The last stop during our Chiangmai trip was a 10-acre piece of land about an hour southwest of Chiangmai in the village of Maemut. To get there, we rode along the beautiful valley into the mountains, leaving the urban areas behind us. We saw a motorbike crash right in front of us which really reminded us of the dangers lurking behind the enjoyment. We passed by some touristy venues like river rafting and elephant riding without stopping.
A young family lives at Maemut Garden. Marco is a humble Italian who speaks Thai. Nok is the reason Marco turned his short Chiangmai trip into a permanent stay. They have a two year old baby daughter Serena who entertains us with her budding talent in traditional Thai dancing. Pi Hom is a Thai lady that helps out with everything and made the farm what it is today. Other than these permanent occupants, there are also people staying for different durations. Long-term renters for over a year, home-stayers for a few days, and volunteers for a few weeks.
The farm was started about 4 years ago but do not let the young age fool you. The land already produces more than enough rice, vegetables, eggs, and fruits for the occupants’ needs. The excess produce is sold at the local market or processed into something valuable like jam. With the way Marco designed the farm, it will only get more productive requiring less human input as the years pass. I mentioned that Marco is humble because despite his denials he is quite an expert at permacutlure design. This is a guy that has obviously given much thought on the design and did the research. He is candid to admit that he has made many mistakes but it is impressive given that it is his first time doing it. Food forests at different stages, impressive buildings built naturally, water storage, farm economics, and more. If ever I were to have my own farm, I would design it quite similar to Maemut Garden.
The Food Forests
Marco walked me through the food forests that are around Maemut Garden. It was a precious opportunity because food forest is a concept talked about a lot by many people with very few actual practitioners. Very few people have sufficient land to implement that and then walk in the growing food forest every day for many years to observe what is happening. It takes courage to do it when most of the commercial orchards around plant very limited species in straight rows. After all, how many people who grew up in the modern world can deal with the “disorder” and “mess” of a forest?
Order is found in things working beneficially together. It is not the forced condition of neatness, tidiness, and straightness all of which are, in design or energy terms, disordered… Thus the seemingly-wild and naturally-functioning garden of a New Guinea villager is beautifully ordered and in harmony, while the clipped lawns and pruned roses of the pseudo-aristocrat are nature in wild disarray. — Bill Mollison
Maemut Garden has a few patches of growing food forests ranging from less than a year old to four years old. This was particularly educational because you get to witness the progress chronologically. The oldest food forest was obviously the most productive. Even at four years old, it is already producing more than enough fruits than the farm can pick. Marco has done a very good job with mulching all the trees thickly. There are pineapples on the ground between trees. The pinto peanut is a nitrogen-fixing legume ground cover that was planted in the beginning stage. It has trouble competing with grass in full sun but now that the trees are providing more partial shade it is slowly taking over.
Over at the younger food forests, you can immediately feel the difference in the soil and vegetation. Grass is more rampant and the soil is drier and harder. The pinto peanuts are struggling against the grass. Marco got a Thai reforestation guru to come and implement a system with a mix of trees.
Maemut Garden also uses some leguminous trees as pioneers for the food forests. These trees are very hardy and help to speed up the process by fixing nitrogen, building biomass, and providing shade. Bill Mollison mentions the different types quite a bit in his book and it was nice to see them actually used in real life. Acacia (cha-om), leucaena (kra-thin), sesbania grandiflora (sa-no), pigeon pea (tua-ma-hea), and more. They also provide food in leaves, flowers, and pods.
Building a Kitchen Garden
Marco wanted us to help tidy up an area that had a mixture of kitchen herbs and vegetables. He said it was productive but in a Thai way, which means the plants are all over and only the chef knows where to get them. Looking at the rectangular layout of the area, I proposed a series of raised garden beds to him. The beds will hold soil and organic matter in while keeping humans from stepping in. There will be pathways in between the beds for easy access.
To find materials for creating the raised beds, we walked around the farm. It wasn’t long before we spotted all the materials we needed. There were many chopped down banana trunks which can serve as the edging. It was my first time using banana trunks for this purpose but I think that the amount of water they hold will be great for the plants as it is released slowly. The trunks are surprisingly heavy! They obviously would not last forever but they should for at least a year or so . After they rot into the soil, they can be replaced easily from the farm. The banana trunks were held in place by bamboo we chopped from the farm as well. Lastly, the pathways were covered by rice husks. Other than being nice to step on, they help to mulch bare soil and decompose in place. Again, it is a “waste” material that is readily available locally after the rice harvest season.
After we were done with the structure, we poured in some composted chicken manure from the chicken coop, with features and all. We gathered herbs from over the farm and planted them using stem cuttings or seeds. As much as you plan, things sometimes don’t turn out the way you expect. At the end of our hard work, we had to chase away a roaming chicken that was making a mess by scratching and digging things up. Oh well…
Other than the fruit orchard and food forest, Maemut Garden plants a wide variety of vegetables. Here are they…
The farm volunteer Sam taught us how to make biochar from rice husk. The biochar can then be used as soil amendment. Basically you have to let the rice husk heat up in a low oxygen environment so that there is no combustion.
Maemut Garden also makes an effort to save seeds rather than just buying. In another farm I was at, we had to sow ladies finger seeds from a purchased seed packet. The seeds were coated with a bright green fungicide. I also heard horror stories from volunteers that had to sow seeds with fungicide that stung their hands and gave them a rash. The other villagers doing the seed sowing were wearing gloves but the volunteers did not have any gloves. Marco and Nok were very generous and we came home with many interesting varieties of seeds. It’s like shopping! Some of them are red lima beans, cranberry beans, leucaena, and sesbania grandiflora. Thinking back, it was nice to sit on the grass mat at the verandah peeling and collecting the red lima beans during a grey rainy day.
The Volunteers’ House
The volunteers get to stay in this spacious two-storey house with bedrooms upstairs and the activity area downstairs. We got to stay in a big bedroom without anyone else. It reminded me of a Malay kampung house with the wooden walls and floors.
Other things going on at the farm…
All in all, this is a place that I got to learn a lot about natural farming. Marco is a keen observer and learner of nature. His four years of ground work in the farm has taught him more than any course is able to. If I could stay longer I would like to learn more about adobe building from him. Read more about Maemut Garden here.