A walk in the food forest

Among the chirruping birds and restored landscape of Girragirra Retreat, central-west NSW, is a multi-layered garden rich in produce.


It’s the golden hour of sunset at Kim and Wendy Muffet’s Girragirra Retreat on the outskirts of Forbes in central-western NSW, a short cooee from the Lachlan River. Sweet music to the Muffets’ ears is an insistent chirrup that, for those with long memories, sounds a bit like an old cassette deck being rewound. “That’s a reed warbler,” Wendy explains. “It’s a wetland bird that’s an indicator of a restored landscape.” 

The call of this little bird is also a sign that the property is recovering from a flood in November 2022, when the Lachlan burst its banks, submerged the waterhole at the front of the property and turned their home and adjacent 2-bedroom eco retreat into an island. “It was described as a once-in-a-100-year event,” Wendy says. “It broke the previous 1952 record and wiped out the native bulrushes and reeds in the waterhole. Fortunately, the house is designed to sit in water and a flood bank protected the garden. Everything is coming back.”

Kim and Wendy have lived at Girragirra (Wiradjuri for ‘be well, be happy, be merry’) since 2010, when, having sold their family farm, they realised their dream of building a substantial home and garden to share with others, showcasing the principles of living sustainably. They found the 20ha block after a decade-long search and lived in an existing small house for a couple of years. “We always knew we wanted to build a sustainable home,” Wendy says. “Our quest inadvertently led us to the top, when we connected with architect Tone Wheeler.”

A bug house attracts beneficial insects; iris and other flowers have a place in the thriving garden.

As Wendy had undertaken a permaculture course with Milkwood’s Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar, the couple also knew they wanted to build a food forest. They enlisted the help of Grenfell landscape architect Catriona Glanville to build a productive garden, with layers from trees to shrubs and groundcovers all working together to create a balanced ecosystem delivering abundant food.

On the flood bank are trees laden with citrus and others nurturing stone fruit for summer. There are avocado trees protected from frost, and almond and mulberry trees. The next layer contains smaller fruit trees, including feijoas, cumquats, lilly pillies and pomegranates, and below that berries such as boysenberries. At ground level, vegetables, salad plants, Asian greens, herbs and asparagus flourish. Kim points out the huge fig tree that provides fruit for the jam and chocolate-dipped candied segments he spoils guests with, and a vine-clad arbour that delivers grapes from Christmas through to Easter and provides shade for alfresco meals. There’s also a bug house in a log that gives shelter to bees and other beneficial insects. Soil health is encouraged through companion planting, mulching and encouraging biodiversity to keep bugs at bay. Snails have not been an issue since ducks were introduced.

“We use zero synthetic chemistry,” Wendy says. “We rarely have to use organic pest control. The theory is if you build a functional food forest, the beneficial insects control disease. At first, though, we were flogged by every pest, but diversity builds resilience. Monocultures may be the most efficient way to produce food, but they set you up for problems. The only thing we can’t control is fruit fly, so we net the fruit trees.”

Native reeds and bulrushes destroyed by the flood are returning to the waterhole.

Inevitably the garden delivers gluts, but what the Muffets can’t use, they preserve or give away. “When life gives you tomatoes, you make passata,” Wendy says. “We make copious jams, preserves, pickles and ferments. We encourage our guests to help themselves to the garden and we give the surplus to schools and Meals on Wheels. There’s also an industrial-sized compost heap and chooks take care of the rest. Nothing goes to waste here.”

It wasn’t always thus. In the 1970s, when Kim and Wendy met as agricultural science students at Hawkesbury Agricultural College, and then married, chemistry was king. “We came home and terrorised Kim’s dad with our newfangled ideas,” Wendy says. “In fact, we ran the farm pretty hard. We were side by side in the paddock and we thought we had the scientific knowledge to make it work. I was out there driving the spray rig and we spent gazillions on fertiliser. But then nature donged us on the head a couple of times and we had to rethink.”

Girragirra’s food forest sustains the Muffets and their friends and guests.

Gradually the Muffets converted to more holistic resource management techniques. They cite good teachers, including Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory, Grazing for Profit’s Terry McCosker, Mark Gardner of Vanguard in Dubbo, as well regenerative farmers David Marsh and Charlie Massy. “It just made sense to stop spending money on chemicals and fertiliser, and encourage ground covers for weed control,” Wendy says. “Also, to stop investing in machinery by hiring contractors when you need them.”

“We hope to show people that it is possible to manage holistically and grow food successfully,” Kim says. “At the end of the day, we’re only custodians of the land, so it’s a good idea to take care of it properly.”