The science behind a food forest

By | October 21, 2019

A kitchen garden in Garran is a place of edible and ornamental interest. Dr Jenean Spencer had a science degree from Sydney University majoring in botany and microbiology but followed the latter for her Masters and PhD in applied epidemiology at the ANU. She was offered a job in the Department of Health and, a single mother by choice, she bought the house with her mother in 2006. She met her husband, Rod Schreiber, after returning to work following maternity leave. Five years ago Spencer was diagnosed with breast cancer after which she developed anxiety so she gave up work.

Jenean Spencer picking some fresh produce from her front garden at her home in Garren. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Jenean Spencer picking some fresh produce from her front garden at her home in Garren. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

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Spencer had grown up in a small country town in the Hunter Valley where her parents had a vegie plot. These days, she is interested in the role of bacteria and fungi in the soil. The front lawn was removed and the couple decided to go with the “food forest” concept and her five-year strategic plan was to grow food and reduce water consumption focussing on soil improvement.

Tiered beds are made from recycled timber from a Fyshwick fencing business, compost bins were built out of free pallets and nails came from the Green Shed. Walkways are of slatted wood and, following aspects of hugelkulture, branches and pallets have been buried to create microclimates as they break down to provide humus. A massive amount of compost has been added to the original pure clay.

Plants are grown from seeds from the Canberra Environment Centre seed swap and from Diggers. As part of the Canberra Urban Homesteaders Facebook group, plants are swapped and Spencer was given a successful seed raising soil mix recipe.

Edibles grown seasonally include pak choy, cucumbers, mustard greens, orache, beetroot, peas, broccoli, eggplant, tomatoes, dill, coriander, silverbeet, kale, carrots, parsnips, asparagus, spaghetti squash, lettuce, rockmelon and she has a mini greenhouse for seed raising.

Through the Australian Natural Farming group Spencer has developed an interest in growing lactobacillus “serum” to remedy hydrophobic soil and, as it utilises ammonia, it keeps the compost heaps and chook yard from smelling.

Jenean Spencer's homemade kale citrus dip. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Jenean Spencer’s homemade kale citrus dip. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

There are eight chooks, Isa browns and Silkies, all with given names. A pair of rescue part-Rex rabbits have the softest fur. There are Japanese quail, which lay eggs, and deceptively named King quail which are tiny, and breeding. The secret ingredient in two worm farms is to feed the worms a little coconut oil as they love fat.

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The household is participating in Share Waste which links compost and chook owners with people who want to donate scraps. Spencer collects kitchen waste from a childcare centre, greenwaste and coffee grounds from a cafe and free horse poo.

Along a narrow concrete path and up trellises on the side fence are plantings of youngberry, raspberry, blueberries, goji berries and three passionfruit vines that, in reflected heat, set fruit all year. Thornless blackberry winds up a handrail to the front door. Among fruit trees are sour cherries, Fuji, Jonathan and Pink Lady apple trees, and, in pots on a front balcony, are a lemon tree, lime, feijoa and greengage plum.

Spencer cooks most nights but has instigated a “mum’s night off” when the boys, Thom, 13, and Alex, eight, cook (often scrambled eggs on toast), and they have pizza Friday with homemade sourdough base and home bottled passata. The recipe which Spencer has shared comes from the website of Australian vegan chef and caterer from Byron Bay, Anthea Amore. Spencer also has Amore’s books Passion and Hungry and says, although her family is not vegan, the recipes are easily made and delicious. The Canberra Times photographer and I can vouch for the dip. Spencer makes her own sourdough bread.


1/2 cup cashews, soaked in filtered water for 15 minutes, rinsed, drained

1 cup macadamia nuts

1/2 cup roughly chopped, loosely packed kale

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup lime juice

1/2 cup cold-pressed olive oil

1 small clove garlic

1/2 cup roughly chopped, loosely packed parsley

extra 1-2 tbsp filtered water, if required

For serving: sourdough toast, crackers and crudites

Place drained cashews in a blender with the macadamia nuts, kale, lemon juice, lime juice, oil, garlic, parsley and salt and whizz up until creamy and soft (depending on the power of your blender you may need to add a little extra filtered water and occasionally stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl to get an even creamy consistency). Scrape mixture into a serving bowl.

Serve with your favourite sourdough toast, crackers and crudites. Keeps for five to seven days in an airtight container in the fridge.

Makes 500g.

This story The science behind a food forest first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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