It has been two years since we broke ground at Project Merbok. The site was once a windswept hill covered with lalang (Imperata cylindrica) without any trees. The landowner wanted to do up the place as a retreat centre for his employees. A small house would be built, and behind the building there were to be fruit trees, vegetables, livestock, and fish ponds, all grown organically. To fulfill this vision, we did some earthworks for the ponds and vegetable terrace, brought in lots of compost, and planted many trees. Today, the landscape is much different from what it was two years ago. It’s like a little green oasis in the open grassland. We would like to share some photos and what we learnt.
We previously posted that creating a windbreak was one of the most important tasks. The site is a hilltop and the highest point for a good distance all around. Without the windbreak, most of the fruit trees and edible plants would suffer. Despite being planted on the harshest area with the poorest soils, the Casuarina (Casuarina equisetifolia or Rhu) have been growing rapidly and doing well. The Eugenia (Eugenia oleina, or Syzgium campanulatum) are growing as well, but definitely slower. In some areas, we had to help them with competition from creepers and tall grasses. As our windbreak trees grow, they will slowly create a micro-climate more conducive for the other plants.
We planted a big variety of tropical fruit trees wherever there was space. Other than the owner’s favourite durian, we have jackfruit, breadfruit, petai, mango, bananas, kedongdong, acerola cherry, guava, belimbi, jambu, and many others. When the trees are small, we wrap black plastic shade netting around the saplings to provide some sun and wind protection. That really helps.
Certain species cope better with the dry, hot and windy conditions: mango, breakfruit, banana, papaya, cempedak, etc. Others like durian and mangosteen do not like it at all. These forest trees prefer to grow up in the cool and moist understorey of the forest when young. Despite the compost, mulch and watering, they still grow slowly and with noticeable difficulty.
We planted some pioneer trees in between the fruit trees, which helps support the latter. Pioneer trees are fast growers that can thrive in harsh conditions. For example, sites that are hot, dry, windy, and with poor soil. These pioneer trees can be legumes too, helping to fix nitrogen into the soil. At Project Merbok, we have Acacia (Acacia mangium or Acacia auriculiformis), Rain Tree (Samanea saman), and Yellow Flame Tree (Peltophorum pterocarpum). Acacia can be commonly seen growing on disturbed and degraded land all around Malaysia. Rain Tree and Yellow Flame Tree have a track record of thriving in difficult roadside conditions in Singapore and Malaysia. Their thin foliage provide partial shade without shading out the fruit trees.
The Acacia trees have established themselves and are growing rapidly. We observed that the fruit trees close to these Acacia trees seem to enjoy the support. On the other hand, the Rain Tree and Yellow Flame Tree are still recovering from transplanting shock. In hindsight, we should have planted all these pioneer trees much earlier, right in the beginning.
We did some terracing on the gentle slope for growing vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants. Today we have lemongrass, basil, pandan, gourds, tapioca, sweet potato, winged beans, and many other medicinals.
We dug two ponds to keep fish and also as a water hole for wildlife like birds, frogs, dragonflies, etc. We did not want to use a pond liner initially but we are glad we did eventually, based on the advice from the landscape contractor. The soil on the hilltop, despite being clay, is simply too dry with limited water catchment area. The ponds (each about 10-15 sqm) looked sizeable in the beginning but they started looking smaller as the surrounding vegetation grew taller. There is quite a bit of silt at the pond bottom due to the runoff from the bare soil in the beginning. We would have to clear that soon.
All in all, we are happy with the progress and gained some insights:
- It was harder than we expected to establish fruit trees in this environment. Even with plenty of water, compost, mulch and weeding, some of them could not take it and died.
- We should have planted the pioneer trees way before the fruit trees.
- Our planting should have been more dense. We should have planted lots of bananas between the young fruit trees because bananas provide wind and sun protection, and can be removed for compost and mulch.
- The use of heavy machinery (in this case a backhoe), while saving labour cost and time, compacts the soil a lot. Vegetation took quite a while to grow back in some areas where the machine rolled over repeatedly.
Read more about Project Merbok here.