School Garden News – Australia
Giuliano Perez digs spreading green message to young minds
By Graham Readfern, CourierMail.co.au
“SORRY – I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve not had lunch,” says Giuliano Perez before reaching to pluck a ripe cherry tomato from a vine, followed up with a fresh basil leaf – a kind of on-the-go bruschetta without the bread.
I have already politely declined the offer of some tiny seeds from a ruby red amaranth plant, a native of South America, which look like small black plastic balls.
“Full of vitamin C,” Perez assures me, before swallowing about 20.
We are sitting near the worm farms and compost heaps, across from a scarecrow and in front of the herb spiral on a patch of land which, this time last year, was a bit of lawn next to the Ashgrove State School carpark.
Thanks to Perez, the area has been transformed into an edible garden, packed with vegetables like potatoes, cabbages, lettuce, peas, beans and beet.
But Chilean-born Perez has his eyes on a much larger revolutionary cause than transforming bits of unused grass.
“This garden helps the kids to become active with the environment,” he says in his clipped South American accent. “A whole new world opens up to them. It’s right there in front of their eyes.”
Perez is co-founder and schools co-ordinator for a not-for-profit organisation called Growing Communities, which aims to bring permaculture gardens to schools and neighbourhoods across Queensland – and anywhere else that will have them.
The 42-year-old grew up in a poor family in Chile’s capital Santiago, but came to Australia as he turned 20 and the country’s military president General Augusto Pinochet was still clinging on to power.
“I was at uni doing mining and engineering – totally against what I do now looking at sustainability – but they were the skills Chile needed. But there was a fair bit of political unrest in the north of Chile. The Australian embassy had opened up. There was an opportunity there. I bought a one-way ticket and when I got here, I had $70.”
After spending many years working in the arts as an actor, designer and writer, the West End resident came into gardening through a multicultural garden he helped create at Northey Street City farm in Brisbane’s north.
Now he is a fully fledged, contagiously passionate environmentalist with concerns about climate change, peak oil, child nutrition and availability of local food that’s not been driven half way around Australia.
Budding green thumbs
At Ashgrove State School, the kids want to be gardeners “like Giuliano”.
“If the kids know how to grow their own food, and take control of the seeds and grow these things locally, then we start to address these issues. And we’ll still be able to eat. Truly – what will we do when petrol hits $8 a litre – how much is it going to cost to get that lettuce up from the south of Australia? “The kids grow their own vegetables – they see the cycles of life and the way that tiny seed becomes a plant.
“We use the garden as a vehicle to make the whole school more sustainable – now they have composting systems and a water tank and the scrap from the tuck shop goes into the worm farm.”
What comes from the no-dig raised beds is organic, but the garden uses permaculture principles which while not great on the eye, mean they work with nature, rather than against it.
Father-of-two Perez remembers making a video – now available on YouTube – in which a primary pupil describes why he enjoys harvesting in the school garden.
“We made some salad,” says the boy. “I thought it was so nice. I’ve never eaten salad before.”
Another segment shows kids slicing open a large green marrow-like fruit.
“Whoa . . . it’s red inside,” exclaims one, obviously new to the inner workings of a watermelon.
Perez says it was then he realised how significant his work was. “It was having a real effect on the wellbeing of this new generation,” he says.
“A lot of kids really don’t know where their food comes from. I’d go to a new school and ask them where lettuce comes from, and they all shout Woolworths.
“For them to see that these things don’t come from the supermarket, but from a tiny seed, is just so important for them.
“Vegetables and fruit stop becoming a commodity – kids see that food has a life and a history.”
He insists that he has witnessed young pupils developing “close relationships” with tomato vines.
“You couldn’t get them away from it,” he says. “They tender it and water it and they watch it grow – and they eat the fruit. They are learning to care for each other’s plants and each other’s property and that makes them more careful on the outside world.”
Last month Perez orchestrated the first national school gardens gathering, attracting representatives from all Australian states. But he says since the first pilot project to create two school gardens, Growing Communities has had no government support.
When the Federal Government announced last year that almost $13 million was to go to establish school gardens, Perez was delighted and hopeful. His balloon of enthusiasm was quickly popped, when it emerged all the money would go to the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Gardens program and its focus on healthy eating.
But there has been good news. Perez has just been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to fund an eight-week trip to Argentina, England, Cuba, US and New Zealand to research how edible school gardens are becoming hubs for community food production and environmental learning tools.
“I feel some responsibility – I have to make sure that what I bring back from the trip helps the school gardens movement to grow,” he adds. “We need a garden in every school and people to show kids how they are part of the environment.”