Lawn to Food Forest in One Year

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.

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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

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Companion Planting in the Tropics – Vertical Stacking

Sweet potato and katuk (sweet leaf/sayur manis)

We have been playing around with companion planting at Project Canossian. Actually it’s more of stacking plants on top of one another rather than just adjacent. Lots of failures with some successes. It is something we have been experimenting with since our days at Project Green Valley. There are many good reasons why you would want to companion plant by vertical stacking:

  • Better use of sunshine: Here in Singapore 1 degree north of the equator, the sun is overhead throughout the year. As Bill Mollison says, a resource that isn’t properly utilized can become a pollution. Sunshine is photosynthesized by leaves and is turned into a yield (for us or other living things). However, when this strong sunshine falls on the soil many things happen. Soil water evaporates, soil organisms (e.g. earthworms) die from the heat, ambient temperature increases due to radiation. A single layer planting of small vegetables or herbs does not use the sunshine efficiently. Lets talk about planting lettuce as an example: for most of the growing duration, most of the sunshine will fall between the tiny seedlings onto the soil. Even when the lettuces are fully grown and touching one another, the leaves are not able to utilize all that good sunshine. One layer of leaf can only photosynthesize so much sunlight, after which the remaining passes through the leaf. Which is why the best use of sunshine here in our climate is still a forest. Almost all of the solar energy would be extracted as the sunshine passes through the many layers. Nothing much is left by the time it reaches the forest floor.
  • Better use of rainfall: Likewise, we are blessed (or, to poly-tunnel farmers, cursed) with heavy rains throughout the year. The kinetic energy of falling raindrops causes soil compaction and sheet erosion when not absorbed by foliage or mulch. Having more leaves to intercept and direct the water flow down the stems allows the soil to drink more gently. If there are not enough roots in the soil to absorb the rain it flows away, causing leaching of nutrients.
  • Shading out weeds: Nature doesn’t waste. Solar energy that falls on soil will be taken up by weeds. Mulching helps but we have seen weeds here that can penetrate mulch (cardboard or leaves) just to reach for sunlight.

Continue reading

Lazy Way of Food Waste Composting

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Food waste collected in a bin

We started food waste composting a few months ago in the garden at the Canossian School. The food waste comes from the children’s home and the sisters’ quarters. We have a food waste bin each outside the two kitchens that we collect once or twice every week. The chefs throw fruit peels, vegetables cuttings, and egg shells into the bins. We don’t take dairy, meat, and oil because they are much harder to compost. The smell will be stronger and there will be more pests like rodents.

Most people associate food waste with stench. It can be true because food waste tends to be high in moisture and nitrogen. It breaks down fast and the process can become anaerobic (no air) since it’s so wet. That causes the smell. To solve this issue, one can add materials that are high in carbon and low in moisture. Some materials that would work include sawdust, wood chips/clippings, dried leaves, old newspaper/cardboard, and straw. Continue reading

Project Canossian – Tree Belt (Part 3)

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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:

  1. Partial shade
  2. Wind protection
  3. Fertility in the form of leaf litter
  4. 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

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 Canossian – Building A Garden With Waste (Part 1)

A few months back, we built a food garden for the Canossian School in Singapore. They work with kids with hearing impairment and the school principal Terry wanted a sensory garden for the kids to develop all their senses. She lamented a few times about how children nowadays do not get to pull things out of the soil.

Canossian School is very fortunate because they actually have unused space for a garden. We have spoken to many schools that want a food garden but do not have any space left. We would walk the school grounds to find that everywhere has been concreted or planted with trees. Canossian School has a sizeable and flat grass patch and we were allocated about 35m x 11m for the garden.

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The possibilities are endless, like a blank canvas.

Analyzing the Site

Before even thinking about garden design, we needed to understand the site. From a distance, we noticed many bare patches that grass did not grow on. That’s not a good sign. The type of vegetation growing on it was odd as well. Walking the ground, we immediately noticed that the soil was soft. It was not the spongy softness of a soil with good structure and many pores. It was a muddy kind of softness like wet pottery clay. As expected, there had been major soil works about a year ago. We learned that there is construction waste like concrete rubble beneath the soil. There is no top soil but just a layer of yellow clay. It’s not a great start but we are used to all these in urban environments. Continue reading

Project Spectra 3 – Building Biomass and Stablizing the Ecosystem

It has been over 3 months since we last updated about Project Spectra. Back then, we chopped and dropped the green manure to prepare for a round of planting. After leaving the green manure to break down in the soil for a week, we started planting works. Here is our progress so far.


While the garden today is very much different from what it was before, we are still dealing with many problems that come with starting a garden from scratch. There was zero life on this rooftop just a few months ago and you are creating a universe! The ecosystem is still unstable and the rooftop conditions are too hot and windy. We have started the process of restoring soil fertility through adding compost and green manure. However, there is still lots to be done by nature herself, and nature does not rush. Continue reading