Permaculture in Preston

Angelo Eliades, and his permaculture food forest experiment in Melbourne’s inner north, 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 integrating policies on community gardening, edible streetscapes and urban orchards into their strategic planning frameworks.

Angelo is remarkable for the methodical and systematic way he has created 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,
Angelo is a life-long resident of Preston, and has been a keen organic gardener since 2002. A few years ago Angelo taught himself the principles of permaculture – he subsequently did his PDC with Bill Mollison – and decided to put them into practice by taking three months off work and transforming his small suburban backyard into a permaculture food forest.

Angelo lives in the suburb of Preston, about 25 minutes to the north of Melbourne’s CBD, within the local government area of the City of Darebin.
Angelo is no starry-eyed idealist, he’s a working scientist. Which is what makes him, and his project, so unique. He set out quite explicitly to use his backyard as an experiment, to rigorously document everything he did, and all his yields, in order to establish that bio-intensive gardening of this sort can indeed be highly productive.
‘I have no time or space for wild speculation’, he said. ‘For me, my food forest was really to prove that the concept worked. As a scientist, if something’s scientific, that means it’s repeatable.’

Angelo embarked on his food forest project because of the ‘scepticism towards permaculture’ he saw amongst horticulturalists. ‘There was just too much doubt, too much dissenting opinion, about whether it can really work’, he said. ‘So I said, enough’s enough, it’s time to call their bluff, and build something that shows it really does work.’

Angelo is both an individual food forest pioneer, and a member of Transition Darebin, a community network whose members believe that large-scale transformations in our food and other social systems are required in order to meet the imminent challenges of climate change and resource constraints.

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].’

Angelo explains the strategic thinking behind the focus on perennials:

“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.”

Angelo is interested in both yield – he wanted to show what was possible to achieve in terms of production in a small suburban backyard – and 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.

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 acre. Average dryland wheat yields in Australia are in the 2 tonne per acre range, even after many millions of dollars have been spent on research and genetics.

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