Clockwise: Acacia rubida by Donald Hobern; Callistemon citrinus by JJ Harrison; Prostanthera rotundifolia by Chris Clarke; Westringia fruticosa by Danielle Langlois; Grevillea rosmarinifolia by JJ Harrison
Well-designed food forests and forest gardens are a versatile food production solution that, in addition to producing food, are able to provide for a wide range of animals and fungi that create the connections between the plants in our garden.
As well as being focused on food for the people who are involved in the project, the plants that are selected for a food forest garden need to provide food and habitat for beneficial birds, insects and other animals. Without these supporting elements, these creatures will not inhabit a forest garden and instead of a designed plant community that mimics the patterns and processes of a natural ecosystem, there will simply be a collection of plants.
While there is a wealth of information about the plants that can be grown to produce a fruit or food yield for people, there is much less available about the support plants to incorporate into a food forest garden. The books that are available on the subject generally feature species from the northern hemisphere, and it can be difficult to understand where Australian species fit in.
Australian native plants are worth including in forest gardens anywhere in the world. The flora of Australia has evolved to support a huge range of insects and birds, and Australian ecosystems are some of the most productive in terms of flowers containing nectar and pollen.
The selection of plants below will help you to select native plant species to support your fruit trees and aid in the creation of highly diverse model ecosystems. The family for each has been provided as this often provides a guide to plant function, needs and products.
Wattles – Acacia species (family Fabaceae)
Wattles are perfect plants for a forest garden. There is a huge variety of species, and yields include pollen, habitat, microclimates, firewood, timber and mulch. These plants are legumes and fix nitrogen in the soil, making it easier for all plants to grow. Choose a few species that are well suited to your area, or from an area that is slightly drier than your climate as this can reduce water competition. Acacias fit really well into early succession environments, but will need to be cut back and managed as the forest garden matures. Some excellent choices include Acacia floribunda, A. howittii (sticky wattle) and A. rubida (red-stemmed wattle).
Bottlebrushes – Callistemon species (family Myrtaceae)
Bottlebrushes are beautiful and excellent support plants for a forest garden. Their long, colourful flower spikes provide an aesthetic quality to the garden, as well as good food and habitat for native birds and insects. The leaves are often aromatic which can assist in pest control, and their dense, shrubby foliage is perfect for birds to live in. Species are available that grow either as shrubs or larger trees, so bottlebrushes make great living fences, hedges or windbreaks for fruit trees. Excellent species for a forest garden include Callistemon citrinus, C. subulatus and C. viminalis.
Mint bushes – Prostanthera species (family Lamiaceae)
Prostantheras are in the mint family, with deliciously aromatic foliage, and provide flowers which are perfect for beneficial insects, and essential oils which assist in pest control. Their dense foliage also provides good habitat for beneficial birds. Any mint bush will fit well in a forest garden. Nurseries often stock species including Prostanthera ovalifolia and P. rotundifolia.
Grevillea species (family Proteaceae)
Grevilleas provide beautiful, large birdattracting flowers which were also traditionally used by humans as a source of sweet nectar. Additionally, plants in the Proteaceae family have special roots for obtaining phosphorus from the soil, and then recycle this nutrient when the leaves or branches are mulched. Grevilleas are versatile, but the best for food forest gardens are spiky shrubs such as Grevillia juniperina and G. rosmarinifolia which have abundant flowers, and provide great habitat for insect eating birds. There is also a range of ground covers which look great and add structural diversity to the garden, including cultivars such as Grevillea lanigera ‘Mt Tamboritha’ and G. ‘Raptor’, and the prostrate form of Grevillea juniperina.
Westringia species (family Lamiaceae)
Westringias are extremely hardy native shrubs. Being from the mint family, their flowers are perfect for providing food for beneficial insects. It is important in a forest garden that there are flowers and food available for these insects and all pollinators throughout the year, and some westringias have abundant flowers year round. My favourite is Westringia fruticosa (coastal rosemary) because of its hardiness and purple or white flowers. Other excellent species include Westringia glabra and W. longifolia.
Dan Harris-Pascal runs Seed Head Design, a design business specialising in food forest gardens, ecological design and education. He has designed and implemented food forest gardens around Australia and in South America. For an overview of forest gardening check out his recent Tedx talk. He is currently working on a book on forest ardens in Australia.