Creating Terra Preta and Using Urine to Fertilize

We have been farming at Project Spectra for close to a year. The rooftop conditions are especially challenging with the heat and wind. Only certain plants that can adapt to these conditions do better at our garden, like beans and legumes.

2015-09-08 13.46.26 During the school holidays, we decided to do some soil amendment by adding biochar. Terra preta is man-made soil created by an ancient farming method in the Amazon Basin between 450 BC to AD 950. It literally means “black earth” because of the high charcoal and humus content in the soil. The ancient farmers have digging charcoal into the soil sometimes up to a depth of 2 meters. There are a few reasons for doing so:

  1. Biochar reduces nutrient leaching which is a major problem in places with very high rainfall, like the Amazon Rainforest and Singapore. Much of the plant nutrients are water-soluble and they get washed away during a heavy rain into the rivers (or in the case of SIngapore, the drains). Charcoal is extremely porous so they have a very high surface area to volume ratio and these pores hold on to the nutrients.
  2. The high porosity characteristic of charcoal also encourages microbial activities in the soil. They provide spaces for bacterial and fungi that help with the ecosystem of the soil.
  3. Biochar is slightly alkaline and helps to balance the pH of tropical soil, which is typically acidic.
  4. Biochar helps to moderate the wet and dry cycles in the soil. The numerous pores absorb moisture when the soil is wet and release them when the soil is dry. The roots of most plants enjoy a condition where it is moist enough but not too wet that they suffocate without air.
  5. Lastly, biochar will last a very long time in the soil. Unlike compost or ash, it doesn’t break down. This is why we still find Terra Preta in the Amazon after thousands of years. Talk about permanent agriculture!

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Permaculture Perak: Living beside a Jungle

There are many organic farms in Malaysia, but I have been searching for one that is not growing commercially to sell to the market. I am more interested to see subsistence agriculture rather than market-oriented agriculture. Subsistence agriculture is when the farmer grows to feed the family and sell the produce only if there is excess. There is a big difference between both. Permaculture Perak is one of the few that I found. It is located in the state of Perak in northern Malaysia, a short drive from charming Lenggong town. To access the land, you would most likely need a 4-wheel drive because of the steep uphill climb into 500m altitude.

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Approaching the main house, with a fruiting durian tree beside it!

Ladia and Amy live on the land with their two year old daughter and newborn son. Their neighbours are gibbons, wild boars, snakes, scorpions, and every once in a while an elephant who ransacks the kitchen for soy sauce. The only human neighbours are far away, down in the town of Lenggong. Continue reading

Maemut Garden – A young but thriving farm

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.

The family house in the middle of everything

The family house in the middle of everything

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. Continue reading