In conversation with Dan Palmer, partner in the growing garden movement, permablitz, which is capturing the minds of communities around the country
What is a permablitz?
Permablitz is a noun: An informal gathering on a day when a group of at least two people come together to achieve the following:
- Create or add to edible gardens where someone lives
- Share skills related to permaculture and sustainable living
- Build community networks
- Have fun
Permablitzes are free events, open to the public, where you learn a lot, share food, get some exercise and have a wonderful time. Every permablitz is preceded by a permaculture design in which a designer creates a clever plan for the garden, suited to the host’s needs and unique qualities of the site. Most people come to learn and have a good time, and if you go to at least three or so, the group can help organise one for you. The whole concept came about after Dan’s friends — who were part of a South American community group based in Springvale, one of Melbourne’s outer suburbs — were impressed with his beautiful backyard (featured on Vasili’s Garden TV show in 2006) and wanted to grow some food of their own. They didn’t have a lot of experience, so Dan started organising garden makeover days, which included half the people from the community group and half of Dan’s friends, who were all interested in permaculture. There were free workshops and someone always cooked a barbecue. In those days, the events always ended with salsa dancing! As time went on, other people wanted to have make-over days of their own and from one make-over to the next they started to call them “permablitzes”. The concept soon spread and today they are about to celebrate their 100th permablitz in Melbourne. Now there are networks running permablitzes all around Australia and even several internationally.
What is your mission?
We want everyone to be able to afford healthy organic food because they can grow it themselves. We want cities that function more like ecosystems, feeding the inhabitants while slowing water use, building soils and diverting waste from landfill. We’d like to be part of this transition, continuing to learn and share our knowledge.
Have you always gardened the way you do today? If not, why did you change your ways?
I don’t think any of us has ever experienced health problems or revelations that led us to growing organically. I think we’ve just had a natural suspicion of using toxins and a love of learning about natural systems. It helps to understand things as holistically as possible as permaculture designers. Making links between things, like the science of composting, soil geology, natural histories and ecology, and nutrient interactions in the soil — all this seemingly obscure stuff — becomes really interesting when it begins to mean something to you. There’s a lot of really amazing and relevant things we could have been taught at school but weren’t. When we share it with people young and old, their eyes light up. It’s the endless wonder of the natural world, and gardening organically and thinking about it helps us get back in touch with that more than any nature documentary.
Explain your view of synthetic chemicals vs the organic approach
On the farm scale, it’s clear that using petrochemicals tends to rapidly deplete and salt up the precious topsoil. It’s also using a lot of fossil fuels and producing lots of pollution, leading to blue green algae, ocean dead zone and producing pollution, too, making it inherently unsustainable. Anything unsustainable, by definition, must sooner or later collapse. We don’t have much choice other than to eventually return to organic methods, and many “conventional” farmers are opening up to it already due to rises in fertiliser and glyphosate costs or loss of productivity. We need to begin building topsoil back — it’s a larger carbon sink than forests — to help moderate climate change. Fortunately, there are many economically viable models farmers can use to do that. We’ll need to grow more food in the cities, too. In your own backyard, the organic vs industrial chemical approach is a no-brainer. Organic is cheaper, better tasting and you don’t expose yourself and your family to petrochemical toxins.
What harm do you think we have caused the environment with bad gardening practices?
There may be DDT, dieldrin, excess copper from fungicides and other pollutants to deal with in suburban backyards due to past gardening practices. So far, in the soils we’ve had tested the levels haven’t been enough to panic about on any of these but they are out there. We have had to deal with highly contaminated lead soils, which is usually a result of flaking lead paint (paint had high amounts of lead in it until the 1960s) or proximity to main roads and vehicle exhausts. On a personal level, Adam has lived in two houses with severe lead problems. One case involved a lengthy process mediated by the council because the neighbour’s house was flaking lead paint into his soil. But we’ve done a lot of research and we’ve learnt ways of dealing with it.
What do we need to do to fix this problem?
Amazingly, compost helps with many toxicity issues. Many pesticides will be broken down in the compost pile. Lead will always be there in the soil but contamination can be overcome by building up organic-rich soil — the higher the better, but 15cm above the original soil line is a good start — and keeping pH neutral with lime. Peeling root crops grown directly in lead-contaminated soils and washing vegetables with a weak vinegar solution are good ideas. It’s especially a concern for kids and the most likely exposure is not through food but through eating the dirt. Some plants, such as wombok and possibly other members of the cabbage family (brassicas), shouldn’t be grown where lead contamination is an issue as they can accumulate it. Any fruit (including tomatoes, capsicums, cucumbers etc), however, doesn’t accumulate heavy metals.
Who are you trying to help through VEG?
Anyone who needs support, whether in education, design or actual garden implementation, to produce more organic food at home.
Do you provide tours for the visitors/ customers to better educate them and appreciate quality fruit?
We run a lot of workshops through councils and at festivals and we often run our own courses at the properties of our customers.
What are your views on the quality of fruit and veg in retail stores?
When you taste homegrown fruit and veg, like a sun-warmed tomato or a snowpea straight off the vine, you can’t go back! The taste is so superior, you don’t even use the same recipes. We find ourselves using less salt and spices than we used to because the flavour of the vegies is enough on its own.
How can we better the quality of fruit and veg in retail stores if people don’t want to grow their own?
There are options now to connect to local farmers via vegie box schemes, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) systems and farmer’s markets (make sure they are real farmers, though), so you know what you’re getting is fresh and you know who grows it. This often helps the farmers get enough for their produce by selling it direct so they can farm in ways that are not subsidised by cheap petrochemicals. Retail stores are losing customers to these schemes, so they’d better think fast. If your only option is the local retail stores, it helps to eat in season. It’s also about our priorities. For many people, doing without the latest flatscreen TV can mean you can eat organically. Historically, food used to be people’s main expense and whether it’s worth spending a bit more for better produce that’s pesticide-free is up to the individual, but I think it makes sense.
• Learn to compost. Building good soil through compost is the solution to probably half of all garden problems and it stops your waste ending up in landfill. It’s not complicated but it is about more than simply throwing food scraps in a plastic bin. (There’s some basic information on the VEG website.)
• Mulch until you lose children in there. Once you’ve built the soil, you need to protect it from the elements and feed it. Mulch is the answer.
• Learn about useful and edible weeds. It helps take some of the morale-draining chore out of gardening to recognise that many of the volunteer plants in your garden are your friends — edible, medicinal and soil-improving. We run edible weeds walks in Melbourne and it’s our most popular course.
• Grow a diversity of plants, not just food plants. Flowers, including anything in the daisy family, bring in ladybirds and other predatory “good guy” insects. Dense native shrubs provide insect-eating bird habitat. Other plants provide strong fragrances so pests can’t find your vegies by smell. Many have nutrient-accumulating abilities, so you don’t need fertiliser. And the more diversity, the more natural balance. It becomes a joy to watch these interactions as your garden comes to life, and you’ll have fewer worries about pests and diseases.
• Think design. Space is at a premium in the city. Getting things in the right place and milking multiple uses out of that space mean everything. Permaculture design is about arranging things so they complement each other. For instance, making clever use of deciduous vines and fruit trees can help protect your vegie garden from summer afternoon sun and save you money on heating and cooling the house.
• Use your microclimates — the warm, wet or shady spots — to your advantage. Think about where you walk the most and put the high-maintenance herbs and vegies there. There are hundreds of other design considerations. Get a good book on permaculture, come to one of our courses, or get a permaculture designer in.
• Oh, and chickens. We love chickens.
If you are keen to get involved in a permablitz, contact Dan via the following websites. www.VeryEdibleGardens.com www.Permablitz.net