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.
A little green oasis in the open grassland
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.
The tall Casuarina trees (left) provide wind and sun protection for the other trees (right).
View from the front, where the building will eventually be. Casuraina planted on the ridge line.
Two rows of casuarina trees.
Eugenia (left) getting competition from creepers and other weeds.
Earlier this month, AVA announced that 10 parcels of vegetable farming land in Kranji will be awarded to 8 companies. These are all high-tech farming companies that use “productive and innovative farming systems, such as greenhouses with automation and smart controls; multi-tier hydroponic systems using LED lights and data analytics to optimise growing conditions; and multi-storey farms that use automated soilless cultivation system and robotics”.
Source: AVA website
On AVA’s website, the first thing listed under “What We Do” is ensuring food supply resilience. To me, food resilience and security is about meeting our entire population’s minimal nutritional needs with safe food during all situations. There are 3 reasons why I think leasing our agricultural land to these high-tech farms do not contribute to that.
1) Poor Calories
Calorie is key for food resilience. One can survive somewhat miserably on a pure rice diet. Change it to a pure chye sim diet and it’s a different story. These high-tech farms are definitely not growing rice. How about farming high-calorie vegetables that are full of carbohydrates to fill your stomach, like tapioca or sweet potato? After all, these were the kinds of food our grandparents and parents survived on during the Japanese occupation when there wasn’t enough to eat. Well, these companies are only allowed to grow leafy vegetables. Not root vegetables or even fruiting vegetables like long bean and eggplant. Continue reading
It’s been a few months since we started work at a private resort situated 45 minutes by car from Kuala Lumpur. We spend 2 to 3 weeks a month there as farmer-in-residence, trying to change current practices to be more aligned with permaculture principles. The landowner bought the 8 acre land over 20 years ago and has been wanting to practice permaculture on it. There are some beautiful old traditional Malay and Indonesian houses that she transported over for guests to stay in comfortably.
The land is long and narrow. Mostly flat except for a depression serving as a wetland that fills with water periodically, and a slope with a secondary forest. It is surrounded by secondary forest all around. No issue with flooding, based on memory at least. Continue reading
We recently spent a few days at Serukam Farm. It is located in northern Malaysia, in a village within Sungai Petani. Xin and Fred started the farm about 2.5 years ago on a 2-acre piece of land that Xin’s grand-uncle and grand-auntie live on.
We first heard about this place from our good friend Will from FOLO Farms. Serukam Farm wasn’t just an organic farm, but a homestead. Over there, they live on the land. They grow food small-scale and organically; firstly for themselves and selling only if there is excess. While organic farms are getting more common in Malaysia, it is still rare to see people that view farming as a lifestyle rather than a business.
We have stayed at many farms before but this was our first time since having a baby! Luckily Xin was more than accommodating and gave us the nicest room – the only loft in the family house. She said that there’s no point farming if the farm can’t cater to a baby. Continue reading
It has been a year since we started the food garden at Project Canossian. One year ago, the same place was a flat grass patch. Today, there are over 50 species of food plants growing happily. Not to mention the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers (huge ones), snails (too many!), and more.
The garden after a year of growth…
The garden has been dynamic, starting from legumes for green manure, moving to annuals like okra, and now to a multi-layered perennial system. The tapiocas are probably getting the MVP award, growing rapidly to give high shade and also providing lots of tubers and yummy shoots. Some of the fruit trees are growing better while some got their feet in waterlogged soil and seem stagnant. The snail infestation causes a high rate of seedling mortality. However for all the anguish they cause, the snails also poop copiously and provide our only source of animal protein from this garden (yes, we have tried and they are edible).
We have had more freedom in how we maintain this garden compared to the typical “neat and tidy” gardens around Singapore. We took the opportunity to spend time on protracted observation rather than being reactive to every issue. We sometimes let the weeds grow more rampant than our usual tolerance threshold (which is already pretty high relative to most gardeners). Snails, grasshoppers, caterpillars are typically left to their own devices. Masanobu Fukuoka might give us a pat on the back while meticulous weeders shocked by our laziness. Continue reading
We are helping Ricky transform the oil palm plantation on his 7.25 acre family land to a food forest based on permaculture principles. The oil palm monoculture was planted about 20 years ago but has been left fallow since then. No one has been harvesting the fruits. Over time, the understorey has been vegetated naturally and become dense with shrubs and small trees.
Ricky walking in the dense shrubs under mature oil palms
Ricky became interested in permaculture a few years back and we met when I gave a talk on permaculture at a farmers’ market in Johor. We kept in contact but it was only recently that he resolved to turn his dream into reality. He wants a piece of land where his kids can play in nature, instead of spending weekends in a mall. We talked about industrial agriculture, societal issues, environmental destruction, etc, where we shared similar views.
Oil palm monocultures have become the most common landscape in Johor; a drive around here will convince you of that. They have a bad reputation for causing deforestation (by burning or mass clearing), eutrophication of water bodies through use of chemical fertilizers, reduced biodiversity, soil erosion, and other issues. After two cycles of planting, the soil will be completely degraded and the land unproductive. We are reversing the clock – turning an old oil palm plantation back into a polyculture forest using ecological methods. We have not seen any precedents and hope that whatever we learn can be used by many others to heal the land. Continue reading
We came up with the initial design for the 10-acre Project Lombong after a couple months of deliberation. The first thing that we implemented was earth-shaping for water and access. The heavy machines would need to do their work before we start planting. After that it would be difficult for the machines to maneuver freely.
Lay of the Land
The highest point of the land is on the eastern corner at 49m elevation (top center on map below). From there, it slopes down to the west, ending at the western corner at 26m elevation (bottom left on map). The slope is mild: averaging about 6 degrees, with a maximum of 11.3 degrees. The shape of the slope is a ridge; there are no valleys.
We planned for roads to run along the boundary. They will be 5m from the edge to allow space for a hedgerow. Due to the heavy rains here, the earthworks contractor double-cambered the roads (highest point in the middle, sloping down to the sides) to help drainage. Some of the water will be diverted into swales to soak into the soil.
After digging the mudtrack, Kevin’s 4-wheel drive got stuck on the road once during a rain. He then decided to put gravel on the roads to help with traction. We were very lucky that the earthworks contractor found some spots on the land with red gravel. Those gravel will be excavated and spread on the sloping roads. These spots would then become ponds. That would save lots of money. Local experience is so important! Continue reading
Sweet potato and katuk (sweet leaf/sayur manis)
We have been playing around with companion planting at Project Canossian. Actually it’s more of stacking plants on top of one another rather than just adjacent. Lots of failures with some successes. It is something we have been experimenting with since our days at Project Green Valley. There are many good reasons why you would want to companion plant by vertical stacking:
- Better use of sunshine: Here in Singapore 1 degree north of the equator, the sun is overhead throughout the year. As Bill Mollison says, a resource that isn’t properly utilized can become a pollution. Sunshine is photosynthesized by leaves and is turned into a yield (for us or other living things). However, when this strong sunshine falls on the soil many things happen. Soil water evaporates, soil organisms (e.g. earthworms) die from the heat, ambient temperature increases due to radiation. A single layer planting of small vegetables or herbs does not use the sunshine efficiently. Lets talk about planting lettuce as an example: for most of the growing duration, most of the sunshine will fall between the tiny seedlings onto the soil. Even when the lettuces are fully grown and touching one another, the leaves are not able to utilize all that good sunshine. One layer of leaf can only photosynthesize so much sunlight, after which the remaining passes through the leaf. Which is why the best use of sunshine here in our climate is still a forest. Almost all of the solar energy would be extracted as the sunshine passes through the many layers. Nothing much is left by the time it reaches the forest floor.
- Better use of rainfall: Likewise, we are blessed (or, to poly-tunnel farmers, cursed) with heavy rains throughout the year. The kinetic energy of falling raindrops causes soil compaction and sheet erosion when not absorbed by foliage or mulch. Having more leaves to intercept and direct the water flow down the stems allows the soil to drink more gently. If there are not enough roots in the soil to absorb the rain it flows away, causing leaching of nutrients.
- Shading out weeds: Nature doesn’t waste. Solar energy that falls on soil will be taken up by weeds. Mulching helps but we have seen weeds here that can penetrate mulch (cardboard or leaves) just to reach for sunlight.
Food waste collected in a bin
We started food waste composting a few months ago in the garden at the Canossian School. The food waste comes from the children’s home and the sisters’ quarters. We have a food waste bin each outside the two kitchens that we collect once or twice every week. The chefs throw fruit peels, vegetables cuttings, and egg shells into the bins. We don’t take dairy, meat, and oil because they are much harder to compost. The smell will be stronger and there will be more pests like rodents.
Most people associate food waste with stench. It can be true because food waste tends to be high in moisture and nitrogen. It breaks down fast and the process can become anaerobic (no air) since it’s so wet. That causes the smell. To solve this issue, one can add materials that are high in carbon and low in moisture. Some materials that would work include sawdust, wood chips/clippings, dried leaves, old newspaper/cardboard, and straw. Continue reading
Tree belt on the left, veggie beds behind
When we designed the food garden at the Canossian School, we placed a tree belt around the perimeter of the garden. The trees, when they have grown bigger, will protect the vegetable raised beds in the middle. They will provide:
- Partial shade
- Wind protection
- Fertility in the form of leaf litter
- Wildlife and biodiversity
We picked about 30 types of small to medium sized fruit trees. They would be placed at the left, right, and back of the garden. While it would be great to have some big durian and mango trees, the space was limited and we wanted fruits that the kids can pick easily to snack on.
We planted them as a simplified food forest with a few layers – tubers (underground), ground cover, shrubs, creepers, and small trees. Continue reading