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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Biochar is slightly alkaline and helps to balance the pH of tropical soil, which is typically acidic.
- 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.
- 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!
A sanctuary to calm the monkey mind
I ended year 2014 and stepped into 2015 at a farm a few hours northwest of Chiang Mai city in Thailand. From the name Mindful Farm, you can probably guess that it focuses on mindfulness and meditation. The farm was started by a former monk Pi Nan (literally meaning ex-monk) and his Japanese wife Noriko about 2 years ago. They have a baby girl Nobara who is very calm compared to most city kids that grew up with the ipad. Continue reading
One thing I really enjoy at a permaculture garden is that you can litter without feeling guilty. Growing up in spick-and-span Singapore we have been taught since young to put litter only in the rubbish bin. Any piece of trash left on the concrete floor is an eyesore and has to be cleaned up by someone else. This is why it felt so liberating when I could throw my organic waste anywhere in the farm. In fact, my act of littering will be adding to the fertility of the soil and if I was lucky it might even be seeding a tree!
The banana circle is a simple yet effective design for permaculture in the tropics. It is basically a circular trench with bananas planted at the rim of the trench. All kinds of organic waste can be thrown into the circle, including dead leaves, garden prunings, kitchen waste, hay, rice husks, even short logs. Anything that will rot can be thrown in. As the organic matter breaks down, the hungry banana trees will readily suck up the nutrients and turn the waste into yummy bananas. The depression into the ground helps to retain moisture that the bananas love and also speed up decomposition. Continue reading
It’s one thing reading about permaculture on the internet and another learning in-person from an experienced practitioner. I was lucky to spend 10 days over the 2014 New Year holidays with Sandot from Tacomepai Farm in Thailand. Sandot was traveling in Malaysia to help a friend design and build a permaculture farm called the Green Forest Project at the foot of Genting Highlands. The objective of the Green Forest Project is to be a healing center for cancer patients and permaculture educational centre. Sited in a valley within beautiful forests, the founder Sharley envisions the 3 acre land to be secluded from the outside world. Food will be grown organically and served to the cancer patients who will live very close to nature in simple huts. Continue reading
I’ve been reading a lot about the traditional Malay house. Contrary to its simple and humble appearance, there is actually a lot of thought that goes into the design. Thoughts that factor in climate, available resources, and lifestyle. This house is evidence of human ingenuity before we started relying on air-conditioners and big diesel-guzzling lorries.
Books have been written about the simple Malay house and there is too much to be said. In this post I will focus only on how the house has been adapted to the humid tropical climate. Continue reading
Nitrogen is one of the three macro-nutrients needed for healthy plants. It is the eldest brother N within the NPK trio. In the tropics, this vital ingredient is often found lacking in cultivated soil. From my experience using the soil test kit in various gardens in Singapore, nitrogen always shows up as “low”.
How can this be! There are tons of nitrogen in the atmosphere, roughly 78%. However, atmospheric nitrogen doesn’t just flow into the soil readily as it is inert. Continue reading