On Permaculture

I first wrote this article for “The Sauce” magazine by Foodscape Pages.

I don’t remember when I first came upon permaculture. Perhaps there was never an exact moment, like the conception of a human. Perhaps the point when the sperm entered the egg was in 2011, when I took up a five square meter allotment plot at an organic farm in Hong Kong. I was working weekdays and come weekend, would jump on my white Vespa for the one-hour ride to my tiny garden in the mountains bordering China. I was clueless about farming then, but Nature was forgiving enough to spare me among the weeds some choy sum, French beans, and one strawberry. The point when the baby popped out was when I spent my 2013 Christmas and New Year holidays at the foothills of Genting Highlands, building a bamboo hut and digging canals to irrigate a paddy field as part of a permaculture course. Since then, it has been a bit of an obsession, practicing at the farms in the day and reading the same in the evenings.

Yet, five years since its birth, I still stumble whenever someone asks me, ‘What is permaculture?’ The answer varies, always. This difficulty is not unique to me; ask most permaculturalists and you might get responses ranging from well-memorized standard definitions to a blank-eyed ‘hmm’. The difficulty lies in the all-embracing scope of permaculture and what permaculture means personally to each practitioner. Try asking a loving elderly couple ‘What is love?’ and you’ll get an idea. On top of that, we try to customize the answer to the enquirer. A budding gardener and a corporate executive might go home with different answers after a conversation about permaculture with me. To be honest, I don’t think I would get better at answering even with another five years of practice. But I take consolation in the first verse of the classic Chinese text Tao Te Ching: ‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao’. Continue reading

Project Lui – Permaculture at a Private Resort

It’s been a few months since we started work at a private resort situated 45 minutes by car from Kuala Lumpur. We spend 2 to 3 weeks a month there as farmer-in-residence, trying to change current practices to be more aligned with permaculture principles. The landowner bought the 8 acre land over 20 years ago and has been wanting to practice permaculture on it. There are some beautiful old traditional Malay and Indonesian houses that she transported over for guests to stay in comfortably.

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The land is long and narrow. Mostly flat except for a depression serving as a wetland that fills with water periodically, and a slope with a secondary forest. It is surrounded by secondary forest all around. No issue with flooding, based on memory at least. Continue reading

Project Panchor – Converting Oil Palm Plantation to Food Forest

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.

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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

Project Lombong – Designing for Water and Access

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.

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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.

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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

Project Canossian – Chop-and-Drop (Part 2)

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

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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

Continue reading

Project Merbok – Windbreak

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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.

Continue reading

Becoming A Forest

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The forest beside the lawn

On a pleasant Sunday morning, I observed some interesting happenings along the edge of a forest at Lower Pierce Reservoir where I jog to or play football occasionally. There were some patches of upturned soil on the otherwise flat and trimmed lawn. It was somewhat thrilling because I felt like a detective at a crime scene, gathering clues to figure out what happened. Even better, I also felt like a hunter tracking a prey by reading signs left behind to foretell what might happen in the future. Here’s the story of what I think happened…

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The crime scene: upturned soil and an unknown fruit

Continue reading