After the Christchurch earthquakes the people of Kaiapoi were asked by their council to choose a community project that could be developed on red zone land. As many supported the idea of a community garden or a food forest, a local couple, Brent and Shirley Cairns, were approached by their Council to kick-start the process and establish a food forest that would bring the community together, teach them about sustainable gardening and home-based food production, and provide a local source of food for foraging.

A food forest mimics the structure of a natural forest so that food can be grown very efficiently. There are seven layers, each with its unique role, from tall fruiting trees or nut trees, to smaller ones, then shrubs such as berries, ground level edible herbs, leafy vegetables and root vegetables, as well as vines that group up the canopy. “The beauty of this design,” says Brent, “is that it utilises space really efficiently. Our food forest is only 1.6 acres but last harvest we produced over 3000 kilos of food. With traditional gardening you would need much more land.”

The food forest has over 2100 mainly donated different trees and plants providing food – with no pesticides or herbicides needed: “We work with nature to grow food.”

The first step in the creation of the Kaiapoi Food Forest was to set up a trust. There are seven trustees, all selected for their considerable relevant skills and knowledge. Corrections Department brings a group of Community Service people along every one or two weeks to do the heavy work, like moving the masses of mulch needed for the garden and volunteers come along every Wednesday to do other work. “The community has taken it over,” says Brent, “people just come in and do things. It is amazing how it has grown. We are just facilitators. Other people come in to take a walk. The garden is set up with multiple living rooms, making it a wonderful place to picnic, you can wander around and see what’s growing. It’s all about wellbeing and mental health, as well as food. Anyone can forage for something to eat.”

Education is very much part of the vision. People from all over Canterbury come to programmes such as how to grow food sustainably, food forest design, bees and pollination, grafting, water conservation, pruning fruit trees, propagation, worm farms, kumara growing, edible weed identification and uses and wine making using surplus fruit.

Then there are the workshops where local small businesses come along and teach people skills, such as mushroom growing, making elderberry cordial, or sour dough bread – and if they wish, they can sell their starter kits or products. It’s all part of supporting a sustainable community.

Thirty to forty people turn up for each of the free workshops which are advertised on Facebook.

The plan is to also have Rongoā Māori education programmes. An area of the food forest has been set aside for traditional medicinal trees and plants so those with the skills and knowledge can teach others.

Zero waste events such as a Strawberry Fair in December and a Wellbeing Festival in February brings the community together. Chefs and nutritionists come and teach people how to cook the food grown in the food forest.

Children of all ages visit the food forest to learn how to grow plants.

Brent says that the Kaiapoi Food forest is easily replicable: “We would like to see them throughout New Zealand. We believe that 20 percent of children in this country are food poor. We do have food insecurity. If we could set up a food forest in neighbourhood parks throughout the country, it would be a great way of communities providing their own food.

“Since Covid19 we have seen a greater number of people wanting to learn how to grow food sustainably, without sprays and without all of the weeding. Creating a food forest is a great way to feed a family taking up a small area with less time.”