A version of this article was first published in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 9th June, 2012
A little over a month ago I introduced Angelo Eliades, and his permaculture food forest experiment in the Melbourne suburb of Preston. What Angelo has done embodies the wave of food self-sufficiency sweeping the inner north and west of Melbourne. This wave has been generated by individuals and community groups, but it’s increasingly being embraced by local governments, who are integrated policies on community gardening, edible streetscapes and urban orchards into their policies and strategic frameworks.
Angelo is remarkable for the methodical and systematic way he has built his backyard food forest, and in particular for his documentation of everything he’s done, from species selection, plantings, climate events and yields. All of this is available at his blog, deepgreenpermaculture.com.
Angelo built his food forest on the ‘leached and lifeless’ soil of his 80m2 backgarden during the winter of 2008. He calls his method ‘backyard orchard culture’. It’s based around the careful selection and strategic siting of a range of different tree species (Angelo has 30), interspersed with numerous varieties of berries (21, with multiples of several varieties), herbs (90) and other perennials, with some space left for annual vegies. Typically early, mid- and late fruiting varieties will be chosen, because ‘this gives extended seasonal cropping – instead of having one tree produce a glut of fruit all over a few weeks, you can extend your cropping [over several months].’
For Angelo, a key motivator is yield; his aim was to show what’s possible in a small space, the ‘typical suburban backyard’ in inner Melbourne. Remember, he wanted to counter the scepticism of folks in DPI and elsewhere who scoffed (and still scoff) at the idea that permaculture and backyard gardening can actually produce significant amounts of food.
But he’s also very interested in resilience: in selecting species that can do well in a Melburnian climate that is behaving increasingly erratically, with damp and cool summers, short and mild winters, freak hail storms, and extremely hot days in early spring. Never mind the droughts, the fires and the floods.
So he and his colleagues are looking abroad and at other cultures and agricultural traditions, trying out species that you wouldn’t think of as forming part of the ‘normal’ Australian diet, if such a thing still exists. The multi-functional and ‘very highly productive’ Peruvian root crop yacón is one. “It’s very sweet, you can eat is straight, or stir fry it; you can also produce a natural, inulin-based sweetener out of it”, says Angelo.
The cold hardy babaco, a member of the paw-paw family, is another tree that features in his food forest. It’s also known as champagne fruit, because it tastes ‘like a lemon-sherbet pineapple-strawberry blend and it’s quite fizzy’. It also has medicinal properties, having four times the bromelain (anti-inflammatory) content of pineapples. And, Angelo told me, it ‘makes great smoothies, too’. Unfortunately none were ripe when I visited. He expects the tree to yield 50kgs per year when it reaches maturity at four years.
Angelo explains the strategic thinking that informs the selection of perennials, not annuals, in this type of orchard design:
“They’re more flavour-intensive, they’re far hardier, and they grow much better. We find all these types of plants, like French sorrel, and perennial spinach, things that are high-yielding and good tasting. And then we propagate them, and distribute them out through the local community, so everyone gets hold of these plants. The more we share them, the more we have of them.”
You can see here the outlines of a vision for a community-based resilient food future, which I’ll flesh out more in a later column. But what about his yields? Angelo has documented approximately 200kgs per year, with a roughly 60-5- 35 split between the trees, the berries and the vegies. All his trees are a few years away from maturity, – a third are not yet producing at all – so he thinks 500kg a year is quite feasible.
Even his current yield equates to 14 tonnes per acres. Average dryland wheat yields in Australia are in the 2 tonne per acre range, even after many many millions of dollars have been spent on research and genetics. Makes you think, doesn’t it?