F.I.G., permaculture center teaches green living in Israel

Learning self-sufficient agriculture in Israel.

Showing off gourds at Shefa food forest (photo credit: Courtesy)
Showing off gourds at Shefa food forest
(photo credit: Courtesy)
People the world over are leaving the countryside, migrating to cities. And they need somewhere to live. As construction creeps over the landscape, there will be less land on which to grow crops. Climate change and wars are already creating new dust bowls. If you recall last summer’s sandstorms, you’ll remember a dusty film of Syria on your lips. Countries that Israel depends on for staples such as grains, cooking oil and sugar may decide to reduce exports to feed their own. That might leave us with empty flour mills and rocketing prices for foods once considered cheap. While Israel has made huge strides in resource conservation, we won’t be exempt from the need to implement self-sufficient agriculture.
Recognizing this need, some teaching farms are already running permaculture programs for schoolchildren and adults. Start-ups developing technologies for growing food hydroponically are, so to speak, sprouting. But there are few teachers physically striding across the land, establishing rooftop food gardens here and edible landscapes there. Paz Feigenbaum, an immigrant from Australia, is one.
Feigenbaum is so energetic and talented that he reminds this reporter of a one-man band, where the performer strums a guitar, mouths a harmonica and works a foot pedal to beat a drum suspended from his back. His workshops teach participants how to exploit micro-climates in one’s garden to raise crops for the family; how to build a vertical food garden against a balcony wall; how to raise chickens; how to design a rooftop garden; and much more. When Metro interviewed him, Feigenbaum was on the roof of the Clal building on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, overseeing the container garden there and running a workshop.
Born in Perth, Australia, Feigenbaum began studying film design and communication but moved to environmental studies, graduating from Murdoch University. Even before graduating, he launched a private project redesigning a Jewish old-age village as an organic vegetable farm. Working with the occupational therapist, he designed a food garden where the elderly residents could work comfortably. The garden beds were raised high enough for residents in wheelchairs to reach. Tools provided were those easy for weak hands to use.
“It was my first big project. It took a year, even with a group of volunteers to help,” says Feigenbaum. “The farm is still functioning. I was just there a few months ago, and saw that 13 years later it’s still a success.”
From there, he went deeper into permaculture study: natural water systems, drain water systems, and gray water systems. One of the water systems he teaches is building swales, which are rainwater catchments dug into the land. Because a lot of rainfall is lost through evaporation, swales make a valuable water conservation resource that a home-owner with only a yard can use.
Before making aliya, Feigenbaum traveled in Eastern Europe and Latin America, observing eco-communities. He returned to Melbourne and began installing food-integrated gardens. F.I.G., the name of his organization, is an acronym of that phrase.
“I was fortunate to be with permaculture pioneer David Holmgren,” he says. “He connected me to many people in his eco-village. I gained a lot of skills and great experience from living with leading permaculturalists. I designed household gardens, edible landscapes, a small food forest, and animal systems like chicken coops.”
But it’s not a matter of designing a garden and walking away from it. Part of the job as Feigenbaum sees it is creating the customer’s vision, then checking in to see how it’s working. He cites the following as an example of his work:
“A young family in Melbourne wanted an organic garden where they could work two to four hours on the weekends. They wanted to have food in their landscape and their kids to enjoy the garden and learn from it. In a sunny spot, I planted a Mediterranean food forest; in a shady place, an Asian green-salad garden. We made a mint and strawberry patch in a shady area and a tree house for the kids. The house needed shade where the sun was coming into a room, so we planted a grapevine to provide an edible shade cover,” he says.
“In Israel, I designed and worked on a 12-dunam [1.2-hectare] eco-farm in the North. That’s more complex. It needed a design for gray water system and a food forest. We built a micro-brewery and a stone kitchen. I adapt to the person’s budget and conditions, creating their vision in a grounded, down-to-earth way,” he explains.
Not everyone lives in the countryside and has access to hay to mulch a garden, for example. What resources can city dwellers count on?
“Permaculture is the use of local resources,” says Feigenbaum. “True, it’s not as easy here as in Australia. There, you call up the landscaping company, and you get a truckload of manure, compost, mushroom starter, a couple of straw bales and a couple of cubes of mulch. Here, you have to use your eyes and look around. Instead of mulching with hay, we harvest wild oats and other plants that dry up in the summer. Go to the edges of forests when they’re thinning trees. You can pick up a lot of material for mulching there. Talk to the community and exchange news. Maybe there’s a stable or chicken coop outside town, where you can get manure for compost,” he advises.
“We also teach people to look for treasures in the garbage that others leave out on the street,” he continues. “Find out where they’re renovating a house. Old doors and windows can be made into a small greenhouse. Containers that vendors throw out in the shuk can make wicking beds. That’s a new technology, one my products I’ve been designing. It’s a self-watering system for planters.”
Feigenbaum started designing and selling wicking beds during the last shmita (sabbatical) year, when he was teaching how to make a vertical shmita garden according to Halacha.
“I’m observant, and it was natural to join Halacha with permaculture. We taught a two-month program on permaculture during shmita. It was half a permaculture design course and half teaching the halachot of shmita and how to live according to them,” he explains.
Feigenbaum says that he has noticed a shift in Israel’s home gardeners. “People are starting to think about planting for future generations now.”
He also mentions a food forest started at Moshav Kidron four years ago, where all the plants and trees yield edible fruit and leaves.
“The time is ripe for a fresh view of permaculture in Israel. People are learning that they don’t need a land garden; you can grow food on a balcony or rooftop. My workshops and events aim to create awareness that green spaces can be created in cities,” he says.
In collaboration with the NGO Muslala, F.I.G. presents courses on urban permaculture design. The project is held on the rooftop of the Clal building in Jerusalem and is called Hamirpeset. There are also events before all the Jewish holidays, held in areas near Jerusalem.
Contact Paz Feingenbaum at paz@foodingardens.com.au, 054-443-4298 or via Facebook: FIG-Food-Integrated-Gardens.