The naturalised ecology of Darebin Creek

While in Melbourne last year I had an opportunity to participate in a morning of tree planting, and found my eyes being opened to a whole new way of seeing and being.
The tree planting took place on the banks of Darebin Creek, an ideal site for a productive ecosystem. The creek banks had rich black soil, as a result of organic matter being washed down the creek. I’ve heard that creek banks in urban areas are now too nutrient rich to support native plants, so are more suitable for exotics with high nutrient requirements. The site was already home to a variety of self-sown useful plants.
A few fruit trees and herbs had been collected in the preceding weeks (apple, quince, elder, currant, mint, yarrow) all from suckers and cuttings gathered on public land and from friends’ gardens.
A small group who shared in the vision of urban food forests came along to help out. They arrived by bicycle and planted the trees and herbs. The plants were mulched with cardboard and dry grass that had been washed down the creek in the last flood. Some tree guards were found dumped nearby, and put to good use. The quality of the soil meant that there was no need to fertilise, and given the microclimate of the creek bank and the coming winter rains, the plants would not need watering. So after a couple of hours work we could leave the site knowing that the plants we had put in would not need any further attention, and in a couple of years time there would be fruit to be discovered and enjoyed by people passing by.
In the years to come, more plants will be added, the plantings will continue up and down the creek, and the area will become known as a community food forest.

This activity gave me a whole new understanding of the essence of permaculture – if we plant a tree in a location that it will naturally thrive, and create an ecology in which succession and interaction are optimised to benefit all elements of the system, then we need never do any work at all.
Another insight I gained from the morning’s activity is that there is so much unused land in our cities (creek banks, the edge of railway lines, road verges, nature strips and rarely-visited corners of parks) that no-one in the city ever needs to feel limited in their ability to produce food. Fruit and nut trees require little maintenance, can integrate into the existing city ecology, and can be taken care of by nearby residents.
And there is so much food already growing on all this apparently empty land, but the majority of us would never recognise it. Chickweed, nettle, plantain, good king henry, purslane, fat hen, marshmallow, black nightshade, cape gooseberry… and no doubt there are hundreds more I haven’t learnt about yet. These nutritious plants are under our feet everywhere we walk in the city. I’ve concluded that the reason we don’t value them as food is that they are not a commodity, and in our culture dominated by economic considerations, anything that is not being sold to us is not given any value.
In times past when people recognised these plants and spent more time outdoors, they would have picked and munched on them as they went about their day, getting large amounts of nutrients from small amounts of food. The reason there is so much obesity and malnutrition in the developed world is that our bodies are craving nutrients that are absent from the processed foods that form the bulk of our diet, while we actively destroy these ‘weeds’…
Which shows how much work we do that isn’t useful, and how little we value anything that hasn’t required someone to do lots of work.
There’s so much to be learnt from the trees and weeds.
Food for thought, food for the future.

planting on the banks of Darebin Creek

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