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

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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.

road

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

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Book Review: David Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability

71CQMQ7BjaLI recently came across Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability written by David Holmgren at the library. To be honest it wasn’t a book on the top of my must-read list. When one talks about permaculture books, there will be more well-known ones like Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (a.k.a the permaculture bible) or Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden. It just happened that I was going to be spending three weeks back in the military as part of mandatory national service and that means lots of spare time to read.

The Author

Lets start with the author. Some of you might have heard of David Holmgren because he was the co-orginator of the permaculture concept together with Bill Mollison. Mollison was actually Holmgren’s professor at that time. The first time they introduced the permaculture concept to the public was in Permaculture One in 1978. At that time Holmgren was only 23 years old. Talk about precociousness!

Holmgren did not co-author the other permaculture books that Mollison published thereafter. He was also less prominent in public with teaching and spreading permaculture than Mollison. So what has he been up to? It was 24 years between 1978 when he published Permaculture One and 2002 when this book was published. Apparently Holmgren has been spending all this time testing and refining his theories on different sites in Australia. I was very interested in seeing what this guy has to say after all these years. Continue reading

Project Merbok – Pioneering on a Lallang Hill

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

Looking up on to the hilltop from the west where the road is

Continue reading