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Building resilience in a suburban food forest with Ellen Eskildsen

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Ellen Eskildsen

Published May 27 2023

In Aotearoa, 14% of the population is food insecure. In addition to climate change's fallouts impacting national food production and a cost of living that never stops increasing, now more than ever is the time to put our hands in the dirt. And individuals like Ellen Eskildsen can help us and inspire us. I met Ellen while studying for our Permaculture workshop certificate in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland. Ellen has been growing an extraordinary food forest for many years in her garden located in suburban St Johns. She is passionate about regenerative gardening and deeply knowledgeable on the subject. Ellen is also creative and resourceful, with a contagious positive energy. Walking through her food forest and edible garden is like crossing towards another world. Needless to say, we loved our visit earlier this year and wanted to share who she is, her story and her passion. Today, meet Ellen Eskildsen, the woman who built a food forest in the middle of the city.

Hello Ellen! Let's start by sharing a bit about yourself. What is your background, and where your passion for gardening comes from?

I grew up in "Small-town" NZ in the 70s and 80s. My parents were Dutch immigrants, and they taught me about growing your own food, sewing your clothes, mending, preserving, woodwork and creativity. As a teenager, I loved learning about herbs and their uses from a wise, old Dutch friend. The 90s were spent travelling the world. I WWOOF -ed my way across Canada, trekked up to Machu Picchu and camped in the Sumatran jungle. These travels left lasting impressions on the beauty of Earth's natural ecosystems.

Back in NZ, I became absorbed in family life and worked full-time in middle management in "Suburbia". However, we were lucky enough to end up on a third of an acre property (1400m2). It was a blank canvas - mainly Kikuyu grass and agapanthus. I planted a few fruit trees around the edge and left the lawn for children's football games and camping for a few years. My first plan was to grow a backyard orchard. But reading Kay Baxter's booklet "Design Your Own Forest Garden" was so enlightening for me.

Can you also briefly explain what a food forest is? What is the difference between an edible garden? When did you start growing your food forest in St John, and why?

The main difference between an orchard and a food forest is the intensive underplanting under the fruit trees, with several layers of edible plants, herbs and support plants. So my orchard started transitioning into a food forest about six years ago.

The joy the food forest gives me is difficult to describe. For a couple of years after having my eyes opened to the reality of how humankind is treating our planet, I suffered from intense "eco-anxiety", which culminated in seeking professional help. I think that the therapeutic and calming effect of growing, composting, sowing, harvesting, seed collecting, planning, looking after chickens etc, cannot be overestimated.

Can you expand on the day-to-day management of your food forest and what it requires? What are the challenges? How many hours a week for maintenance?

I try to spend at least 2 hours a day in the garden. For me, it is a labour of love. There is always a fruit tree to prune, a compost bin to empty, a path to clear or the vegetable garden to tend (I keep the veggie beds separate from the food forest).

I think the main challenges are irrigating when we have a long dry summer and keeping the trees to a manageable size. Luckily I enjoy pruning, and the forest garden can absorb the extra pruning.

Your food forest is split into different zones, depending on their orientation, soil and edible opportunities. Your garden is also imprinted with personality and aestheticism. What were your inspirations for that?

Many years ago, on my travels, I visited the beautiful Sissinghurst Castle Gardens in the UK. This English cottage-style garden is famous for its rooms, such as the White Garden, etc. I've always loved the idea of these separate zones and secret corners. Also, my garden has distinct microclimates, such as dry shade under a deck, warm and sunny next to a concrete driveway, potential flood zone at the far end, and sheltered courtyard. So when designing the forest garden guilds, I tried to keep these micro-climates in mind. I also love the Balinese style and Japanese gardens. Hence, the Zen-style garden and the pond area, which I created early on, before the food forest.

I spent a few years painting abstracts on canvas when I was in my artist phase. It inspired me to design the food forest with an artist's eye. So when I choose a plant or structure, one of the multi-functions for me is beauty. Therefore when I make pavers, trellis or a gate, I like to make them pop with a quirky touch or a hand-crafted look. Similarly, some of the plants I've chosen are mainly for their colour (hot pink Iresine) or texture (soft grey lamb's ear). Outsized pots, odd-shaped tree stumps and wire sculptures add a bit of drama.

Please share with our readers some prerequisites you think are required to start your own edible garden or food forest. Also, what do you wish you had known at the beginning? Did you have any mentors, people or groups to ask for advice?

I would start small and slow. For instance, in between two fruit trees, create a simple herbal ley, and there you have your first guild. My food forest grew organically from a series of garden beds which slowly grew over the years until they joined. You need to gain a bit of confidence with managing/pruning fruit trees. But trees are very forgiving, and there are lots of great youtube pruning tutorials—that's how I learnt. I also like to learn skills at pruning workshops (e.g. with Judy Keats at Kelmarna Gardens). I planted and then killed several avocado trees by planting in a hole in my clay soil. Then I attended a fruit tree workshop by Derek Craig. I promptly planted my next avocado tree on a raised mound, and "voila", success!

"the best thing you can give your garden is your own shadow"

We often hear about people who want to kick off an edible garden but abandon it after a while for diverse reasons. One of the main drivers is the time and personal resources required to make a garden productive. Do you have any advice or motivating critical elements for people to keep going? The tips that helped you.

I like the quote, "the best thing you can give your garden is your own shadow". I walk around my paths daily, observing, noting, and planning. My forest garden is a living ecosystem, a small Gaia, constantly evolving. I have seats, so I can sit, meditate, listen, be grounded and mindful. Enjoy the different moods of your garden, e.g. the Golden hour or at sunrise, just after a rain shower, under a full moon. These moments are magical.

Do you think growing our food is essential, in terms of personal food production, but also as a skill?

I think growing our own food is such an important skill. We've done it for millennia. It's only recently in human history that most people no longer grow their own food. Even though the urbanisation of society is called "progress", it has been to our detriment that most of us no longer have access to a garden or know where our food comes from.

In your opinion, what else should be done for people to achieve better resilience regarding food security and climate change mitigation?

It is hard to believe that we can ever achieve it because of corporate greed, vested interests and the nature of humans—especially those "in charge", always wanting more at the expense of others. However, there does seem to be more awareness amongst young people which is positive. There is increasing action happening at community levels, such as OMG market garden in the city, māra kai being created by local iwis and more interest in regenerative horticulture. So hopefully, change will happen from the ground upwards.

Two months ago, you were rewarded by the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand trust, Pūrerehua Aotearoa, for creating a safe habitat for butterflies and moths. Can you explain why this is important work and why it is beneficial?

The award for Native Moth and Butterfly Habitat is important to me because it can be so easy to overlook the roles some seemingly insignificant insects, like moths, play. Even at night, when the moths come out, there are lots of unseen interactions going on in the garden—this is all knowledge I share at the workshops I hold in the food forest.

Do you have other passions outside of gardening?

I enjoy woodworking. I build all my fences, trellises, gates, retaining walls, coops and hutches. My current project is creating many eclectic, quirky bird boxes out of recycled pallet wood and leftover paint. I sell them as fast as I make them. I also enjoy volunteering weekly at the nearby Ngati Whatua Orakei plant nursery.

To wrap up, tell us what your plans are for this year. Do you have more education programs and consulting for the coming months?

I recently attended the Earthworkers Regenerative Horticulture workshop at OMG, which gave me so much knowledge to pass on in my workshops. So I plan to expand the range of workshops at St Johns' Food Forest. I also plan to run more workshops in conjunction with Selwyn Community Education and develop my Edible Garden Design business more this year.

If you’d like to connect with Ellen and learn more about her workshops, you can reach her through her website or her Instagram.

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