Blitzing the Burbs
Give over a few weekends and your backyard too could be the site of a remarkable transformation. By Katherine Kizilos.
Permablitz: new word, noun
1. An event in which volunteers use permaculture principles to transform a suburban garden into a place that produces its own food. A combination of the words permaculture – a design system for sustainable living and land use -and Backyard Blitz a television program in which backyards receive a makeover.
DAN Palmer trained as a permaculture designer after studying psychology and philosophy and becoming a PhD. Gardening was more down-to-earth and practical, which he found a relief after years of studying. Wanting to apply permaculture to his life he moved out of his fifth-storey South Melbourne apartment in June 2005 and into a house in Thomas Street, Clayton, where he and his fellow residents covered the lawn with vegetables.
The garden became notorious when the landlord issued a breach of duty notice giving the tenants two weeks to either deconstruct it and restore the lawn or pay $2100. For a time, a media debate took place about the ethics of this request. What were backyards for? What was responsible behaviour here? And what was more beautiful – an edible garden or a traditional suburban aesthetic?
Eventually the landlord had his way, but the Thomas Street Garden lives on. On a June weekend last year volunteers came and took the garden apart. The vegetables and herbs were dug up and taken back to other gardens. “More of Melbourne became edible because of that process,” says Palmer. “We had an inverse permablitz.”
Palmer is one of the inventors of the permablitz, an event in which people donate time and plants to help create an environmentally friendly space growing fruit, herbs and vegetables. The phenomenon began in April last year but is gathering momentum now. Almost every weekend a permablitz changes a suburban garden somewhere in Melbourne.
Permaculture might seem like a big departure from Palmer’s academic pursuits, but he sees them as complementary. The principles of permaculture dovetail neatly with his theoretical interests, he says. At the end of his university studies “I was left with systems theory, overcoming separation and dualisms: between person and world, theory and practice. Permaculture does that too. It puts back together what our culture has torn apart.”
The rules of a permablitz are simple: if you want a permablitz crew to turn up to your place, you have to help out on at least two other working weekends before they will do so. In addition, Palmer defines a permablitz as a day in which “two or more people come together to:
a. create or add to edible gardens where someone lives;
b. share skills relating to permaculture and sustainable living;
c. build community networks;
d. have fun.
The word permablitz was coined by Asha Bee Abraham, who wrote an article about them last September for the Energy Bulletin, an online magazine devoted to issues related to dwindling fossil fuel reserves. Abraham argues that edible gardens help conserve energy by reducing the need for food transport. They also use less water than agricultural farms and encourage composting. In addition, permaculture gardens are organic.
“Permaculture is ultimately subversive because it aims to decentralise food production,” says Palmer. “People have fun planting a carrot when actually what they are doing is quite radical.”
The idea of the permablitz came about after Palmer went for a long walk after lunch one afternoon from his home in Thomas Street. In the twilight he was drawn to a well-lit mud-brick house. “I saw a beacon of light in the darkness,” he recalls, smiling. This was the Springvale Community House. Inside, a group of South American men playing pool invited Palmer to join them for a beer. He practised his rusty Spanish, played dominos- he even danced the salsa. His new companions came from places such as El Salvador, Chile, Cuba and Peru. “They were fighting the isolation immigrants can feel in the suburbs by eating and drinking and hanging out together,” he says.
The South Americans were part of a group called Codemo (Community Multicultural Development Organisation). “Most of them had been here for 20 years or so,” says Palmer. “They all had trouble assimilating themselves into Australian culture and language.” In addition their diet was not particularly healthy and most did not grow their own food although, in the case of the El Salvadoreans for instance, the traditional songs and celebrations of their region centred around the harvest.
Perhaps this is why, when Palmer started talking to them about his own interests, particularly permaculture theory and practice, he found a receptive audience. As they talked, Palmer and Codemo hit upon a revolutionary idea: why not use volunteer labour and permaculture theory to transform an unproductive garden into a place where food is grown?
The first garden the group visited belonged to Vilma, an elderly El Salvadorean woman who lives alone in a small house in Dandenong. Palmer says there were maybe “10 or 12 South Americans and five or six folks in my sort of category – permaculture people interested in doing more”.
Thinking about this experience later, Palmer realised he had stumbled upon an edge, a permaculture term for the place where one ecological system such as a woodland, meets another, such as the plain. According to permaculture theory, edges – the zones where two systems interact- are the most productive places. The edge here was Palmer and his permaculture friends and the people of Codemo: two groups of people learning and being nourished by their many differences.
“With South Americans, we are not just working in the garden, there is a lot of delicious food and dancing,” says Palmer. For their part, the permaculture people contributed seeds, compost, mulch, plants and ideas. By the end of the day, Vilma found her tiny patch of lawn in the back transformed with a small pond, a worm farm and vegetables while the front garden was planted with herbs and chillies.
The planting took place in April 2006. Palmer says the garden is now about 1.5 metres high and Vilma is “still learning about the food plants, she has got so much joy out of it”. Whenever Palmer visits her she feeds him pupusas- tortillas filled with refried beans and cheese. “A lot of people visit Vilma for her pupusas,” says Palmer. “She makes the best pupusas in Dandenong.”
The next permablitz took place at the house of another El Salvadorean, Codemo’s president Nelson Campos, who has since moved to Adelaide. A chicken tractor was added to this Springvale garden. This is a mobile home for chickens, which allows the birds to “turn over the soil, remove all the pests, weeds, seeds and bugs”. In addition, the bottomless chicken coop fertilises the soil underneath. “It is a brilliant example of how permaculture can reduce the workload,” says Palmer.
On the day of our conversation, 22 permablitzes had taken place and a website had been set up documenting previous permablitzes and allowing people to express interest in holding future events. Unfortunately, the South American connection was lost after Campos moved to Adelaide; he had been instrumental in organising Codemo’s contribution. “We lost that edge as the blitzes started moving away from the south-east of Melbourne,” says Palmer. “At the same time, things evolve in their own natural direction.”
On a still and sunny Saturday afternoon, Sarah Hudson looks out over her north-facing backyard in Hawthorn where people interested in permaculture have been dropping in to offer ideas for how the space can be improved. This is a planning day, not a permablitz event. A small article in the community paper has attracted some local residents who have been contributing suggestions about chicken tractors and where to source local indigenous plants. Hudson’s garden already has a largely self-sewn vegetable patch, two old peppercorn trees, an oak, a fig and a lemon. In addition, a tenant lives in a bungalow decorated with Tibetan prayer flags.
“A subtle refinement is what I want,” says Hudson, gazing approvingly at the shaggy trees, the lawn and the potting shed. She has a horticulture degree and has been involved in permaculture for more than two years. What she would like is to reduce her need to go to the supermarket while “not using chemicals, encouraging animals into the garden and having a good ecosystem”. Opening up her garden to whoever is interested has been “a really nice experience”, she says. “Gardens are connected to community and add to your experience of life. What makes life good? Eating good things, having good people around.”
Originally published by The Age