Here’s a guest post by Imran, fellow permaculturalist and farmer. Hopefully it shows that natural farming is possible in a small and urban environment.
It’s a plot of garden about 30 sqm big in a quiet little neighbourhood in the east of Singapore. We have been tasked to transform and maintain the garden to produce food, medicine and comfort to both humans and other lives.
This garden has been left untouched by the owner of the house for a few years, as she had been living abroad. Prior to that, the owner had planted some trees in the garden like chiku and neem. The big trees were shading most of the garden and there wasn’t much sunlight reaching the ground. The good news is that because the garden was shaded and there were leaves from the big trees covering the soil, the garden had decent soil; well at least good enough being in a city, where most of the time, soil is usually compacted from heavy machinery use, contaminated and devoid of any organic matter and life.
Before we started…
Before we began restoring the garden, we got the trees pruned so that more light was able to pass through. This makes it easier for us to prune, harvest and manage the trees in the future. By pruning the trees, it also invigorates and makes them grow better. Continue reading
Have you ever seen slashes on a papaya tree? Shallow knife wounds not intended to chop her down but merely to bleed her. The farmer said this tree in particular has not fruited, unlike her peers planted at the same time.
“She’s too complacent,” he said. “Got to make her work harder.”
But what if she’s not ready? She might want to grow deeper roots first in case of a future drought, or bigger leaves first to harvest more sunlight for tastier fruits, or dedicate energy to her health first before fruiting. She might want to reach for the stars first before having kids.
“No, she’s taking up prime real estate and has to pay for it.” Continue reading
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
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.
We are starting on a 10-acre piece of land in Johor, Malaysia. It is situated close to Kota Tinggi, a place north-east of Singapore known for fireflies and waterfalls. Kevin approached us recently about this land owned by his family. He wants to do organic farming on it and provide good livelihoods to people working there. The majority of the area will be a mixed fruit orchard but there will be aquaculture and vegetables too. He does not have any farming experience, but we felt that he has good intentions and is someone we can work with.
View from the highest point
The land was previously a 3 year old rubber monoculture plantation. When we met him, the land had already been cleared of vegetation by a tractor. He said that the contractor was going to dig up all the tree roots and dispose of them. We recommended against that for many reasons:
- The roots, despite being dead, still holds the soil together against erosion on his sloping land. Over time, they will rot and act as a slow-release fertilizer.
- Digging mixes up the naturally-formed soil horizons and disrupts all the organisms in the soil.
- Aerating soil in this manner introduces a rush of oxygen into the soil. That’s a short-term benefit with long-term losses. With the high temperature and moisture here, this means that organic matter and humus decompose rapidly and become lost as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
- Without any big trees or plants to absorb the suddenly available nutrients, they will be lost to the atmosphere (oxidized) or washed away by the rain (leached).
After the first meeting, we scheduled a date to visit the land. Continue reading
Sounding as bad-ass and violent as natural farming (not industrial farming) can ever get, chop-and-drop is actually a really effective gardening technique. Simply put, one chops the existing plant down and drops them right away on the spot where the next plant is to grow. Combined with green manuring, it is an excellent way to kickstart your garden
Green manure growing out of the beds
Our previous post on Project Canossian ended with a round of green manure. Over the next month or two, the green manure helped to:
- Fix nitrogen: roots of legumes (beans and peas) act symbiotically with certain fungi to convert nitrogen in the air to the soil for plants to absorb
- Create biomass: the vigorous growth means that you get a mass of organic matter for mulching when you chop-and-drop
- Settle the soil: gives time for the newly poured soil and compost to stabilize
A few months back, we built a food garden for the Canossian School in Singapore. They work with kids with hearing impairment and the school principal Terry wanted a sensory garden for the kids to develop all their senses. She lamented a few times about how children nowadays do not get to pull things out of the soil.
Canossian School is very fortunate because they actually have unused space for a garden. We have spoken to many schools that want a food garden but do not have any space left. We would walk the school grounds to find that everywhere has been concreted or planted with trees. Canossian School has a sizeable and flat grass patch and we were allocated about 35m x 11m for the garden.
The possibilities are endless, like a blank canvas.
Analyzing the Site
Before even thinking about garden design, we needed to understand the site. From a distance, we noticed many bare patches that grass did not grow on. That’s not a good sign. The type of vegetation growing on it was odd as well. Walking the ground, we immediately noticed that the soil was soft. It was not the spongy softness of a soil with good structure and many pores. It was a muddy kind of softness like wet pottery clay. As expected, there had been major soil works about a year ago. We learned that there is construction waste like concrete rubble beneath the soil. There is no top soil but just a layer of yellow clay. It’s not a great start but we are used to all these in urban environments. Continue reading