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.
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.
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…
The crime scene: upturned soil and an unknown fruit
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
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
I read Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway a few months back. I think it’s a good time to give a brief review now that I have given all my learning and thoughts time to settle and synthesize. I don’t have the book beside me for reference and I am only recalling from memory the elements that struck me most.
I found this book in the library after searching for “permaculture” in the catalog. It is probably the most popular permaculture book that has been written in recent years. To be honest, I was quite impressed that the Singapore library actually has books on permaculture considering how alternative it is. There is an element of subversiveness in permaculture, as Bill Mollison said it himself. When he heard a reviewer describe his teachings as seditious, he said:
Yes, it was very perceptive. I teach self-reliance, the world’s most subversive practice. I teach people how to grow their own food, which is shockingly subversive. So, yes, it’s seditious. But it’s peaceful sedition.
Well, it definitely does not look subversive from the cover of the book! Continue reading