Suburbia. The very word conjures up an image of neatly spaced single storey houses sprawling as far as the eye can see in a carefully planned monotony.

It’s a place where the car is king, and where 30-somethings reluctantly retreat once their youth has reached its expiry date and it’s time to settle down. A place highly criticized for being unsustainable, but which we keep building more of anyway, because while everyone likes to mock, everyone also loves to buy those very houses. A big fat slice of the Australian dream please, with a helping of bedrooms and a double garage on the side.

Our appetite for space seems to fancy the concrete variety – with gardens being squeezed out in favour of extensions or low maintenance outdoor areas. So increasingly, the suburbs are becoming less ‘edible’ with private food growing areas in short supply. Equally, our gardening skills are being lost. Eating veggies from the garden is a vague childhood memory that I associate with Sunday lunches at my nana’s house, not an everyday occurrence in my present life. Recently, I found myself needing to Google basic advice on planting a few humble herbs – and I don’t think I’m the only one.

A delicious solution

So can we make the suburbs edible again? Permablitz networks around the country are showing that we can, one backyard at a time. The Permablitz concept combines physical outcomes (creating edible gardens based on permaculture principles) with social outcomes (community volunteering and education along with valuable opportunities for landscape designers to get project experience). The concept has enjoyed great success in Melbourne, with Permablitz Melbourne celebrating its 10-year anniversary in October, having completed 186 backyard transformations to date.

The system is simple but genius. A householder registers their backyard for ‘permablitzing’ with the collective, who put them in touch with a team of permaculture designers looking for a chance to test their skills. The collective then advertises the blitz, giving people from any background the chance to sign up and help out. You may think that no one would donate their own time and sweat to do up someone else’s backyard, but the blitzes commonly book out, with up to 50 volunteers registering for each event, looking to learn skills and to qualify for the opportunity to have their backyard blitzed in the future. The blitz events are fun too, with food and materials supplied by the host in return for time and goodwill. It’s a happy merry-go-round of give and take.

A serving of self-sufficiency

Permaculture is a design philosophy which mimics successful patterns and systems found in nature to create permanent landscapes that can provide for human needs. Some may be surprised that it can be applied in the sterility of the suburbs, but urban environments are equipped with some advantages that make food production easier, such as hard surfaces like roofs and paving that shed rainwater – a ready-made free water source for the garden.

While complete self-sufficiency may not be achievable, a small urban garden can grow a sizable portion of a household’s food. In a suburban context, permaculture focuses on finding the right solution based on integration of a number of factors:

  • people (their needs, habits, skills, desires, money and time)
  • place (the physical limitations and potentials of the backyard and its resources)
  • produce (provision of a good portion of food needs that can be produced in harmonious ecological systems, which could include water, herbs, vegetables, fruit, nuts and eggs)
  • prudence (minimising inputs of materials, time and labour, and producing no waste).

Accordingly, every permablitz is different and designed to fit the needs and abilities of the residents and to respond to local resources. Previous blitzes have included a range of interesting initiatives, including wicking beds, banana mulch pits, greywater trenches, worm farms, medicinal herb gardens and aquaculture.

Much more than a garden

The age-old proverb ‘you can give a man a fish, and feed him for a day, or you can teach a man to fish, and feed him for a lifetime’ has resonance here. The most impressive results of permablitzes are not the backyards themselves but the social legacies they leave behind. The participants themselves – both designers and gardeners – benefit from hands-on experience and training. Every permablitz includes dedicated lessons on various permaculture techniques. But perhaps most powerful legacy is for the local residents that get to enjoy their new edible garden – a legacy that is about far more than fruit and veg.

A thank-you letter from a permablitz host says it all:

“Hi Permablitz.

The Permablitz has had a big impact on our lifestyle, we spend more time in the garden as a family.  It has inspired many discussions and conversations about what to plant each season and how they are growing not only within our family but also with the neighbours.  It has been quite a surprise for us how a front yard edible garden could lead us to get to know our neighbours sometimes from many streets down. The joy of watching our food grow and knowing that it is completely organic and fresh from the garden is magical.

Needless to say we don’t buy as much from the fresh produce section of the supermarket and have even declined produce that we know are not in season and have travelled too far to be available to us out of season.

I would passionately recommend a blitz to others who are interested and have done so to those that have enquired after how our garden came about.  Our blitz went so well, the facilitators were knowledgeable and the group that turned up were so friendly and hardworking.  I am eternally grateful for their hard work in establishing such a beautiful garden for us to nourish not only our bellies but our souls.”

Turning the concrete jungle of suburbia into a series of edible landscapes could deliver much more than local produce. It could deliver a platform for community integration, a model for greater self-sufficiency and a real conduit for learning of useful skills. If the future of the suburbs is an edible one, they could feed the city – body and soul.