More than 1000 homes were lost to the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in Kaiapoi, with extensive areas of land red zoned. Brent and Shirley Cairns chose to stay living in the red zone and slowly watched their neighbourhood disappear. As the homes around them were demolished they began to document the huge amount of fruit trees left behind.
“The community were asked, ‘What do you want to use this land for?’ and there were literally hundreds and hundreds of submissions about food forests and community gardens.” says Brent, “They wanted to have a place where they could gather food, picnic, connect with each other, swap seeds and learn about growing food.”
WHAT IS A FOOD FOREST?
Brent tells me the food forest concept is a simple one. Picture a forest with layer upon layer of biodiversity, teeming with life, growing and sustaining itself without any intervention. Now imagine that forest full of food, medicinal plants and soil restorative growth. There’s no mowing, weeding, spraying, or digging required. No pesticides, fertilisers, herbicides or nasty chemicals. No work. However, to get the balance right initially requires some planning.
“In May 2017 the council came to me and said, ‘Here’s 1 ½ acres. Turn it into a food forest.’ You have to understand that Shirley and I have no gardening background. We entered a gardening competition once and came last! So we set up a charitable trust and I specifically chose people who had talents outside my own.”
Brent’s immense passion for this project and the local community is obvious. Volunteers and visitors drop by, knowing he is always here on a Wednesday afternoon. He greets everyone warmly, calmly giving instructions, tours, sharing information and engaging everybody. He embodies the Trust’s ethos: ‘Connect, Nourish, Educate, Inspire.’
RED ZONE TREES SAVED
“We organised a tractor with a huge mechanical shovel to come and dig out 17 mature trees from red zoned land and relocate them into the food forest. You wouldn’t know which ones they are, but they are a connection to the past and the people who lived here.”
The Christchurch Corrections Department were brought on board to help with some of the grunt work after some old, hulking timbers from the revamped wharf became available.
“We’ve had over 800 plants and trees donated and that’s not just locally. For example Koanga nursery in the North Island sent 15 trees down the other day. They recognised this project as something significant."
FIRST PLANTING DAY A SUCCESS
It all seems like a long time ago now, but Brian’s memory of that first day, inviting the public into an almost bare field to help with planting still moves him.
“Our first planting day was just overwhelming for us. We had 170 donated trees to plant plus Shirley and I had about 150 trees ourselves. As the public began to arrive another 80 trees walked in the gate. There was even an old lady with a walker, struggling along with a tree on each handle! There were people who said they had a significant birthday, so instead of buying a present, they wanted to plant a tree here.”
The trust has future plans for an education centre to take children through the story of who used to live here, how the food forest started and how the ecosystem works. They want to create a destination: for locals, tourists, freedom campers, anyone who wants or needs some food or just a place to relax.
They also want to promote the idea to other communities.
“What we’ve found is if you involve the neighbours they’ll come in and give you a hand and once you start it you won’t be able to stop it. Right here is living proof. None of these trees have been pruned, none of them have been looked after but they are still producing fruit.
“The trees produce oxygen, they’ll keep the planet cooler and they’ll also produce food. Pretty damn good reason why you’d want to plant a food forest, I think.”
Or pop down for a visit any time: corner of Cass Street, Meadow Street and Oram place, opposite St Bartholmew's Church. Easy access off the northern motorway: take the exit for highway 71.