Thursday, April 26, 2012

Book Review: Tomatoland

Book review of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook

Estabrook presents a critical look at the US tomato industry, particularly the agribusiness in Florida, where most of the US winter grown tomato crop comes from. Tomatos are among the bottom of fruit and veg for taste. The book offers a few possible reasons - tomatos bred for shelf life over taste, the diminishing genetic diversity among varieties out on the market. Most of that is fairly common among agriculture - bananas around the world, for example, are all the same clone species. It was interesting to read of field expeditions to find wild tomato plants in South America and to read of the history of the tomato species. To think that we'd never eat the fruit if one or two key people didn't persist in growing them from the rather inedible ancestors!

There's a lot to be said about the big agriculture industry and overuse of pesticide and fertilizer, but many other organic-local-sustainable ag advocates have already covered this issue. What makes this book different from the rest is its coverage of the huge labor abuses occurring in the industry. If you think that slavery is dead and gone in the US, think again, only this time replace Africans with Latinos. Many agricultural workers are treated like slaves - trucked out from south of the border, tricked into job contracts they can't read, and then told they have to stay to work off their "debt" for the ride up and the crappy housing. If they try to leave their establishments, they get beaten, threatened, chained to posts, and on and on. What's even more chilling is that the few legal cases against these labor abuses happened within the last 2 years and they've barely made a dent in how agribusiness operates. Workers still use the most dangerous and carcinogenetic pesticides and herbicides on these plants without any basic protection. Many still have no healthcare, no minimum hourly wage (paid by the amount picked instead, which hugely depends on how close you are to the truck), no compensation for waiting times, no decent housing. I find it frustrating and aggravating that the state government would turn a blind eye to this and offer lackluster enforcement of existing laws against such abuses. Not only do we not treat the people who pick our food right, but we also suffer from eating tasteless food.

The only criticism I have of the book is that a good few portions were repeated several times, almost phrase for phrase. But other than that, I think the book offered a fresh look at agriculture, tomatos, and labor. Definitely worth the read!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Finally, the day of our permablitz!

Saturday 21 April was our very own permablitz at the rental property I share with my 4 other housemates in Preston. The weather was very cooperative! It started out a cold misty morning when the delivery truck came by with our 4 cubic meters of mushroom compost and mulch, but soon the sun came out for a very nice day. Volunteers started rolling in around 10am and started straight to work digging the fence for the chicken run and weeding the marrow by the peach tree. There were fewer people than we expected, but that turned out to be exactly the number we needed to get the job done.

Before: the back yard

Before: the back yard

Before: the back yard

Before: the front yard

After opening circle and a round of stretches lead by Pat, we split up into the morning workshops. Phuong spoke about the importance of ponds and got several volunteers to help dig out the pond. Pat facilitated the finishing details on the chicken coop (the bulk of which was built the previous weekend), such as sanding down, painting on several layers of paint, and adding on the roofing. Moz worked on the chicken run fence with Hans and Freddy the majority of the day, digging in the chicken wire to prevent foxes and securing the fence posts. I managed the laying down of wet cardboard over the grass for our no-dig technique on the veggie patch. It took a lot more cardboard than we expected to cover the entire backyard! We actually had to make several extra trips to the supermarket recycling bin for cardboard (luckily it's close by).

Stretching during opening circle

Weeding the marrow

Digging the pond

Painting the chicken coop

Digging out the fence

Putting in the chicken run fence


Lunch was a delicious vegan serving of potato salad, dahl, chickpea curry, and rice cooked by Pat. It was an excellent opportunity for everyone to network and get to know one another. There were a few people who were involved with the transition town movement, and I got to learn a bit about how they operate. I'd love to get involved with Transition Darebin in the future - the grassroots nature of transition towns is really appealing.

Cardboard, dirt, and the beginnings of the veggie patch

A long row of bikes on our front porch

Our veggie patch before planting
After lunch, we continued to work on the veggie patch, wheelbarrowing mushroom compost from the front to the back. We were initially worried that we wouldn't have wheelbarrows to carry the compost, but our callout for tools was readily answered by our volunteers, who all seemed to bring a shovel or other handy tools. Indeed, some dedicated few even brought everything on their bike trailers. Our house setup made it easy to have two wheelbarrows going at once and soon the entire backyard was covered in mushroom compost. Chamali and I used string to measure out a circle for the bike-wheel design veggie patch and soon volunteers were planting seeds and seedlings.


The chicken fence was finished quite early so the rest of the volunteers soon moved on to building the composting toliet. Some measuring, pounding, and many a toilet joke later, our simple little composting toilet was finished.

Composting toilet workshop

Everyone was so efficient with the work that we had our finishing cake and tea before 3pm. Vegan chocolate cake and fruit after a long day of gardening was very welcome. Some volunteers stayed on to help with the front yard. We used the same no-dig technique out there with cardboard and mulch to suppress the grass, and soon the natives were all planted. The volunteers even dug out the concrete border and hauled it to the back, where we turned it into a nice little border around the laundry line.

Group photo!

All in all, I'm really happy with what we got accomplished. It took a lot of work in organizing, planning, and managing, but it was worth it. Permablitzes generally take place on land that the host owns because let's face it, gardening takes a LOT of time, energy, and money. So there aren't very many permablitzes that occur on rental properties. But I think that it's important to show what can be done on rental properties. With a little ingenuity about where you get materials, you can do a lot. Even if we don't end up staying at this house, having a garden will increase the value of the land and add to the urban ecosystem. So now comes the fun part of watching our garden grow!

Bad Romance: Women's Suffrage

This video is awesome! Very creatively done.

Gardening in small spaces

If you have a balcony, courtyard or small backyard and want to make the most of it, come and learn how to create an inviting oasis at a FREE two hour workshop to see the latest for gardening in small spaces.

When: 6.30pm to 8.30pm, Wednesday 30 May 2012

Where: Blue Room, Level 1 Melbourne Multicultural Hub, 506 Elizabeth Street (opposite Queen Victoria Market), Melbourne

Bookings: Entry is free but bookings are required via Healthy Habitat.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Style = Substance

I came across a great little article yesterday. There are so many stories on the women who didn't fit into the same old depressive stereotypes of minorities in the US, but we always hear about their hardships and the pain, never their ability to just be normal women. Here is a short article celebrating just those women, defying the time and age while looking real slick (poofy hair and everything).


Here’s what I wish I knew back when I was in high school and so proud of myself for being the exceptionally compassionate, caring person I believed myself to be: focusing only on the pain and degradation of any oppressed group of people does another kind of damage to those individuals. It turns them into stereotypes of pain and damage and ignores everything else about them, including whether they’re funny, or stupid, or weird, or brilliant, or irreverent, or stylish, or creative, or boring, or selfish, or anything else that people are capable of being. It takes away their complexity and vastness and reduces people to one-dimensional figures. So yes, this is a post about style, but more than that, it’s a post about not denying these girls the dignity of their multitudes.

Never underestimate the power of small acts. Even something as trivial as hairspray can be a radical act.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thoughts on organizing a permablitz

My housemates and I spent all last weekend buying materials and sorting out the plan for the permablitz next week. Organizing can be hard work, especially with many different tasks! But at last, the mushroom compost and mulch is ordered, the wood sourced, the tools accounted for, seeds and seedlings bought, the call for volunteers made. We'll be expecting around 20-25 people on Saturday to come help us finish up the chicken coop and the run, dig the pond, build the composting toilet, and put in the vegetable patch.

The process of organizing such an event is in itself a really good learning experience. Here are some thoughts on how to avoid great frustration and stress:

  1. It can be difficult working on your own for this, so it's important to have good team work and to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
  2. Everyone working with you should be familiar with the permaculture design principles as well as the ethos of a permablitz (creating edible ecosystem gardens, building community networks, skill sharing). It's not just about getting the garden the way you want it, it's also about teaching other people how they can do something similar in their neighborhood and creating a knowledge network.
  3. Task delegation is very important!
  4. Good communication between hosts, facilitators, and designers is key so no one is left out of the loop.
  5. Don't try to bite off more than you can chew. As tempting as it can be to put in every single great idea (fruit trees, climbing pumpkins, oh my!), you have to be realistic about your budget and your time. Are you really going to spend 30+min in the garden every day to tend to everything you put in? If not, then you might want to scale back.
  6. For plants that take a long time to bear fruit (ie trees), you can put them into portable pots for greater mobility and flexibility.
  7. There is free material everywhere if you're willing to spend time looking for it. We got a good amount of free wood from Gumtree (Australian's version of Craig's List) and free cardboard from off the street.
  8. Do your research! Whether it's buying materials, looking at companion planting, or designing the garden, going in with some prior knowledge will be essential.
  9. Empowering people by letting them have ownership of the project is very important.
Some great resources for hosts, facilitators, and designers are available here on the Melbourne Permablitz website for those looking to organize a permablitz of their own. Definitely read through them!

So what's our garden going to look like anyway?
Backyard design plan

We'll have the center vegetable patch (bike wheel style) where we'll rotate different veggies in depending on the season. It's in what's known as the zone 1 area, really close to the house and easily accessible.

To the left of the patch is our chicken run, where Henrietta Lacks and sister chicken will live. Some chicken-friendly plants, like fat hen, dock, comfrey, wormwood, and dandelion will be planted along the fence for the chickens to eat. The idea of having the chicken run next to the veggie patch is so that we can do our rounds in the veggie patch and swing by the chicken coop to check for eggs every day. Easy!

Above the vegetable patch is the herbs area, for herbs like basil and rosemary. We'll have some beneficial insect plants as well, basically anything that will attract pollinators or shelter predators of pests. These include cosmos, queen anne's lace, borage, and chamomile.

Up by the bike shed, there's some frames. Later in the year, we'll try growing vertically up them with pumpkins or peas or zucchini. If the area is warm enough, we might try for passionfruit as well!

Behind the shed is an evergreen area. We'll plant some evergreen natives, bamboo, and maybe some honeysuckle to attract birds and increase the biodiversity of the garden. It'll make a good reflecting spot if we have a nice little path leading to the back.

Across from there is the wet area where the pond is going. If we're really ambitious, we may add in a bench and turn it into a really nice area for relaxing and reflecting. Mint, peppermint, raspberries, coriander, and later lemongrass and ginger will be grown there.

Next to that area is the composting toilet shed. Yes, you read that right, the composting toilet. More details on how that's gonna turn out later! Hopefully we'll angle the venting pipe so that it doesn't go straight into the faces of people in the entertainment area.

Next to the house will be our propagation area. It'll be a really simple "table" made of wood or slabs on top of our rainwater tanks. We can check on it every day when heading out and make sure it's covered via a shade cloth. By putting it next to the house, the seedlings can be protected undercover.

So that's the plan! We'll see how it turns out.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Planning for Permablitz

My housemates and I are finally going to permablitz our garden in April! This is my first time designing a garden and seeing the design through. I first heard about permaculture through Wellesley's Edible Forest Garden Project in 2010, where I got to help design a fruit tree 'guild' including supporting plants for the fruit tree. But I graduated before the actual planting got started. So I'm really excited to see our design made real this time!

The first step in doing a permaculture design is to incorporate the permaculture principles. The basic premise is to model natural ecological systems in the backyard/garden so that the humans can sustainably use the space for growing edibles or enjoyment. Deep Green Permaculture has a good description of the design principles and there are many books on permaculture, notably by Bill Mollison, Dave Jacke, and David Holmgren. Here's a short summary of the principles:

Design Principles
  1. Relative Location – every element is placed in relationship to another so that they assist each other
  2. Each element performs many functions
  3. Each important function is supported by many elements
  4. Efficient energy planning – for house and settlement (zones and sectors)
    -Zone Planning
    -Sector Planning
  5. Using Biological Resources – Emphasis on the use of biological resources over fossil fuel resources
  6. Energy Cycling – energy recycling on site (both fuel and human energy)
  7. Small Scale Intensive Systems
    -Plant Stacking
    -Time Stacking
  8. Accelerating Succession and Evolution – Using and accelerating natural plant succession to establish favourable sites and soils
  9. Diversity – Polyculture and diversity of beneficial species for a productive, interactive system
  10. Edge Effect – Use of edge and natural patterns for best effect
  11. Attitudinal Principles
    -Everything works both ways
    -Permaculture is information and imagination intensive
(source: "Introduction To Permaculture" – Bill Mollison & Reny Mia Slay)

Our garden design incorporates most of these principles. If we had oodles and oodles of time (and money), we'd do everything here and use all the space in the backyard and front yard. Imagine passionfruit growing up the fences, herbs by the kitchen window, grape vines out front! But baby steps first, especially since this is our first year living at this house and we haven't gone through all the seasons yet. It's important to get a feel for how the sun/shade hits the space and where the different microclimates are (like how the corner by the rainwater tanks might be warmer because the sun hits the tanks and bounces off).

backyard sketch
Our backyard dimensions

Our plan for this upcoming permablitz is to build or put in the following:
  1. a chicken coop. Chickens, as I've written about before, are really great for the garden for fertilizer and pest management.
  2. a propagation table/shed. The propagation shed is a handy protected space for growing seedlings. You can use a table or even just a tray that's undercover. We might be opting for the table rather than a whole shed for simplicity.
  3. a composting toilet. Speaks for itself, why not? We only have one bathroom in the house for 5 people, so it'd be handy to have a second bathroom. Biosolids, if treated correctly, can be really great fertilizer for the garden.
  4. a pond. This goes back to the idea of emulating natural ecosystems. With the pond, we can attract frogs, insects, and birds, all of which help with increasing the biodiversity of our garden. It's important to have support for the pollinators and pest managers that frequent the garden.
  5. a vegetable patch. Our main purpose! We'll be doing the no-dig technique and simply laying down newspaper, cardboard, manure/mushroom compost, and mulch to suppress the weeds before planting. The veggie patch will be in a bicycle spoke design, allowing us to rotate veggies between the 'spokes' and easily access each section.

More details to come later when we do the permablitz!