The Dunstan Reserve Food Forest has a long history as a valued community asset. Below you can read about this history, as told by some of the many people who have helped shape it over the years.
A big thank you to Stuart McQuire, Libby Harper, and Mark Sanders for sharing their vast knowledge about the history of the Food Forest.
This is an ongoing project. If you would like to contribute any information or photographs, please contact Jessica Peeler at email@example.com.
1993 - 2009
Establishment of the Food Forest
The idea of creating a Food Forest at Dunstan Reserve started in the mid-1990s. Following the success of the adjacent West Brunswick Community Garden, built in 1993, a small group of residents called the Friends of the Food Forest wanted to create a publicly accessible orchard. The orchard, which would be designed using permaculture principles, would not only provide food for the community, but also provide a place for people to visit and enjoy.
The Friends of the Food Forest was an incorporated organisation responsible for overseeing the development of the site. Group coordinator Stuart McQuire, pictured in the newspaper articles below, was instrumental in the establishment and operation of the site from the mid-1990s until around 2010.
The site was originally an open turfed area with a few large Eucalyptus trees and some cricket nets.
The Food Forest’s initial layout was designed by permaculture designers Vasco Drogriski and Roderick Poole.
The first trees were planted in September 1994, with the planting day advertised through letterbox drops and in the local paper:
“It was before social media and all that stuff, so the local paper was a way of communicating with lots of people.” (Stuart McQuire 2021)
Approximately 70 people attended, and between them planted dozens of fruit and nut trees.
In 1995, the Friends of the Food Forest received a grant of $500 to assist with the garden’s upkeep. The group also received other grants from both Moreland City Council and Melbourne Water, which were used for a variety of projects.
The Food Forest contained approximately 120 fruit and nut trees, with a large variety including apples, oranges, apricots, pistachios and walnuts. Some of the species, such as the pistachios, were quite unusual for this time.
“That’s the influence of the permaculture people…trying to push the boundaries of it.” (Stuart McQuire 2021)
Although not all plants were successful, the planting remained diverse, and this diversity is still evident today.
In 1995, Stuart McQuire and Vasco Drogriski were paid by Moreland City Council to install two large timber pergolas at the site, using reclaimed wood from the Maribyrnong River Wharf.
The larger structure on the western side of the site also supported a decorative ‘Food Forest’ sign. Unfortunately, the sign and a large portion of this larger pergola fell during a storm in 2020, however the current Food Forest Working Group is arranging to have the sign and part of the structure reinstated.
These wooden pergolas were used to support grape vines. This is still the case today, though the original vines have at some stage been replaced by Strawberry Grape (Vitis fragola), a tasty and prolific backyard Italian variety that is enjoyed equally by humans and local wildlife.
Around the year 2000, in partnership with Moreland City Council and Melbourne Water, the group installed a dam at the site. The dam was lined with clay supplied by Council, sourced from a street that they were working on nearby. It was planted with indigenous wetland plants, and its primary purpose was to create a microclimate which would retain heat and allow cold sensitive species such as avocados to grow more successfully. The intention was for the dam to be connected to the overflow stormwater and fed with swales, though this never eventuated and the dam was eventually removed after a decade of drought.
The southern portion of the Food Forest was planted later, once the cricket nets were relocated and the space became available. This section also had a lawn of self seeded rocket.
However, not long after this area was planted out, Council removed many of the trees to extend the sports pavilion and build toilets. This significantly reduced the size of the Food Forest and contributed to some members, including Stuart, deciding to leave the group.
The establishment of the Food Forest in this publicly accessible site was a major achievement, and certainly not without its challenges.
The Friends of the Food Forest first needed to obtain Council support, which meant demonstrating that they would be willing and able to maintain the site after it was planted out. This involved a process of advocacy and consultation, as well as the formal establishment and incorporation of the group itself.
After the first trees were planted, theft became an issue. To combat this however, volunteers painted the trunks with acrylic paint so that the trees would be more easily recognisable if planted in people’s yards, and that more or less resolved the problem!
Water supply was an ongoing issue, largely due to the Millennium drought from 1997 – 2009, and also due to many instances of the water being cut off because of nearby works. Stuart recalls group member Bert King, at the time 75 years old, “bringing buckets of water from McLeanStreet across to water lemon trees and things like that.” Despite the best efforts of the volunteers, many plants did not survive this period.
The group also often struggled to find enough volunteers to maintain the Food Forest. Most work took place at monthly working bees, and attendance at these varied widely, as did Council’s mowing of the site. Stuart recalls times when he’d spend two hours just brush cutting, unable to talk to anyone over the sound of the machine. The group eventually negotiated with Council for their staff to undertake the mowing, which allowed the volunteers to spend more time on other maintenance and planting. There were periods where the number of people volunteering was sufficient, for example when a permaculture group of 15-20 people from the University of Melbourne visited monthly.
Unfortunately, there was a legal case that arose out of a member of the public injuring themselves at the site. Although the group never ended up going to court, the experience reduced morale and made it very difficult to attract new members.
2010 - 2011: A new group takes on the Food Forest
By around 2010, the Friends of the Food Forest had disbanded and the site was not being maintained in any kind of formal way beyond mowing by Council. At the same time, a small group of local residents were searching for a site to start a community garden in Moreland. One of the members, Paul Desmond, bumped into Stuart McQuire at the Food Forest and, after learning about its history, proposed that the group investigate taking on responsibility for the site. Not long after this, Moreland City Council’s Seeding Grants became available, and so the group became incorporated as Coburg Community Gardening (later changed to Moreland Community Gardening) and successfully applied for a $3,000 grant to rejuvenate the site.
The Seeding Grant agreement established a clear set of goals for the Food Forest. The aim was to make to make the site:
- a source of healthy, organic food
- a well-maintained, productive plantation of trees
- a pleasant place for local residents to visit
- an outdoor classroom and exhibition garden
- a social hub
With the grant money, Coburg Community Gardening was able to buy insurance, carry out additional planting, improve the soil, purchase materials, organise water access, increase publicity and carry out workshops and events.
2012 - 2017
The Food Forest went through a great deal of change in 2012. When Coburg Community Gardening took it over in 2011, there were approximately 30 trees remaining of the original 120, as well as a lot of weeds.
For the first half of 2012, efforts were focused on clearing weeds and mulching.
In September 2012, Karen Sutherland from Edible Eden Design kindly lent her skills to develop a permaculture planting plan for the site. This plan included a number of new fruit trees, as well as the introduction of extensive understorey plantings across the site.
Interestingly, although the original group had always intended to carry out understorey plantings, this never became a reality across the whole site, primarily due to these plantings being more labour intensive than the fruit trees. Stuart has been pleased to see this original vision realised.
“When I’ve seen in recent times…the sunflowers, I’ve loved it.” (Stuart McQuire 2021)
In the later months of 2012, a large number of new plants, both trees and understorey species, were planted by volunteers. Unfortunately, many of these plants did not survive due to theft, high temperatures, lack of community support, lack of irrigation, and an inability of the volunteers to maintain the entire area. Despite these setbacks, works continued through various working bees and Permablitz events, which included educational workshops, over the next several years.
In 2014, the Sensory Garden was developed at the northern end of the site, with its success leading the volunteers to ‘theme’ other areas. The idea was that this would provide a template for gardeners who wanted to create home food forests outside the traditional ‘orchard’ template. These zoned areas are largely still in place, though they have changed over time and the zones are not signposted. At the time of writing (April 2022), the current Working Group is in the process of reviewing and updating these zones.
The original surviving fruit trees, by this point well established and productive, were being regularly harvested both by volunteers and other members of the community, as well as by the local wildlife.
Throughout 2016 and 2017, regular working bees and several Permablitz sessions ensured that the Food Forest was well maintained. Its size also steadily increased, with turf progressively smothered and replaced with additional plantings of edible and companion species.
2016 Permablitz Gallery
One of the key purposes of the Food Forest is for it to function as a teaching space, and from 2012 – 2017, it was the site of a number of educational workshops that were incorporated into working bees. These were run by various people, including Libby Harper, Mark Sanders, Karen Sutherland, and other volunteers through Permablitz.
Throughout 2019, the Food Forest was overseen largely by local resident and horticulturist Kieran Dickson, with support from Permablitz volunteers, horticulture students from Melbourne Polytechnic, and long time volunteers including Richard Brown, John Coutanche, Mark Sanders, Libby Harper and others. The footprint of the Food Forest was extended even further, with the large turfed area in the centre of the Food Forest converted from Kikuyu to an open planting consisting primarily of annual flowers, along with subtropical plants such as bananas and sweet potatoes. Kieran and other volunteers even installed a temporary art display called “Green Shit”.
In early 2020 Kieran Dickson ceased most involvement with the Food Forest due to multiple other commitments. For the first half of 2020, the site was maintained by just a small number of long standing volunteers. Compounding the difficulty of managing the site with very few people, COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions prevented many works from taking place. There were several successful working bees during this time, with volunteers focusing largely on keeping the site safe and accessible, and planting ‘crowd pleasing’ plants such as flowers and annual vegetables in highly visible parts of the site, in an effort to engage more people. However, large parts of the site became overrun with weeds, (primarily Kikuyu), as well as Apple Mint.
A highlight of 2020 was when John, Richard, Libby and Jess harvested just over 25kg of sweet potatoes to share with community garden members and the local community. The sweet potatoes, which included several different varieties, were donated by Dr Chris Williams (@people.plants.landscapes) from Burnley Horticultural College as part of his Novel Crops Project. Chris has donated many other crops to the Food Forest as well, including an Abyssinian Banana, Taro, Cassava, and Brazilian Spinach.
During Melbourne’s lockdown from July – October 2020, restrictions prevented almost all works from occurring at the Food Forest. Not surprisingly, weeds quickly took over the site, smothering understorey species and negatively impacting the health of the fruit trees. During this period however, local resident Jono Higgins, and Community Gardening Coordinator Jessica Peeler, put together a Strategic Rejuvenation Plan document for the Food Forest. This plan incorporated feedback from a public survey carried out in mid-2020, as well as input from key stakeholders such as the Moreland Community Gardening Board and West Brunswick Community Garden Organising Committee. Ongoing works at the site are driven by and prioritised according to this plan.
When restrictions eased in October 2020, volunteers were faced with a huge task. After five months of almost no works taking place, the majority of the Food Forest was overrun with weeds, trees were overgrown, and paths were disappearing.
The big clean up
In October 2020, Moreland City Council kindly allocated a team of 10 people hired through the Victorian Government’s Working For Victoria program to the Food Forest for around two weeks. Through a combined total of over 500 hours of work, this team brush cut and removed huge quantities of weeds, laid biodegradable weed mat over almost half the site, and spread many cubic metres of mulch. This approach was drastic, and certainly had some drawbacks including covering wanted species in the soil seed bank and killing some understorey species. However, the space had become so overgrown that it was the only realistic option.
The volunteers were (and still are) incredibly grateful to Moreland City Council for the support, and for the hard working, positive Working For Victoria team who achieved in two weeks something that would have taken volunteers years.
Gallery: Clean up progress photos, October 2020
After the big clean up, volunteers could again access all of the fruit trees and carry out some much needed pruning work. Some of the bare areas (particularly along the western side of the site) were left alone so that the underlying weeds could completely die off. In other areas, small holes were pierced in the weed mat to allow for planting.
In an effort to engage more people from the local community, planting efforts were focused largely on the most visible sites: along the main pathways, and in the large open area towards the centre of the Food Forest. Volunteers primarily planted annual flowers and vegetables, and marked out paths, to encourage people to explore the site. Temporary signs were also installed to identify different crops.
By late summer, the Food Forest looked quite inviting, and volunteers were able to harvest some crops. While working bees were still generally quite small, with approx. 5-10 people at each, more local residents began to come along.
In April 2021, the Food Forest Working Group was established. Its members were Jono Higgins, Lindy Hodgkin, Sam Moorhead, Therese Heron, Richard Brown, Jill Young, and Jessica Peeler.
The group sits under the West Brunswick Community Garden Organising Committee, and is responsible for:
– organising day to day maintenance activities;
– planning and running events;
– promoting the Food Forest;
– deciding what to plant;
– collecting data about the Food Forest’s activities.
Anyone interested in joining the Working Group should fill out this expression of interest form.
The group meets monthly, and members can tailor their involvement to suit their particular interests.
The Food Forest has been through many changes since the first tree was planted, and it will of course continue to change as trees grow and different people bring along new ideas. Below are some comparison photos taken over the years.
Northern end of the Food Forest, looking west
North western area
Northern central area, looking towards the community garden
Northern central area, looking south
Northern central area, looking west
North western area
Under the eastern pergola
Southern end of the Food Forest, looking west
The Food Forest continues to develop, with monthly working bees organised by the Working Group and generally attended by around a dozen people. The Strategic Rejuvenation Plan is used as a guiding document, with the Working Group currently focusing on increasing engagement, controlling weeds, planting popular and interesting crops, creating an updated map, and installing signs. The long awaited noticeboard, designed and built by Stewart Roberts and Richard Brown, has provided an excellent means of communicating with locals.
Anyone is welcome to visit the Food Forest at any time, and to get involved with our events. Working bees are held every third Sunday of the month from 10am – 1pm
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Publicly accessible food forest in Brunswick West 🌳
Everyone is welcome to get involved – this garden belongs to our community. Join us ⬇️