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The Permablitz: Transforming Urban Homesteads in a Single Day

Do you remember that 'night before Christmas' feeling... the one you used to get as a kid?

The night before my Permablitz, an 'I don't know if I can wait until morning' impatience had me pacing, while a slightly buzzy feeling took hold. Yep, it was 'the night before Christmas' all over again -- even though it was mid-August, and I was 32 years old.

Why was I so excited? To make a long story short, I knew that before the sun had set on my (suburban) home the next day, my medium-size backyard would have been transformed into a mini-farm, an urban homestead to rival the best of them. And it would all happen in a day.

The plan was: my entire front yard lawn would be ripped out and a pretty but water-hungry gardenia bed would be demolished, along with quite a lot of decorative landscaping. In its place, a front yard orchard would be planted. A newly installed chicken run would weave through this, cementing our reputation as complete eccentrics within the neighborhood. Next to front-yard chickens, the raised garden bed (complete with wicking system) would look almost normal.

The plans for the backyard were even more ambitious. At the rear of the house, a series of raised garden beds (to be built from old railway sleepers) were to encircle our traditional Australian, 1950s style 'Hills Hoist' clothes line. Massive water tanks would be installed at the side of the house. These would catch the run-off from the roof of both the house and garage. With the right kind of irrigation system (our problem, to be solved later on), we would be able to direct all the water from the roof back into the garden onto our vegetable beds.

What made everything so exciting was the fact that everything was going to happen in 24 hours. I was about to become the 100th person in Melbourne, Australia, to host a Permablitz. I would not be paying builders and gardeners, because 50 volunteer gardeners were going to arrive in the morning and make it all happen free of charge. I was only paying around $500 for materials, because many of the materials that I needed had been scavenged or donated.

If I were to actually pay a tradesman or two to do all this work, the project would take months, and the cost of labour would run to many thousands of dollars. If I were to do all the work myself, it could take years, and I would (probably) lose my mind in the process. Luckily, I was part of a movement of volunteers who were determined to bring food production to the cities. It was Permablitzing, and it was a very, very good idea.

What is a Permablitz?

As a concept, a Permablitz is very similar to the barn raisings of 18th and 19th century rural America. Barn raisings were big events for country folk because, back then, a barn was an essential piece of infrastructure for a farming family. Barns were used to keep animals sheltered and safe from predators, and to store vital farm equipment and stock fodder. A barn was also far too big -- and far too expensive -- for an individual family to build by themselves.


A good old-fashioned barn raising. Photo credit: Wikipedia.org. Used under Creative Commons license.

In order to overcome these challenges, and to provide farming families with barns, a tradition called barn raising developed during which all the people within a rural area would come together to build a barn for a household within that community. Old-timers who had helped to build many barns over the years would lead the process, instructing younger and less-experienced individuals, who provided the raw manpower that was needed to get the job done.

Everyone helped out in whatever way they could -- by bringing pies or tools; donating nails; and giving, lending, and contributing what they had. People were not paid for their participation because, in those sorts of communities, everyone knew that ‘what goes around comes around.’ They knew that their neighbors would one day help them, if and when they needed a barn of their own. Food and fun were part of the barn-raising process; these were festive events with a big communal lunch and a celebratory atmosphere.

These days, many urbanites choose to grow food, keep bees or chickens, and harvest rainwater. They seek a degree of self-sufficiency which will allow them to reduce their eco footprint while connecting with the pleasures of the land. Unfortunately, a whole lot of lonely, back-breaking work is usually required in order to make that dream a reality. Because most people need a 'real' job to keep the cash rolling in, weekend and holiday time are often sacrificed in order to get large-scale projects finished. It’s not unusual for small-scale urban growers to spend weeks, months, and even years setting up composting systems, building poultry runs, and connecting water tanks.

That's why Permablitzing makes sense. During a Permablitz, an army of volunteers, friends, and neighbors descend on a home and transform the yard (back, front, or both) into a food-growing wonderland. Permablitzing is a way of turning lawn into micro-farm and suburban house into urban homestead. The term 'Permablitz' is, in fact, a portmanteau of the words 'Permaculture' and ‘Backyard Blitz.’ Permaculture is a design system for sustainable agriculture. Backyard Blitz was an extra-cheesy Australian reality TV show wherein a team of pro gardeners and landscapers would descend upon a backyard and give it a one-day makeover.


Before and after a Permablitz. Photo credit: Permablitz.net. Used under Creative Commons license.

Reflecting on the Permablitz concept, Asha Bee wrote: “Basically, a Permablitz is 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 and Multicultural Organisation) a local community group composed primarily of South American immigrants and a permaculture geek named Dan Palmer. Dan started hanging out with the Codemo crew -- some of whom expressed an interest in growing food in their backyards. The first permaculture backyard makeover was held at the home of Vilma from El Salvador. And Permablitzes have been spreading all around Melbourne since.

Permablitzes involve a combination of learning, practicing, and socialising. I'd say the social community-building aspect is just as important, or even more so, 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.” 

And while Permablitzes do involve hard work, they are also an incredibly fun, deeply emotionally fulfilling way to spend a Saturday or Sunday. Gardening in the sunshine is a wonderful activity. Conversations are free-flowing and pleasant; it is easy to get to know new people as you work together building poultry runs, shoveling dirt, or hammering together together a henhouse. I have seen children have an absolute ball rolling around in piles of straw. When a watering system sprung a leak at the last Permablitz I attended, all the kids jumped under it for a bit of midsummer water play. In an era where both children and adults spend the majority of their lives indoors, Permablitzing gives people the opportunity to form a connection to the natural world.


The more skilled and experienced guide the process. Photo credit: mooimadeit.com. Used under Creative Commons license.

Permablitzing is also a great way to learn new skills. Volunteers get to see chicken coops built, water tanks connected, and raised garden beds wicked. If you have never used a power tool before, a Permablitz is the ideal place to practice wielding a cordless drill with the assistance of a friendly mentor. If you have wielded a cordless drill before, chances are, there will be someone at the Blitz with the kind of skill and knowledge that helps you move to the next level. Turning oneself into an apprentice for a day is a great way to swap sweat work for knowledge.

Planning a Blitz is, I admit, a huge undertaking. It is more than exhausting, it takes weeks of preparation, and it requires massive amounts of cooking. Blitz hosting is not for the faint-hearted. But, for me, hosting a Blitz was an amazing experience. It was Christmas and New Years' rolled into one. It was a party and a working bee rolled into one. Like a wedding, it was a commitment to the future. It's a great thing to see your child collecting snails with someone else’s child. It's fun to get covered in mud, to work up a sweat, to exhaust yourself planting trees and to watch the sun go down with a beer in your hand.

It beats watching television.

More than one hundred Permablitzes have been held in Melbourne, Australia, so far. See www.permablitz.net for more details. De Chantal can be contacted at: dechantal@actionforesight.net

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