First published in The Age
An Australian community group is putting the backyard at the forefront of environmental change.
The yard is swarming with straw hats. It is a sunny day and people are working hard. A handsome, muscular man in khaki is wielding a pickaxe. As soon as I see him I think of Jamie Durie, but there’s no TV crew here.
This isn’t Backyard Blitz, it’s a permablitz. This is how it works: an enthusiastic group of volunteers come to your house and donate equipment, plants and seeds. They work with you to transform your garden into an organic food-producing Eden. You don’t even have to supply lunch – they’ll bring that, too.
Permablitz is a catchy contraction of permaculture and backyard blitz. Basically, it’s a good old-fashioned working bee with a twist.
Today we are attacking Fiona and Anthony’s place in Heidelberg West, outer suburban Melbourne. The house is square, smallish and rendered in cream, with a corrugated-iron roof. There is a soccer field bordering it on one side, from where a few large gums overlook the fence. There are vegie patches in the front yard. The backyard is open, grassy and strewn with debris.
Fiona looks at her lawn and says, “It’s just a mess.” She’s right. There are mounds of gravel and dirt and plastic. Newspapers are soaking in a green frog pond and a shed is in pieces against the wall. The washing is still on the Hills Hoist.
The first blitz was held more than 18 months ago for Vilma, a 70-year-old El Salvadorian woman. “It was a beautiful day,” says Permablitz founder Dan Palmer. “When we arrived there was a small plot of lawn and when we left it was garden. A year later, it’s still pumping and it’s brought a lot of joy.”
It all came about when Palmer crossed paths with a South American community group in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs.
Young environmental skill met with co-operative spirit and, since then, permablitzes have been held all over the city. For now, Palmer does much of the organisation, but there’s a website where people can find information and organise their own blitzes.
“It would be nice if it became kind of viral,” he says. And his wish could be coming true – the blitzing bug recently spread to backyards in Sydney and New Zealand.
According to the website, a blitz aims to create or add to edible gardens; share skills about permaculture and sustainable living; build community networks; and have fun.
“Permaculture is a way of designing the places we live to be sustainable, diverse and abundant by working with nature rather than fighting against it,” Palmer says. “It covers every aspect of a healthy sustainable life: food, water, waste, shelter, local community and economy – you name it.”
A well-designed, efficient garden can provide lots of food using fewer resources than typically go into supermarket produce. So growing your own vegies is a practical response to environmental problems such as climate change.
A few weeks prior to each blitz there is a planning day, where the owners and volunteers come up with a design for the garden.
Today, there’s a wish list of tasks posted next to an old bath tub. We are going to build more garden beds and put a pond in the front yard. One shed is to be moved to the backyard and another erected for a fox-proof chook pen.
“The plans change every hour on the hour,” Anthony tells me as debate rages over where to put the shed. I wander to the front yard and bump into a lengthy discussion over whether to buy a pond liner or to use a decaying green wading pool.
All is resolved by the time we tuck into pesto, tabouli and salad, brought by the volunteers. While we eat, Fiona tells us about her grey-water system and her long-term plans for the garden. Palmer checks the wish list: things are looking good. We are well-fed, inspired and enthusiastic to continue work.
Volunteers come and go as the afternoon progresses. But exactly who are they? Fiona confides that she knows only “about 10 per cent” of the people filling her yard. “I couldn’t have got this many people if I’d paid them,” Anthony tells me.
Initially, Palmer says, there were more people from the South American community, but the demographic has changed as blitzes move around different suburbs. People in their 20s are the majority, but there are people of all ages. Many of the regulars have completed a permaculture design course and are keen to put their new-found skills into practice.
But not only people who’ve studied permaculture come along. Others just think it’s a great idea and are interested in learning about gardening. Tanya, a budding documentary filmmaker and permablitz veteran, is one of those. She tells me that she loves the sense of community, skill-sharing and cross-generational support.
At the end of the day, the wish list hasn’t quite been fulfilled. The pond and garden beds are finished. The chook shed is up but roofless and the other shed remains unmoved. Despite this, Fiona is thrilled with the progress. “It’s just the beginning…but we’ve done so much. It would have taken ages to do all this by ourselves.”
Fiona and Anthony aren’t the only ones who are excited. With environmental issues entrenched as front-page news, Palmer says that interest in permaculture is growing exponentially. “Right now, there are a lot of really fired-up people getting involved.”
So, keep your green thumbs at the ready: a blitz could be coming to a backyard near you.
What is permaculture?
Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term “permaculture” (short for both permanent agriculture and permanent culture) in 1978, in their book Permaculture One. They spelt out a revolutionary food production theory, in which growers create their own integrated ecosystem, each aspect helping the others to flourish and reducing overall resource use. Since then, permaculture principles have blossomed all over the world.
Five permaculture gardening tips
Crop rotation: boost soil nutrients and avoid pest and disease problems by changing plant groups in order: first legumes, then cabbages, tomatoes, onions and root vegetables, and so on.
Grey water: if you use mild vegetable soaps for washing, recycle the water onto your garden.
Weed management: cover garden beds with mulch to control weeds.
Companion plants: grow herbs and flowers throughout your garden. Mixed plantings will confuse potential pests.
Indigenous plants: native species provide habitat and food for indigenous wildlife.
Source: Rosemary Morrow, Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture, Kangaroo Press, NSW, 1993, page 8