Where to Water
By Katherine Kizilos, published December 5, 2007 by The Age (Australia)
The inventor of permaculture is among those calling for backyard farmers to be freed from water restrictions. Katherine Kizilos reports.
In a drought year, during an era of climate change, what does it mean to be a responsible gardener? Cactuses, paving and a sculpture near the barbecue? Or an old-fashioned vegie patch, fruit trees, herbs and a compost bin in the corner?
Some serious gardeners are now questioning the conventional wisdom that the best way to save water at a time of low rainfall is to put a clamp on the hose. While pushing the use of rainwater tanks and grey water, they also argue that growing fruit and vegetables at home is, in the words of David Holmgren, “the best thing you can be doing” for the environment.
Holmgren, with fellow Australian Bill Mollison, devised permaculture, a design system for sustainable living and land use. He puts his ideas into practice at his property, Melliodora, at Hepburn Springs, where a hectare of land supports fruit and nut trees, vegetables, chooks, geese and two goats. Although grains, some nuts and oil-producing plants are not in the mix, the property allows for a fair degree of self-sufficiency – Holmgren says this is also possible because he eats seasonally and does not rely on the “drip feed from supermarkets”. Water comes from dams and from taps connected to town water. Holmgren says the smallholding uses about one-fifth of the water “used by a market gardener or orchardist”.
According to Holmgren, “if we planted out city farms and urban areas, we could achieve a massive increase in (water) efficiency. No one is talking about this “.
Holmgren also points out that farms tend to be open expanses and need more water than a home garden, which is naturally more sheltered. In addition, “farmers use overhead sprinklers which are inefficient”. And many orchards and market gardens are sited in sunny, warm places like Mildura, where the rainfall is low, but where farmers achieve a market advantage by producing fruit and vegetables slightly ahead of the season in colder, rainier Melbourne.
Holmgren has based his calculations on water use on a 2001 Australian Bureau of Statistics study by Lenzen and Foran. The study estimated “the amount of water needed throughout the whole economy to provide final consumers with $1 worth of various goods and services”. It found that fruit and vegetables required 103 litres per $1; beef products 381 litres and dairy 680 litres.
By contrast, Melliodora uses about 20 litres of water for every $1 of fruit and vegetables produced, while the two goats that provide milk and cheese consumed about two litres per $1 of value, or 1/300th of the amount used by a dairy farm.
According to Lenzen and Foran’s figures, commercially purchased food – not including the food purchased in restaurants – accounts for about 48 per cent of the water consumed by the average Sydney household. While the water that comes out of the tap at home accounts for only 11 per cent of a household’s total water use.
For Holmgren, the data suggests that putting restrictions on watering suburban gardens makes little sense. He knows that water restrictions are necessary but proposes households be given a seasonal allocation of water, with the decision of whether to use this in the spa or on the tomatoes left to them. Under this system the price of water would “skyrocket if you exceed” the allocation.
“There are good public policy reasons that home food production is desirable,” he says. “We need policies that at least don’t impede this, even if they don’t actively support it.”
Holmgren’s ideas have been given a boost by a recent petition to the State Government; hundreds of gardeners have asked for exemptions to the water restrictions to allow them extra water for vegetables and herb plots.
In suburban Coburg, Pam Morgan is conducting an experiment. “I want to explore how much food production I can get on a city block,” she says.
For 22 years, Morgan managed the Collingwood Children’s Farm and has visited Havana to see how the Cubans increased the city’s food production by 10 times in a decade. “Fifty per cent of their food is grown there now.”
By cultivating land in the city, the Cubans were responding to embargoes which slashed the amount of petroleum available to them to transport food; urban farms reduce food miles. Morgan also wants to recycle her household’s biodegradable waste to create compost (commercial farms use petroleum-based chemicals and fertilisers). She also hopes to save water by using grey water and roof water.
Morgan argues that policy makers are approaching the water-shortage problem “from a mechanistic perspective. Minimal water use in the garden and drought-hardy plants. It ignores the issue of carbon recycling or organic waste and also of returning nutrients to the land. We are wasting resources from the city at the moment.”
According to Clive Blazey, the founder of mail-order seed company The Diggers Club, the “average person only needs about 60 square metres of space to be self-sufficient in all the potatoes, all the vegetables and the fruit that you wanted to grow. You wouldn’t have big, massive apple trees or anything. You would have espaliered trees, especially dwarf rootstock varieties that wouldn’t take up much space”. He reckons the garden would need “about 34,000 litres of water”, which could be gathered from the roof, or grey water.
Blazey is concerned that the present system of water restrictions does not make allowances “for people on a low income who want to grow their own food” and who might need help to divert grey water or set up a rainwater tank. And he believes the role of suburban gardens in reducing greenhouse gases is not appreciated.
He is irritated by the prevailing landscape aesthetic which advocates paving gardens and planting cactus “so instead of burying carbon and doing something useful you are stopping any organisms from growing under the paving and you are using plants that have so little biomass they are absolutely useless to you. What you need to be growing in your backyard is a lot of green things. Trees and shrubs and plants and food plants and not paving, concrete and bricks.”
But the water restrictions fall hardest on community gardens, where gardeners do not have the option of using grey water and where tank water, if it exists, may not be sufficient for each plot holder’s use. In addition, the morning watering requirements can be difficult for gardeners who have to travel further than the back veranda to visit their plot (while also being less efficient than watering in the evening).
Ben Neil, chief executive of Cultivating Community, which looks after 21 community gardens – just under 800 individual plots – on Ministry of Housing sites, says that when stage three water restrictions were introduced on January 1, “we lost 20 to 25 per cent of our gardeners. There was this initial feeling of ‘how are we going to cope?’ We lost quite a lot of crops.”
Since then, “some people have been quite ingenious,” he says. “A resident on the 17th floor has a pram and comes down with containers of water from the shower.” Neil is now talking to the State Government about installing more rainwater tanks in community gardens, but he also believes policy makers need to look at food-producing gardens and water restrictions in a different way.
“I believe that if local food and urban agriculture are not part of our future, it will be very, very difficult for us to face the forthcoming environmental challenges,” he says. “We must have people growing food in the city.”
By making life more difficult for gardeners, particularly community gardeners, you are not merely depriving them of a recreational and social opportunity, Neil argues. “If I don’t grow my food next to where I live, I will jump in my car and go to the supermarket and buy something that is refrigerated, wrapped in plastic and that has a massive carbon footprint.
“It’s a no-brainer. If I can’t grow food close to where I live, what am I going to do?”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Editorial Notes ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I blogged some of Katherine Kizilos’ earlier work around urban food production over at Eat the Suburbs.
See also this interview with Pamela Morgan on her experiences in Cuba, and articles by David Holmgren on Energy Bulletin.
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