EARTH REPAIR CORPS
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.

Aerial image of Festival Beach Food Forest in Austin, TX nearly 4 years after their 2015 Permablitz

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.

                       How to run a permablitz?

                       Permablitz on Costa’s Garden Odyssey, 2009

                       Plug In TV – Permablitz

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.  

Explosive abundance!

 

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Earth Repair Corps is 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. Learn More about the Permaculture Design Course and check out our upcoming Fall 2019 PDC.

We’re continuing this series with Jim O’Donnell of The City of Austin’s Wildland Conservation Division – read more below.


About Jim

My degree is in education from The University of Texas. I was a teacher in Dripping Springs for 28 years. During the summer, I worked monitoring endangered species for different contractors. The Vireo Preserve in the 1980’s was home to the largest breeding population of Black-capped Vireos in Travis County. I was able to get the 214 acres of the Preserve set aside in 1989. So, we manage Vireo as endangered species habitat that also includes the addition of rare and unusual plant species.

For the past 10 years, I have been working for the city’s Wildland Conservation Division which manages 13,000+ acres to protect habitat for endangered species. I continue to monitor endangered species, but now with the addition of lots of restoration work. Volunteers are the key to our work and success. I love working with people who come out to Vireo to learn how to manage their land in a more regenerative way!

1. How did you become interested in sustainable design?

I grew up in the Bull Creek watershed in northwest Austin.  As a teenager, I was able to hunt, fish, and camp in our Ashe juniper-oak woodlands.  Even though the landscape had been dramatically altered by a history of clearcutting and overgrazing, there was still incredible beauty in this recovering system. 

Observing our Hill Country landscape for over 50 years now, it is clear that some areas are so degraded that only a thoughtful and knowledgeable design can bring them back.  Most land managers use fire and herbicide with the mistaken belief that the land requires such techniques. 

Our approach on the City of Austin’s Vireo Preserve is to demonstrate that real regeneration begins with soil health, rehydrating hillsides, and adding diversity at all levels of the system. 

We have been successful enough that we are beginning to apply our designs and techniques on to other properties within the City of Austin’s Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.

2. What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a permaculture design class?

Over the years, I have witnessed numerous re-vegetation projects that usually end in failure.  I was intrigued with the permaculture design system that incorporated a holistic approach to interacting with the landscape to promote sustainability.

3. Who taught you your permaculture design course and when?

I finished my permaculture design course in 2014 at the Whole Life Learning Center.  The instructors were Kirby Fry, Caroline Riley, and Taelor Monroe.  I was very impressed with the instructors’ knowledge and commitment to earth repair and sustainability. 

4. What other courses, if any, have you participated in to help you learn more about and implement sustainable design systems?

I have taken Elaine Ingham’s classes on soil biology.

5. Have you been able to apply what you have learned to your life and business?

I have been heavily influenced by the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham on how to build healthy soils.  I am also collaborating with colleagues Dr. Brian Pickles and Monika Gorzelak, former graduate students of Dr. Suzanne Simard (University of British Columbia), to investigate the role of fungal networks in distributing resources among plants within forest ecosystems (“world wood web”).  I am also supporting research by Dr. Moriah Sandy (University of Texas at Austin) on potential medicinal and ecological properties of endophytes on Ashe junipers.  All of this research supports further knowledge on how to build regenerative ecosystems. 

All Images © Woody Welch 2019

6. Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, or pass on information about sustainable design?

I have had the opportunity to work closely with several area Master Naturalist chapters to teach about design.  The Capital Area Master Naturalists have been extremely helpful in recruiting volunteers for our project and giving us a platform to speak at presentations.  I’ve also been a guest speaker at St. Edwards University and recently at the University of Texas.  I am very excited to be a speaker at the Global Earth Repair Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington, in May.  And finally, I want to express my deep appreciation to the local permaculture groups for all the knowledge that they impart, their good work, and dedication to community.

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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.

Learn More about the Permaculture Design Course and Register Today for our next class in 2019.

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!

 

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