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.
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
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
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
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
During our stay at Maejo Baandin in Chiangmai, we met a couple who have been staying there for a while. Po is from Bangkok and Shiran is from Israel. They are both musicians and met in India when they were there studying classical Indian music. They have a small white dog that they adopted from the streets.
The entrance from the main road
They had recently bought a piece of land around Maejo village to – as Po puts it – retire on. Po was a music producer and had been in the music industry in Bangkok since he was a university student. He eventually became very jaded of the superficiality and commercial aspect of the industry that he moved to a remote island in Thailand. He has traveled around quite a bit and was even a forest monk for a year. Po might seem very old from my description but he is only in his early 30s. He laughs readily and his humour is eccentric. When offered an ice-cream by a young boy, he exclaimed: “No I can’t eat that, I’m a rockstar! Continue reading
When we started work on Project Green Valley, it was but a barren piece of land with grass growing on hard sun-baked clay. I remember wondering where so many fist-sized stones came from. They were actually hardened and dried pieces of clay. The soil was in bad shape and there was a lot for us (and nature) to do before we restore fertility. After about a year, this is how it looks.
A food forest! See if you can spot sweet potatos (green, purple, yellow), kang kong, wild spinach, sweet leaf, papaya, banana, tapioca, bitter gourd, lemongrass, citronella, passion fruit, and more!
The way it is today, Project Green Valley requires almost no watering. Even if we had to water, we would draw from the pond and not rely on tapwater. There is little need for weeding because the soil is densely planted with no area of exposed soil. The strong sunlight grass needs would have been filtered by the other taller plants by the time it reaches the soil. Continue reading