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
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
A while back, I posted about my visit to a place in Johor Malaysia where treehouses sit in the canopy of the rainforest. A few months later, I went back to help Ah Yao (founder of Rainforest Treehouse), Salim and Wira, two Orang Asli (literally “original people” in Malay language), build another treehouse. The four photos below show from start (left) to almost finish (right).
The frame done.
The roof done!
The floors done.
The eaves done.
The wall not done.
Being the highest point on this open grassland means lots of wind!
We finally started work on Project Merbok a few months back. One of the most important things we started with was to create windbreaks. You might ask: what’s wrong with enjoying a breeze in our warm humid climate? While a gentle wind helps with air circulation, too much of it causes many problems.
- Soil erosion: Organic matter (dead leaves, dried twigs) are very light and will get blown away easily. That leaves the soil exposed and also takes away the nutrition from rotting matter that the soil needs.
- Dryness: Wind removes moisture from the soil and plants. It’s the same principle as sunning your clothes on a windy day. Without moisture in soil, micro-organisms and earthworms die. Without moisture in soil, roots can’t bring water up to leaves.
- Energy wastage: Plants would have to expend energy to resist wind to stay upright. They would be reaching for the sun but pushed sideways by the wind. The wasted energy could be better used for biomass growth or food production. Compared to trees, grasses deal with wind much effectively. That’s the reason you see so much lalang on this site!
- Mechanical damage: Malaysia is quite sheltered by surrounding islands and typically do not suffer from typhoons. However, there are still windstorms that can uproot big trees. Even if the plant is well-rooted, the leaves can be mechanically damaged by the wind itself or rubbing against other leaves.
Chickens are one of the most commonly kept livestock in the tropics. They are very productive for meat and eggs. Being small, they do not present the challenges of larger livestock like cows and pigs. All-in-all, their widespread presence in rural Asia indicate that chickens are the preferred choice for smallholdings.
Keeping chickens in battery cages has been a controversial topic of modern industrial farming. Other than the cruelty of immobilizing an animal in a cage barely its size, the widespread use of antibiotics, growth hormones, and other chemicals gives rise to many health concerns. The opposite of battery cage is to let the chickens range freely over a natural vegetated environment.
Free ranging chickens
While the idea of free range sounds fantastic in theory, there are reasons that some of the farms we have visited do not let their chickens range freely. The chickens there do range but are limited to an enclosed area. Some of the reasons for not letting the chickens range freely include:
- Attack by predators like snakes, wild boars, eagles, etc.
- Hygiene considerations since the chickens will not use a designated toilet
- Messing up the garden by scratching up seedlings and eating vegetables
- Keeping the eggs to a limited area for ease of searching
We are beginning to design and build a productive and pretty garden using permaculture principles on a 1.3 acre land in Johor Malaysia! The owner will be building a small house as a retreat for his company staff. This will be a place of relaxation with fruit trees, vegetables and herbs for visitors to harvest. There will also be ponds, small livestock (chickens, ducks, rabbits, bees), rainwater harvesting, and more.
Looking up on to the hilltop from the west where the road is
A treehouse that can sleep a dozen adults!
We tend to think of a treehouse as something for kids to hide in and spend a lazy afternoon reading. Do you know that there are traditional people who spend their entire lives staying in treehouses? We visited a place in southern Malaysia with treehouses for adults (and kids alike). It is located at the foot of the mountain Gunung Pulai.
Previously, I wrote about the traditional Malay houses of Malaysia. They are typically constructed with wood and built on stilts with pitched roofs. Contrary to the simple aesthetics, the house is highly sophisticated and designed to handle the climate of the humid tropics to keep inhabitants as comfortable as possible without the need for energy-consuming technologies like air-con.
Treehouses have existed in Malaysia for a long time as well, probably even way before the traditional Malay houses. They are the traditional houses of the Orang Asli (literally “original people” in Malay language). The Orang Asli are hunter-gatherers and reside in the rainforests of Malaysia. They can put together a treehouse with nothing more than a parang (machete), a saw, a hammer and some nails. The materials (wood, bamboo, and palm fronds) are all taken from the forest. Continue reading
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.
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
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