Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
A permablitz is an event where a group of volunteers works together to install a permaculture (permanent + agriculture) garden for a friend, a neighbor, a school, and/or a community garden. The garden can be an annual garden made for annual vegetables, or it can be a perennial garden made for fruit trees and other perennial food crops such as asparagus, brambles, and grapes.
A permablitz can also include installing a rainwater collection system, a gray water harvesting system, and/or building a chicken coop, trellis, or espalier.
How did we find out about permablitzes, and when did permablitzes get started here in Central Texas?
The permaculture community in Texas may have first learned about permablitzes from Dilek Wise, a graduate from a Permaculture Design Course that I helped teach with the Austin Permaculture Guild in 2011 or so. Dilek found out about an organization called Permablitz Melbourne, in Australia, that was helping their community to install permaculture gardens. Permablitz Melbourne had by then installed scores of gardens, and did a great job of documenting their work. They’ve also made some very helpful videos about how to run your own permablitz – a few are linked below.
When I learned about Permablitz Melbourne’s community effort working together to conserve soils and grow food locally, it reminded me of the work I had done as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala. In the Highlands of Guatemala, north of Huehuetenango, we built and kept up 5 tree nurseries (each in a different village), implemented soil conservation methods, and planted woodlot trees in those villages, as well as 2 others. After getting out of the Peace Corps, it always seemed to me that we could and should be doing that kind of work here in Central Texas. Permablitz Melbourne demonstrated that indeed such a community effort was possible.
Then, during the winter of 2011, while I was helping to teach a class called Food Forests for All, at The Whole Life Learning Center, I shared with the students of that class what Permablitz Melbourne was up to. The students were enthusiastic and we had our first permablitz at Austin Ecoschool that very next January of 2012. Many of the people in that class have since had multiple permablitzes at their homesteads, and at community gardens that they were associated with.
Photos from our January 2019 Permablitz at the Multicultural Refugee Coalition’s New Leaf Farm
Since 2012 we have had well over 50 permablitzes, averaging about 9 per year, being held from September through May. In 2015 Earth Repair Corps was incorporated, in part, to help promote and run the permablitzes. If we have learned anything over the past 7 years, it is that we are not just building gardens, but communities that garden.
Since I was leading many of these events and heavily invested in them, there were at least six design elements that I tried to include in each and every permablitz.
- Soil and Water Conservation. As I’ve said during many of my talks and classes, soil and water conservation is the cornerstone of permaculture design – that which all else is built upon. Usually, whether we are planting trees or making annual gardens, we build some sort of earthworks on contour such as conservation terraces or raised annual garden beds. These earthworks serve to slow, spread, and sink surface water running off the garden site, make that water available to the plants in the garden, and catch any soil sediments and detritus that might also be running off of the site.
- Perennial Food Crops. Perennial food plants are the key stone of permaculture design – that which holds it up over time. A perennial food crop yields fruit, nuts, and berries year after year, unlike annual food crops that produce for 1 or 2 seasons and then have to be replanted. In Texas we have been planting mulberry, pomegranate, Asian persimmon, fig, apple, peach, plum, pear, pecan, pineapple guava asparagus, artichoke, grape vines, and blackberry brambles.
- Support Species of Plants. Another aspect of permaculture design that distinguishes it from organic farming is that we are creating agriculturally productive ecosystems, so not every plant we establish in a permaculture garden is a food crop. We use cover crops extensively, like clover, winter pea, rye grass, buck wheat, black eye pea, and millet to improve soils, and help vegetate bare soils. Farmers trees like black locust, acacia, golden ball lead tree, Eve’s necklace, and arroyo sweetwood are all native leguminous trees that offer dappled shade, have deep root systems that bring up minerals from subsoils, and many of which fix Nitrogen into soils. Lastly, deep-rooted herbs like comfrey, sorrel, and dock are added to some of our gardens for their soil-enhancing properties.
- Soil Amendments. Many of our soils in Texas have been eroded and do not have the available mineral content nor the organic matter in them available for agricultural crops to flourish. Bill Mollison was an advocate of adding soft rock minerals to soils to provide crops with needed elements, including soft rock phosphate, agricultural lime for calcium, pelletized sulfur, green sand for potassium and magnesium, and trace minerals. We also add a slow release organic fertilizer in the hole of every tree we plant which is inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi, and beneficial to the roots of most plants.
- Drip Irrigation. Fruit trees in Texas need supplemental water if they are going to flourish and be productive, even when they are perched on a berm just below a swale. The most efficient way to deliver this supplemental water is with drip irrigation. I have become a huge fan of Ewing Irrigation here in Central Texas. Each fruit tree needs about 4 gallons of supplemental water delivered to it every other day from May through early October, or for about 5 months.
- Mulch. At the base of each tree a heavy mulch should be applied annually. Wood chips from trees seems to be what is most readily available for us here in Texas, though if you look around to the north of Austin, from late spring through the summer, wheat straw is available. A good mulch cover will help to keep soil temperatures cooler than the ambient air temperature, suppress weeds, and slow down the evaporation of soil moisture which can be significant under the Texas sun and winds.
Photos from our September 2018 Permablitz at Proffitt Ranch in Marble Falls, TX
The costs for a permablitz can range anywhere from $700 to $4,000 and is usually paid for by the host site. A commitment from the host site is also needed to finish up any tasks that were not completed during the permablitz – finishing up the irrigation system seems to commonly be one of these tasks. The host site is also expected to provide volunteers with lunch during the work days.
Participating in a permablitz is a great way to meet like-minded people, learn more about sustainable design, and (after attending 3 permablitzes) have a permablitz at your home.
The permablitz schedule is announced on our calendar.
If you missed our February newsletter, you can view it here.
And don’t forget to sign up to receive The Dirt in your inbox!
This month, we take a break from our regular programming to focus on the incredible & innovative community of environmental stewards that we have here in Central Texas.
Read more about their stories, learn about their work, and even get involved in some of the upcoming events.
The more we collaborate, the more opportunities we have to create abundance.
– Earth Repair Corps
Written by: Kirby Fry – All Images © Woody Welch 2019
Read our 2015 post on Festival Beach here.
Three years after the design and installation of the Festival Beach Food Forest in Austin, Texas, Woody Welch and I had the pleasure of revisiting this amazing parkland food forest. The trees and plants were doing exceptionally well, a wheel chair accessible decomposed granite walkway has since been added, along with several other mulched paths and park benches. Woody got his drone in the air and was able to take some amazing shots of the site showing just how close the food forest is to the center of Austin, Texas.
- In late October of 2015, Earth Repair Corps partnered with Festival Beach Food Forest and Tree Folks to assist with the installation of a food forest in a public, highly-visible green space just north of Lady Bird Lake and east of Interstate Highway 35 right in the heart of growing Austin, Texas.
- The Festival Beach Food Forest team, Pete VanDyck, and I spent days surveying this site with laser levels and landscaping flags. First, we found the lowest spot on the site and then marked contour lines every 6” and up from there in elevation. What was revealed by that survey was that the park is shaped like a shallow bowl with a large drain passing through the middle of it that drains almost all of the water from Festival Beach Community Gardens and the apartment complex parking lot adjacent to the community gardens.
- Three conservation terraces were installed above and out of the way of the drainage system, 2 on the north side of the food forest and 1 on the south side. A tree boomerang / berm was built up with Geo Grower’s “berm builder” soil around one of the prominent live oaks, and 2 large berms were built up with the same material along the park’s perimeter that would eventually shield the site when planted from the automobile traffic along IH 35.
- Here is a good aerial shot of the Festival Beach Food Forest. Festival Beach Community Garden is right next door to the food forest.
- During this most recent visit, I thought that one of the most successful design elements was the hedge row planted on the perimeter berms. The Arizona cypress trees, and sable palms (both evergreens) had at least tripled in their size, and in just three years were doing a really great job of sheltering the park from the interstate highway.
- Another one of my favorite elements is the fruiting calendar that was planted on the longest terrace on the south east side of the park. If you’re standing in the center of the food forest and looking at the terrace, from left to right you will see – loquat, mulberry, peach, plum, apple, pear, pomegranate, and Asian persimmon. That is the same order that they will fruit throughout the calendar year.
- A new addition to the food forest since the original planting, olive trees.
- Underneath the live oak tree with the tree boomerang below it, I noticed a lot of beautiful native Texas plants had been established. Here is a shot of one of my favorites, sweet almond verbena.
- Also in full bloom, not too far from the sweet almond verbena were several loquat trees. I don’t think that I’ve ever really experienced the fragrance of loquat flowers before, they smelled wonderful. The loquats’ flowers had sure gotten the attention of the honey bees on this warm sunny winter day.
- The visual rock stars of the food forest were the arroyo sweet wood trees which were still holding on to their fall leaves.
Earth Repair Corps will be publishing a series of interviews with Permaculture Design Course graduates who have used the education & resources they gained from the course to further their careers in the world of sustainability.
Our hope is to convey what a life-changing opportunity the Permaculture Design Course can be, while learning more about what first attracted these former students to sustainable design and how they have applied those principles since taking a PDC.
We’re continuing this series with Thora Oneil Gray of the Austin Discovery School – read more below.
1) When did you initially become interested in sustainable design and why? Please describe to us any moments in your life that piqued your interest in sustainable, regenerative, and holistic systems.
I started off as a young environmentalist/activist condemning corporations and big government. I was attending protests, speaking up against oppression, etc. This led me to the question: “how can we do this better?”. Standing up and being pissed at the powers that be is not enough, you have to mulch the path, sow the seeds to get the results you want. I was interested in community, alternative building styles, growing food, eating healthy etc. I didn’t hear the word ‘permaculture’ until I moved to Austin. It was like an exciting map of putting together all the basic fundamentals to live more harmoniously with the natural world.
2) What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a Permaculture Design Course?
My first official course was 3 years ago now. My goal was three fold: 1) Take the official course/receive certificate to teach in the future; 2) Plan for the future development of the Austin Discovery School’s new campus; and 3) Invite the community to take stake by adding to the design fundamentals of the school.
3) Who taught your Permaculture Design Course and when? What did you appreciate about that course, and what would you have like to have learned more about?
I asked Kirby Fry (Earth Repair Corps), Caroline Riley (Whole Life Learning Center), and Taelor Monroe (Austin Permaculture Guild) to come to the Austin Discovery School to teach a PDC. Each teacher brought their own unique style of teaching and deep, specialized knowledge. I really appreciated the guest speakers they brought in like Gary Freeborg and Pliny Fisk, as well as any hands on activities i.e. cob construction, Permablitz, and working with the laser level. I wish we had more time to dive deep into soil (I really just need to take a full on college course on soil – I’m totally enthralled by it).
All Images © Woody Welch 2018
4) You’re in a unique position to have hosted a Permaculture Design Course at the Austin Discovery School, and then have had a Permablitz take place at the school. What was that experience like for you, and how may it have helped your school to advance your gardening education program? Please describe to us a little bit about the scope of that Permablitz.
If you want something done… do it! Our little school of now 13 years has grown considerably from 100 students to over 500. When the lease finally was up at our prior residence, our administration looked at buying the buildings in the back half of the property as our permanent address. These were the buildings of the old state school that sat for 30 years unattended and returning to nature. A major renovation took place with many unintended consequences. School was delayed due to the renovation and parents were starting to lose patience. Hosting our first Permablitz was a great way to boost the morale and sense of community allowing all to take stake in our public alternative school. We had over 200 people come out to help install the the food forest. Digging over 300 linear feet of berms and swales on a dramatic slope, as well as planting 30 fruit trees and herbs. Another major hurdle that effected my program at the Austin Discovery School, Ecowellness, was installing a septic system near the gardens. Huge amounts of caliche soil were unearthed during this installation and then spread all over the soon to be annual food gardens!! Almost 2 feet thick in some areas. Ack! We resolved this by importing well over 10,000 bags of leaf debris (thank you Craigslist) and tilling it in before digging our southeast sloping garden beds on contour. Now we practice dry land cover cropping during the summer, and chop and drop a month before school starts to encourage the soil community to thrive without major disruption. Community and gumption – that’s what it takes. We have accomplished so much in such a short period of time with biomass and sweat equity.
5) What other courses, if any, have you participated in that have helped you to learn more about and implement sustainable design systems?
I have attended a Intro to Holistic Management at Green Gate Farms, I’ve studied herbalism with Ginger Webb (Texas Medicinals), taken the Citizen Gardner’s Course at the Sustainable Food Center, bee-keeping classes, and attended teachings with Mycoalliance.
6) Have you been able to apply what you learned from a permaculture design course to your life, and business endeavors? If so, please elaborate.
Without a doubt I use what I have learned with permaculture every day at my job as an educator at the Austin Discovery School. I’m doing my best to leave behind a thriving ecosystem which can also be viewed as a learning lab for students k-8.
7) Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, and or pass on information about sustainable design to friends, family, or employees?
I teach young folks currently. I feel confident teaching the basics to them. We do a lot of learning through doing/direct applications which is perfect for their busy bodies. Feeling the weight of a shovel, or the moving of mulch, the tasting of carrots. Kids thrive on this real-world activity with instant results they can see, touch, taste, smell, and feel. We are creating full bodied scientists. Kids who question and get over irrational fears. Because they can make observations and learn to be calm in nature. One day I would like to teach adults, right now I’m still learning by doing, experimenting, and discovering.
Thank you so much for your involvement and initiative, Thora!
Permablitz at Proffitt Ranch, Marble Falls, Texas – 2018 09 29
The Permablitz season has officially begun. We kicked it off at the Proffitt Ranch in Marble Falls during the last weekend in September.
Photos by Kirby Fry
Here is the crew, fencing in a 75′ x 130′ annual and perennial garden. Both drip and sprinkler irrigation systems are being installed.
Image 1) The site the day before the ‘blitz. It was mowed and prepared for layout – a very nice, clean slate for us to work with. Great job Proffitt family!
Image 2) Same site, same time of day, a day later, permablitz now taking place. We hand dug nearly 500 linear feet of trenches for irrigation in just one day. The soil was a loamy sand that was a breeze to dig in. This is a trench for an irrigation line that will have 8 overhead sprinklers along it, watering an annual vegetable garden. There are five 3′ wide by 120′ long garden beds.
Image 3) The calm before the storm. Materials and tools dropped off yesterday. Rained on at least 2 or 3 times today. The showers though didn’t stop us for more than 20 or 30 minutes.
Image 4) Simultaneously installing the fencing and irrigation systems as thunderstorms rumbled over us.
Image 5) One row of sprinkler heads set.
Photos by Woody Welch
One the second day we finished setting the irrigation lines, shaping the garden beds, installing 2 pedestrian gates, and getting the seeds and vegetable into the ground.
Our next Permablitz will be at Zanzenberg Farm in Center Point on October 13th and 14th. Hope to see you there!
Kirby Fry, Earth Repair Corps’ Founder, gives an overview of Permaculture to a Permablitz group in San Antonio at Roots of Change Community Garden.
The first ten minutes is an explanation of the ethics and principles of Permaculture. The remainder of the video is specific to the pond installation that was underway at the ‘blitz.
Pete VanDyck, Tony Truong, and I have been working with Randie Piscitello in Leander, Texas getting ready for our upcoming permablitz this November 18th.
Anyone who has land in the Georgetown, Leander, Liberty Hill, Cedar Park area could learn a lot about what to do with an eroded hill side covered with cedar trees.
This permablitz is a textbook case of how to install a terraced orchard in the Hill Country, enrich the local forest, and stop soil erosion.
This 25 degree sloped hillside must have been cleared 20 or 30 years ago and then either grazed by goats or completely abandoned. There is absolutely no top soil remaining, and the only place organic matter is collecting is underneath the larger cedar trees.
We have opened up 8 strips on contour each about 120′ long where we will build conservation terraces with an excavator, and install a perennial food garden as well as attempt to enrich the local woodland with farmers’ trees and native fruiting trees.
There are about 960 linear feet of terraces that we are about to construct and then plant with 48 fruit trees and 16 farmers trees, and then irrigate during the next permablitz.
This may be the most exciting design that we install this permablitz season.
Please come if you can. We will absolutely need all of the help we can get.
Several of us spent about 5 hours yesterday helping to lay out the Festival Beach Food Forest earthworks. The heavy equipment will be showing up no later than the 17th of October, our permablitz there will be on October 31st and November 1st, and the big Tree Folks planting event will be on November 7th. Stay tuned everyone! Read More
Purpose: To create a perennial food storage system for human/poultry/bee forage.
Private or Public land: Private (Residential)
Original Installation Date: 2015.03.14,15
Original Budget: $1350
Funding Provided By: Property owners
Site Liaison(s): Michelle Hernandez (property owner)
Volunteer Information: Approximately 34 volunteers helped with this permablitz.
How long did the install take?: 9-5, two days
What has worked well:
- Having drip irrigation on a scheduled basis. We had to replace one of the drip irrigation timers for failure for unknown reason. Otherwise, the drip irrigation has worked well.
- Using plenty of compost and plenty of mulch.
- Densely planting cover crops and other smaller plants.
- Regularly visiting the earthworks and harvesting crops (and just enjoying observing nature). Also pulling weeds when they are small.
What hasn’t worked so well and presents learning opportunities:
- Weed growth, especially on one specific berm. I think the issue was the mulch and compost was thinner on that berm in area 13. Less cover crops came in, and weeds moved in. The soil will need to be improved over time.
- Loss of trees. The section below will outline what trees were lost where. They primarily were lost on the berm in area 13 and also were primarily red buds, although there were some other nitrogen fixers lost. Some of these red buds had been in pots for multiple months, but the pots were “staggered” (?) pots. (I don’t know what they are called.)
- The “invisible” deer fencing. The bottom fishing line has been unraveled multiple times (maybe by my dogs). Deer or other wildlife eats plants that aren’t either large enough or are deer resistant. My strategy will be to plant deer resistant plants.
What needs to happen to keep the garden vital and productive:
- Feeding the soil
- Consistent water, compost, and mulch monitoring and replenishment when needed
- Variety of plants with different functions and nutrient profiles
|Irrigation||How is the Garden Getting Water?||Two separate systems of drip line on timers, run for one hour every other day in the morning. The two systems run in alternating days.|
|Estimated Water Use||As a very rough estimate, we use 461 gallons of water to run all the berms (length of berm x # of drip lines x distanve of emitters on drip lines x emitter rate/hour)|
|Earthworks||Soil Type/Composition||Soil type/compositions – mix heavy clay soil (black gumbo clay) + berm builder + soil from existing raised wooden beds in garden.|
|Soil Depth||1 foot above ground created by Permablitz|
|Number of Berms/Swales Installed||5 (in 3 different areas: “area 3”, “area 12”-shaded, and “area 13”)|
|Length/Width of Berms and Swales in Linear Feet||Total: 173 linear feet of berm, 173 linear feet of swaleBerm/Swale 3c: 6’x27’
Berm/Swale 3b: 6’x22’
Berm/Swale 3a: 6’x19’
Berm/Swale area 12 (in shade): 8’x50’
Berm/Swale area 13: 8’x55’
|Was Soil Imported? If So, How Much?||6 yards (could have gotten away with 5)|
|Was Mulch Imported? If So, How Much?||Mulch was imported, I guess. It came from neighbor’s wood-chipped dead oaks (sat for over 1 year) + tree trimming service for public utilities. All free. Don’t know quantity.|
|Plants||Number of Trees Planted||24|
|Species/Spacing Between Trees||Berm 3c trees: Common Persimmon, Red Mulberry, Texas Persimmon, PomegranateBerm 3b trees: Loquat, Anna Apple, Kidneywood, Blushing Delight Apple, Moringa
Berm 3a trees: 2 Red Peach, Moringa
Area 12 trees: Texas Torchwoods, Redbud, Brown Turkey Fig, Kidneywood, Anacua, Texas Mountain Laurel
Area 13: LSU Purple Fig, Eve’s NEcklace, Pecan, Anacua, Kidneywood, Western Soapberry, Goldenball Leadtree
|Caliper Width of Trees (Measured Annually)/Date Measured|
|Survival Rate of Trees/Date Observed||9 trees lost as of August 19, 2015|
|Describe Understory and Groundcover||Berm 3c: sorrel, asparagus, Italian dandelion, and more.Berm 3b: comfrey, fennel, sweet potato, okra, peppers, and more.
Berm 3a: asparagus, sweet potato, California black eyed pea, and more.
area 12: flame leaf acanthus, cast iron, aloe vera, chile pequins, Texas betany, Greggs mist, Turks cap, plumbago, cedar sage, peppermint, double mint, patchouli
Area 13: holy basil, Texas native milweed, Henry Duelberg salvia, lemongrass, aloe vera, yucca, and more
|Structures||Existing Structures (Fences, Sheds, etc. on Property Before Installation)||Fence line between permablitz garden and Sunset Valley Community Garden.
Standing outside the fence looking from left to right there is a Flame Leaf Grape→6’→Blackberry
Understory: Bermuda Grass
|Installed Structures (Trellises, Solar Panels, Solar Shower, Outdoor Kitchen, Chicken Coops, Greenhouses, etc)|