1 November 2012 — Sustainability advocate Michael Mobbs has released his second book, Sustainable Food. It was launched by Minister for Foreign Affairs Bob Carr at Parliament House, Canberra on 29 October. Mobbs will be at Gleebooks in Glebe on 6 November and Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill on 7 November.

See our What’s On listings for more Sustainable Food events around the country.

Sustainable Food contains practical advice on establishing community and backyard vegetable gardens, keeping chooks and bees, and reducing water usage, along with ways to deal with councils and avoid supermarkets.

In the book Mobbs says it was in the 1990s, following years of residents’ requests, the council removed half the bitumen of some footpaths in about a dozen city blocks – “sounds good, but less than ideal”.

He said the new verge 1.3-metre wide strips were separated from the bitumen paths by freshly-sawn hardwood timber planks confining newly laid tar and then left in place to provide edging.

“In many places the tar from the removed pavement was buried below the new soil. Cement, too, was often left below the new turf (it’s cheaper to bury and hide building waste than pay to have it taken to waste depots – a practice still thriving today).

“Where ‘bulges’ for decorative plants were constructed, shallow soil about 250 millimetres deep was placed over old road cement. The foundations were laid, therefore, for failure; no drainage to or from this soil, no retention of groundwater and rainwater in many places, few nutrients to promote strong growth in the vulnerable new turf, trees and plants.”

It was in May 2007 that the council agreed to dig up two road bulges to improve the quality and diversity of the garden beds.

“For a week there was welcome noise and hubub – cement saws, rock-breaking equipment and about a dozen council workers digging up the cement other council workers had earlier left under the soil. No wonder the plants looked tired and lifeless.

“After council had cleared the way residents replaced some of the shrubs in the nature strips in Myrtle Street with edible trees, plants and herbs.

“Old favourites such as citrus trees, tomatoes and English mint returned to Chippendale, along with new additions – native mint (quite likely to have been here before the colonial take over), chillis, cumquat, caffre limes (in this book I use this name instead of the derogatory ‘kaffir’), bay trees, lemongrass, strawberries …”

Mobbs also instigated, with farmer Anthony Wallis, a food box service.

“Around 20 of us began to buy food directly from the farmers. Each week Anthony would pick up goats’ cheese made at a farm near his place, and fruit and veggies from farmers nearby.

“And a couple of farmers drove to the food markets in Flemington, 30 minutes from Chippendale. Then, having sold produce there, they’d bring the remaining fruit and vegetables to my house where Anthony and I would put it in boxes. Apples, tomatoes, broccoli, onions, lettuce, garlic … the best of the season and picked the day before, were picked up by local residents and businesses.

“We compared the price of our produce with food from the supermarket. Every time the boxes were cheaper: $25 compared to $37 to $54 for the same fruit and veggies. We achieved these prices even though we only supplied 30 or less boxes. And ours were grown without oil- and gas-based fertilisers and travelled thousands of kilometres less to our tables – perhaps a couple of hundred kilometres.”

“In October 2008 about 20 residents and businesses of Chippendale put on a one-day ‘Food for the Future Fair’.

“With $10,000 from a local developer, Frasers Property Group, donations by other businesses including artwork and printing, wheelbarrows, shovels and various gardening implements and 200 fruit trees donated by the council and jointly chosen by council and us, the community took over three city blocks for farmers’ food stalls, tree planting, chook pens, music, barbecues and plant swaps.

Around 6000 people turned up with babies in strollers, dogs on leads, animals and people enjoying the fun in our three city blocks closed to traffic. Not one moving car in sight for the whole day. We had reclaimed the streets!”

It was then that workgangs of local residents, visitors and businesses headed off with trees, shrubs and herbs.

“My daughter, Jessica, presided over the plant allocation by asking residents how their houses were situated, on the sunny or dark side of the street, something many hadn’t thought about, she said. Depending on their answer, they could take away a couple of plants that had been sorted and placed within two large chalked circles on the road marked ‘Sunny’ and ‘Shady’.

“To get rainwater flowing into the new road verges I worked up a plan with a neighbour, Laurie Hughes. On the fair day he demonstrated how to make a leaky drain, also providing a how-to diagram. Then Laurie and the residents who wished to have leaky drains, dug up the rock-solid, lifeless clay soils and exposed the drain pipes in front of their houses which for a hundred years had drained rainwater from the roofs to the street gutters, where it ran down to pollute Sydney Harbour.

“Each drain pipe was either replaced by an ag pipe, if it was metal, or, if it was plastic, it was cut and shortened to make a gap of about 2 to 5 centimetres at either end so rainwater could drain through the gap to the soil below.

“Each plastic pipe was drilled with a couple of dozen holes and a geofabric sleeve was put over the pipe to keep the soil out and allow the rainwater to keep draining.

“Now, for the first time in over a century rainwater from the roofs of Chippendale houses was being used to irrigate the soil, and to feed the new and existing trees. Back to the future.”

Mobbs said it was then time to plant the trees.

“Holes were dug, generally 500 millimetres to 800 millimetres deep and wide, with rocks thrown in first, compost, worm juice and mulch next, then potting mix. Finally, compost and sugarcane mulch was spread around the trees about 150 millimetres deep.

“A seaweed extract, Seasol, was mixed with water and sprayed over the mulch either in watering cans or by attaching a ‘sprayer’ to the hose. Seasol makes the leaves more resistant to heat, increases the availability of nutrients in the soil, makes plants more resistant to attack by strengthening cell walls, helps plants to get over transplant shock and strengthens roots. Some organic gardeners use seaweed directly on beds, or make their own seaweed teas.

“It took about 20 people, all but a couple without gardening experience, working from 9 am to 6 pm to plant the 200 citrus trees, herbs and native shrubs.”

Even the waste from the fair day was put to good use with a 400-litre bin in Peace Park ready to create compost.

*Mobbs will be at Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe on 6 November from 6pm. He will talk with Indira Naidoo. Cost: $10/$7 concession. Bookings: (02) 9660 2333

*Mobbs will also be at Gleebooks at 536 Marrickville Rd, Dulwich Hill on 7 November from 6pm. He will talk with Greg Bearup and Leonie McNamara. The event is free. RSVP: (02) 9660 2333.