Permablitzing the suburbs
Lou Smith of Breakdown Press recently email-interviewed Asha Bee about permablitzes & backyard food production for a zine she's helping put together in response to the coming G20 conference in Melbourne….
What are permablitzes all about? How did they begin?
A permablitz is basically a permaculture-inspired backyard makeover where people come together to share knowledge and skills about organic food production in urban gardens while building community and having fun.
The basic idea is that by converting their lawns into organic food producing gardens, people will be able to back away from a dependence on industrial agriculture and the shipping of food back and forth across the world. At the same time, it makes organic eating accessible to more than just the upper-middle class.
The whole permablitz thing started with a group called Codemo (Community Development Multicultural Organisation), a local community group composed primarily of South American immigrants. A permaculture geek named Dan Palmer started hanging out with the Codemo crew and after hearing him rave about the wonders of permaculture and the joys of having a backyard full of practically free organic vegies, and going round to see the amazing and beautiful permaculture system Dan and his housemates, Cat and Adrian, had created in their infamous Thomas Street backyard, some of them expressed interest in growing food in their own backyards.
The first permaculture backyard makeover was held in Dandenong at the home of Vilma from El Salvador. And permablitzes have been spreading all around Melbourne since.
Do you think permablitzes and similar DIY projects have the ability to enrich local communities and culture?
Definitely! Permablitzes involve a combination of learning, practicing and socialising. I'd say the social community-building aspect is just as important, or even moreso, than the garden makeover itself. In our socially atomised suburbs, with our tall fences separating our yards from our neighbours', its rare to get to know those living closest to us.
The permablitz I had at my place last Sunday gave me an opportunity to introduce myself to the old Greek couple next door and invite them round to share some of their gardening skills. A guy down the street who has a concrete yard has even been dropping his food scaps over so i could build up the castings in my worm farm in preparation. And a local lawn mower was dropping off his clippings at my place for the compost building workshop. On the day itself, I met quite a few local people for the first time who had heard about the blitz through the grapevine. On top of this, because it was Codemo who seeded off the permablitz concept, they have also offered fantastic opportunities to meet and spend time with a fun and diverse bunch of people – 76 year old Willie from Chile, for example, has been one most regular blitzers. He's also one of the hottest dancers of the 'permasalsa' — most of the Codemo permablitzes end with drink and a dance.
After hearing about the permablitz idea, the coordinator of Jika Jika, a community center in Westgarth [an inner Melbourne suburb], has also requested a mini-permablitz be held in the gardens of a local public housing estate. The people who live there are supposedly pretty socially isolated so it will be interesting to see what comes out of holding a blitz and building a community garden with them. [I went along to this, and the tenants rock and are keen to get some tomatoes in, and we're going back to work with them some more next weekend. -AF]
Do you think it's important for people in urban areas to have an engagement in food production and learn how to grow their own food?
Living in a 'modern' society promises that we shouldn't actually have to think about our food, or any other basic necessity. We've 'developed' to the point that we now get to spend our time thinking about modern issues like ring tones and tax returns. So today the majority of the food we eat is grown by a handful of huge agribusinesses and sold in a handful of supermarket chains. Through this process, aside from disconnecting us from our food and all that its been through to get to our plates, we have also become completely dependent on multinational corporations for our basic necessities, and therefore have lost the very foundations of political autonomy.
I think that growing food, along with rebuilding community (to counter the individualisation and social atomisation faced in this corporate-driven society), are some of the most important and subversive activities we can do today.
“Political independence and the ability to engage in society has a lot to do with from what position of autonomy do we stand. And if we stand totally dependent on a one or two or three day food supply chain we don't really have any position of political autonomy.”
— David Holmgren, Permaculture co-orginator (quote taken from greening the apocalypse)
"If your experience is that your water comes from the tap and that your food comes from the grocery store then you are going to defend to the death the system that brings those to you because your life depends on that; if your experience is that your water comes from a river and that your food comes from a land base then you will defend those to the death because your life depends on them. So part of the problem is that we have become so dependent upon this system that is killing and exploiting us, it has become almost impossible for us to imagine living outside of it and it's very difficult physically for us to live outside of it."
— Derrick Jensen
Where's permaculture at at the moment? As a movement is it as vital as ever?
To be honest, i'm only just starting to learn about permaculture after having been working on issues around trade in food and agriculture so I don't think I can really give much insight here. Personally, though, while searching for alternatives to the global industrial agriculture system, I've become excited about what permaculture and food localisation (producing and consuming food in the same area) have to offer. But then when adding peak oil and climate change to the mix, and the likely consequences of these on today's food and agriculture systems, it looks like food localisation using permaculture principles and design is going to offer more than an 'alternative' — it will become a necessity.
Do permablitzes attempt to take permaculture out of institutional settings and straight into our homes?
From what I understand, the permaculture movement has made a conscious effort to be taught and shared primarily outside of institutional settings. The idea of permablitzes, though, is to make permaculture more accessible to those who live (and rent) in an urban environment, rather than just those who own a couple of acres of land out bush. The message is that as long as you have a yard (even if its covered in concrete), or a verandah, or a rooftop then you can produce food, and that by using permaculture principles and design, it can be reasonably easy.
Are permablitzes also about getting permaculture into, not only the backyard, but also the front manicured lawn, the medium strip, the roundabout?
Yes yes!! I'd love to see more edible front yards, nature strips and roundabouts! Di from Box Hill held a permablitz at her place, which was held mostly in her backyard, but that was because her whole front yard was already brimming with vegetables and chickens. It was designed really beautifully with lots of different coloured vegies making it seem like an ornamental garden until closer inspection (and until you heard the squawkings from the chicken dome in the corner)… who needs daises eh?
Favourite pick of the crop this season?
We didn't have a very happening garden until the blitz last sunday so the only things ready to eat at my place at the moment are the green leafies – rocket, spinach, different lettuces, silverbeet, and the herbs. Post-blitz, though, i'm probably most looking forward to the raspberries and strawberries, ooh and sweet corn.. and snow peas… and capsicum… water chestnuts… passionfruit… mmm… basil… we even planted some watermelon seeds… i think i'm mostly looking forward to being able to wander around my garden and just bite at random plants.