Walking the Snack Track with Jenny Allen
"I told you to boil those warrigal greens! (Jenny at an Aboriginal dance ceremony)
Most reader will be familiar with Jenny Allen through her popular column in this magazine, (why is it called a column? It's almost always two pages!) She has taken a break over the last few issues and has been tasting the fruits of Vietnam, but I hope to entice her back for Issue 7.
Like many in the bushfood industry, Jenny came to it in a roundabout fashion. A Bachelor of Arts with a Double Major in Politics was followed by jobs with a variety of overseas aid agencies, including Community Aid Abroad and CANAMCO (the Canadian Namibian Company). Following independence in Nambia, she helped coordinate workshops on education, agriculture and health.
Her first dabble in bushfoods, over 10 years ago, was an uneducated stint in the bush with her sister, to see how long they could survive. "Needless to say" says Jenny, "after 5 days of roots and a lizard tail we opted for a chocolate milkshake and 3 hot meat pies!" An early convert to Permaculture, she obtained a Diploma many years ago and now spends the bulk of her time teaching and doing property designs, (with a bit of writing thrown in, thank heavens!)
Although Jenny's land is one of the most "bushfood" heavy properties in the area, her 3 acre block near Maleny is, strictly speaking, a permaculture rather than a bushfood model. Fortunately the two go hand in hand. Jenny's property carefully integrates bushfoods into her overall permaculture design. Rather than block planting, the bushfoods are blended into ecological niches, that in many ways emulate those they may be growing (and fruiting) in naturally Hence the lilly pillys are growing on the forest edge, where they can reap the benefits of the sun, encouraging them to fruit, as well as maximising the benefits of the forest, less wind, higher humidity no frost, forest soil fauna, natural mulch and less weed invasion. This also means no Invasive kikuyu grass, enabling the lilly pillys to flourish as lawn avoiding citizens.
The rainforest spinach is planted on the creek's edge, holding its own against the mist weed. It flourishes by the water and can handle the periodic flooding. The native hibiscus can handle it tough, so it has been given the job of a pioneer plant on the windy western side of the property. But not only is it acting as a windbreak, it is also helping to break up the compacted ground that used to be a driveway. It is flourishing and fortunately is near the house so that its beautiful flowers can be appreciated, both visually and astronomically. Because it is also near the vegetable garden, whilst harvesting a salad, Jenny will often pluck some edible yellow petals to spruce it up.
The native raspberries are strategically placed below the water overflow. This extra moisture means irrigation is not necessary and that the raspberries are juicy and plump, producing for about five months of the year.
The Davidson's plums like dappled shade and little wind, so Jenny grows them on the Southern side of bananas on a protected eastern facing slope Here she can regulate the amount of sun the plums get by cutting back some appropriate banana leaves in winter. The concept of good design is really highlighted as we look down from the verandah over the top of the Davidson's plum. They have been planted there as they have such beautiful leaf formations, which are featured from an aerial view. This highlights permaculture and Jenny's maxim of giving everything as many uses as possible (unlike some hardline permaculturalists, she includes aesthetics as one).
I asked her about the commercial side of the industry.
"I'm coming to it from a different angle. I look at the land and I use permaculture principles to make it productive, abundant even. I grow bushfoods for personal use, not commercially, thus my designs are not appropriate for everyone. I do think it is important that commercial growers know and try to get an understanding of their land before they launch ahead. If their land does not necessarily have the right ecological niches for their proposed crop, they may be able to play a role in helping create them, for example with windbreaks, frost barriers, swales and bird attracting species that help with pest control."
Permaculture uses natural checks and balances to enhance productivity. If you like, foods in the bush do the same. Any naturally occurring food will be part of a relatively stable community of species, nature's polyculture. Pests and diseases are present but they rarely get the upper hand."
"There is so much to learn from nature and we can keep this in mind when we are designing bushfood gardens. Design is the backbone of high productivity, rather than just planting and hoping for the best."
I laugh as the latter includes myself Although Jenny helped me design my original bushfood garden, I've added to it in a rather haphazard fashion, asking only that the plant be native and edible (it remains to be seen whether my Solannm centrale survive in our subtropical climate).
Does the bushfood industry have much to learn from permaculture? "You shouldn't ask me, I'm biased! I think everyone has a lot to learn from permaculture. It is more than just a design philosophy. It is a way of observing your natural surroundings and working with the natural forces."
I asked Jenny to give us some final bit of advice. She didn't have to think about this one at all. "Throw away your lawn mower, escape from lawn and order and start designing today so you can eat your garden tomorrow." Information on Jenny's courses can be obtained by writing to:
Jenny Allen, The Beechwoods, Maleny, Old 4552