Foraging the Food Forest

G: After our solid three-week tour of the North and South Islands, it was time to rest our bones and give back to New ZeaLAND for a while. We wanted to go somewhere remote and live with the locals for our last WWOOFing experience. It was to be the longest we would stay in one place out of our entire year of travel; three-and-a-half weeks.

Our host, Robert Guyton, picked us up in Invercargill, 40km east of the tiny town of Riverton. Thirty minutes later, as we drove through the town center on a narrow two-lane road no longer than a kilometer without a building higher than two stories, I thought, ‘Oh god, is this a mistake!?’ When we arrived at the Guyton’s home we met Robert’s lovely wife Robyn. Within moments, in her quick and confusing kiwi accent, she welcomed us to get comfortable and settle in. She gestured to our accommodations, a short climb up a wooden ladder to cozy loft space above the garage.

B: Things were looking up!

G: As I climbed the ladder and poked my head into our bird’s nest, it was like a time warp—the space was filled with woven baskets of all shapes and sizes to the left, a small library of books on the right, stacks of photos, old lamps, one double mattress lying flatly on the ground, and lots of dust! The A-frame only allowed for proper posture in the center of the room and insulation was installed with single-size mattresses between the framing held in place by strategically-placed tree branches.

Also staying with the Guyton’s for a few days was Daisy, a sweet 22-year-old from Devonshire, England currently studying at the University of Dunedin. This was her second stay with the Guyton’s and she was envious we had plans to stay for several weeks. Little did we know just how famous the Guyton’s are and what an amazing place we had stepped into. Their home was built in a very rustic and sustainable way. Most of it was made from recycled material including a 150-year old sink in the bathroom, old light switches, two faucets at every sink (hot and cold), only one bathtub (no shower), and an old scale with iron weights for baking measurements. I was in rustic heaven.

On their two acres of land, they have the most developed food forest in the Southern hemisphere. It all started 23 years ago with the planting of their first apple tree. Since then, their permaculture forest has flourished into multiple varieties of apples, plums, and berries, beds of leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, and herbs, a greenhouse full of seedlings, a chicken coop, and more. In the last few years, it has attracted tourists from all of New Zealand and has even gotten global recognition in several books and documentaries.

When Robert wasn’t maintaining the food forest, he was either inside writing articles for the ‘New Zealand Gardener’ magazine or serving on the Invercargill City Council for environmental issues. He’s built quite a reputation of fighting for sustainable farming practices and environmental issues across NZ. Robert and Robyn also host a weekly radio show about gardening and sustainability. They invited us to be guests one week to speak about our farming experience in Hawaii and natural skincare alternatives.

B: Enthusiasts often visit Riverton specifically to meet the Guyton’s and tour their land, some more shy than others. One day, Robert walked out to the curb and saw a couple in their campervan parked across the street. As he walked over, they immediately grabbed a map, pretending to be lost. Robert politely asked where they were going, to which they replied with a location that was at least 30km away (yeah, right). They tried to remain oblivious until asking, ‘Oh…aren’t you Robert Guyton with the food forest?’ He kindly replied, ‘Yes, of course. Would you like me to give you a tour?’ This wasn’t the first time… 😉

Robert and Robyn also founded the local Environment Centre in town. It’s a hub for the environmentalist community, offering local and organic food, natural house-hold cleaners and skincare, gardening tools, etc. It also offers educational resources for children and adults about sustainable farming, seed saving, and protecting native bush. It has become the primary source for sustainable living in all of Southland. Employees are mostly volunteers and get 1% discount for each hour they work during the week (up to 15%). Sometimes we would spend a few hours overseeing the shop instead of working outside. We spent three days sprucing up the kitchen—fresh paint, linoleum flooring, and new shelves—which Robyn and the employees were thrilled about.  We also hosted a movie night to show the documentary ‘Thrive’, which I suggest you all watch. (www.thrivemovement.com)

Most of our time was spent on projects in the food forest: creating teepee-like structures for grape vines to climb, clearing wild weeds by hand to form paths in the permaculture, trimming and transplanting native flax bush, netting plum trees and berry bushes from the birds, building a gate within a wooden fence, and harvesting lots of apples, plums, berries, leafy greens, root vegetables, and eggs. There were so many plums that we took the opportunity to learn how to make plum sauce, plum jam, and preserves to keep in the pantry for the winter.

We also did some bee-keeping, which was pretty awesome! We suited up in full bee-keeper gear from head to toe. Gabriella controlled the smoke while I did the dirty work. The smoke makes them think the hive is on fire, so they quickly rush inside to eat as much honey as they can, then become tired and passive with a full belly. The Guyton’s have about 10,000 bees working in a stack of three boxes. I removed the lids, cleaned the frames, looked for disease, added another box and screen, and got the hell outta there! The buzzing got louder and louder the longer I stayed to work and it was difficult to hear Robert’s instructions. I stayed calm throughout, because bees can smell fear (like panthers), but unfortunately one bee made its way inside of my face mask and stung me on the neck as I was retreating back to the house. Bee-keeper initiation complete! We waited four days for the bees to transfer their work down to the new box before returning to take the top box full of fresh honey. We absolutely look forward to having our own honey-making operation one day!

G: Next time you can do the smoke! Robert said I hadn’t quite become a true beekeeper since I wasn’t stung. I must say, it was quite impressive how quickly Robert moved to pull the stinger our of Blake’s neck by scraping a large knife across the skin. Blake – our true beekeeper. What a trooper!

Another cool story: One day, Daisy wanted to make real English scones and needed buttermilk, but we didn’t have any in the house. Jokingly, I told her to just mix some butter and milk! When Robyn heard that she shook her head and smiled. A few hours later, she called to us in from the garden to come learn how to make buttermilk. In the kitchen were three jars with a half-cup of cream inside each. She told us to shake the jars rapidly and it would eventually separate into butter and buttermilk. Aaaand…it was a competition! Within just a couple of minutes…voila! A chunk of butter began to form and we kept shaking faster until there was no more cream. This was a great example of Robyn’s spontaneity when she wanted to teach us something. It was perfectly normal to interrupt pulling weeds to make some buttermilk or come in for a cup of tea. No stress!

B: One weekend, Robyn took us to help her out with a children’s games day in Tuatapere, another small town about an hour away. This was yet another great example of Robyn’s love for simplicity and sticking to tradition. When we arrived, we quickly noticed the paintball section was receiving the most attention. We rolled up with stilts, quoits, puppet theatre, and potato sacks. I made one hell of a proscenium theatre for those puppets that about 3 kids enjoyed. Gabriella and I had fun tossing quoits and doing the sack race while other kids stayed at the dunk tank and pony rides. We had a blast and got to enjoy the simpler things in life. On the way home, Robyn gave us a tour of New Zealand’s southern coast stopping at Monkey Island, Gemstone Beach, and other scenic lookouts along the way. It was an absolutely beautiful day venturing outside of Riverton.

G: Some other perks at the Guyton’s was their fire-bath, which is a claw-foot bathtub in the middle of the forest with a chamber to light a fire underneath. Once it’s heated up, you can relax in the natural surroundings. Just make sure to sit on the slab of wood so you don’t burn your bum! 🙂 Without a doubt, I am going to have one of those someday… They also have an outdoor pizza oven built from scratch, which we used a couple of times. Much to my dismay I was my unable to sustain a fire every time I tried. Sorry Dad, I know you’ve taught me a million times!

B: Despite our initial apprehension, we had an incredible time in Riverton with the Guyton’s and their amazing food forest. Every day was a new adventure. I had the kitchen to cook and bake to my hearts delight (which was also heaven for Blake) sharing many amazing meals and talks. They even found time to move their youngest daughter (Hollie) off to college just a few days after their eldest son (Terry) brought their first grandchild into the world, baby Leo Archer. Surprisingly, the Guyton’s have never left NZ, nor do they intend to, finding comfort and excitement each day in their town of 1,200 residents. (Well…Robyn still wants to go to Paris…) We learned more in three weeks than I would have ever expected, for which I am eternally grateful. I can see why they have long line-ups of tourists and WWOOFers waiting to experience life with the Guyton’s!

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3 thoughts on “Foraging the Food Forest

  1. I love reading about your adventures. This one seems quite special with all the great learning experiences you happened upon. It warms my heart to be able to share in the journey though your blog and the pictures are quite the bonus!.

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