyn, vegetarians, have been able to reduce their family’s grocery (and medical) bills to a bare minimum. They estimate that their food forest supplies no less than 60% of what they eat — the main purchased items being grains. And since the Guytons have been putting a lot of time and effort into education, rather than focussing on production — taking in WWOOFers from around the world, for example — they believe with a more focussed effort they could raise that figure to closer to 100% in a short time. Now that their children have grown up and flown the coop, this is their next goal.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing I take from visiting sites like this is the realisation of how fast we could turn this world upside-down. If two acres of land can go from such a bleak and depleted state to such abundance in just a decade and a half, imagine what we could see if our permaculture educational efforts could gain that much needed critical mass. A society that reconsidered its consumer trajectory, and which reprioritised its goals, could quickly bring socio-economic stability whilst simultaneously restoring health to our biosphere.

At the time of my visit to this site, New Zealand was in the grip of a severe and widespread drought. While New Zealand’s PR wizards continue to secure tourist dollars by promoting a "Clean, Green" image, some areas had been declared disaster areas, and tax-payers were footing the bill to keep many farmers afloat, and their livestock alive. Flying over the island nation I was shocked by the dry, brown landscape before me. But, travelling the country, it was clear that the New Zealand farming system, one focussed on short-term profits, is due a rigorous overhaul. As it is across much of the ‘developed’ world, farmers in New Zealand are unwittingly undermining the country’s entire hydrological cycle, with an agricultural approach born of a linear factory-floor mindset. The example the Guytons have put before the nation, and the world, is one that gives tantalising promise of a future of health and productive, cooperative purpose. It’s clear that this kind of systemic health is entirely within reach, everywhere. The Guytons’ example is one that should not be ignored.


  1. Hi Craig, I very much enjoyed the article, photos and videos. What a beautiful place and beautiful people.
    I had to laugh at the elders’ comments and applaud the Guyton’s courage to do things differently and follow their convictions.
    Their climate is quite similar to ours (though we get more frost and less sun here in the West of Ireland, 53N) and their choice of species and even cultivars is familiar (e.g. Golden Hornet crabapple for pollination and crabapple jelly). Same goes for challenges such as protecting apple crops from birds or temperamental cropping behaviour in pears! I’d never heard of Feijoa (Acca sellowiana)and will give it try if I can get my little paws on some seeds or cuttings :)
    Thank you for sharing your photos and thoughts.

  2. Thanks for the great article and even a plant list!
    What a great peace of work. Hope we will be able to contribute with an article ourselves about Food Forest Ketelbroek. Eventhough it is only 3 years old I believe it would be of great value to share it with you.

  3. Good one, well done, have you won over Mrs Quirk yet…..Who was the chap with the brown beard and glasses, and not grey hair in sight, was that Adam!!!!! Old pics and movies are good value eh!! Must come up for a look again…and share a green tea….

  4. Thank you everyone for commenting. It was great to meet the Guytons and soak in their environment and enthusiasm. I’m glad I could share a little of it with you all.

  5. I can honestly say that I envy you so much. If there is heaven, and I am sure there is, this is what it must look like. Lucky you!

  6. Fantastic work and garden you have out there! I will certainly try to visit you when I am in New Zealand! Greetings from Singapore!

  7. Wonderful & informative article and inspirational whilst being grounded in beauty & vision to create a better world.

  8. Mum heard you speak on the radio about a month ago about a plant good for chest infections. Would you pls tell me the name of it?

  9. Respect! Robert and Robyn Guyton chose Riverton as their home 30 years ago and have been active ever since in transforming the village into one that is rich in resources that serve the health and well-being of the locals.

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