Tag Archives: Gardening

The Skin of the Earth pt. one

Soil is the skin of our planet Earth. It is the skin where vegetation roots in, the skin that stores nutrients as well as water. Food production for ourselves but also for millions of other animal species is depending on the health of this small layer (average depth of 15 cm). If the soil and soil management is good, food production and farming will also be good. The health of the earth and life on earth as well as the human society are all depending on the soil. If we manage to keep the soil fertile, production increases and the local economy will also in the future be strong and safe. Many problems in the world come from modern farming practices that are not taking care of the soil.

The main five soil forming factors are the parent material (which is rock, deposits from sea, rivers and wind or volcanic ash), climate, topography (relief), organisms and time. Nowadays, human activity is often named as a sixth one.

To protect and improve the soil we need to understand its needs. The main ingredients that are present in all soils to greater or lesser amount are the following four. The right mixture (given in %) of these equals natural fertility.

  • mineral particles (sand, silt clay) 45%
  • air 25%
  • moisture or water 25%
  • organic matter 5% (visible and microscopic organisms 10%; roots and living plants 10%; humus, which is dead animals and plants that are broken down, 80%)

All these ingredients are necessary for healthy soil; of major importance are however the invisible organisms, bacteria and fungi, who break down the organic matter and produce detritus and other break down products that can be taken up by other organisms like earthworms. We can find 2 billion organisms in one tablespoon of fertile forest soil. The natural conditions are usually best for them, human activity mostly disturbs them.

We can however also provide them their needs and they will work for us for free: the right food, biomass, and the right working place, temperature, moisture, aeration and a lack of disturbance. For information on how to make compost and let micro-organisms work for you, click here.

Another post on understanding the needs of our soil is coming soon … .

Organic Gardens for Thai Freedom House

Please help us in creating beautiful organic gardens for the wonderful Freedom House in Chiang Mai, Thailand. To give funding click here.

Who are we?

We are the Panya community, a sustainable living/education centre north of Chiang Mai city. We’re designing and implementing two gardens for the Thai Freedom House; a non-government, not-for-profit, community language and arts learning center in Chiang Mai dedicated to assisting families and individuals who are refugees from Burma and Indigenous peoples of Thailand.

What are we doing?

Garden one is located in the Free Bird Cafe, where the NGO raises income for their project. The idea is to make the space more beautiful attracting many customers to the cafe, and to organically home grow a selection of the ingredients used in cooking.

Garden Two will be located at the Freedom house school, where displaced people from Myanmar and Thailand come to learn Thai, English and enjoy a supportive, creative community. Our aim is to green the concrete surrondings of the school, reconnecting the students back to nature as many of them are from rural, farming backgrounds and now living in crowded poor conditions in the city. They will  have their own space to plant, watch the plants grow and finally harvest and eat the fruits of their work!

By donating to this project you will be giving marginalised members of society in Thailand a chance to re connect to their growing heritage. You will also help us create beautiful living green community spaces that will act as a refuge to people without real homes of their own.

What do we need?

What we can do depends on the funds we get. If we don’t reach our goal we are still comitted to buying and planting as much as we can with the amount we do have.

We would like to build living trellis’ and pergolas, with climbing spinach and jasmine.. plant high yeilding and easily maintatined chillis, eggplants, lime trees and papayas. Create beautiful herbs gardens to use in cooking, both in the cafe and for the students to take home for their familes… hang baskets of overflowing flowers to bring bright colours of inspiration and to all who come and visit.

When do we need it?

We will be working over the 1st 2nd and 3rd of July… Any funding that we have by then will be used to impelent these gardens at Freedom House.

Please please give what you can to our project, we promise to use your money wisely and keep you updated with our progress!

         Thank You for your Support!

Building Soil and Catching Energy

“Increasing the humus content of agricultural soil has always been a principle objective of organic agriculture. Changing the management of farmland to use organic or permaculture strategies and techniques can rebuild this storage of carbon, fertility and water to close to those of natural grasslands and forests. It is arguably the greatest single contribution we could make to ensure the future survival of humanity.” – David Holmgren, Permaculture – Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability

The composting method that we use at the Panya Project and that is often used in Permaculture Projects is the 18-day quick composting method afterBerkley. We need a mixture of carbon and nitrogen elements in a ratio of 30 to 1. This is however in concentration, not in biomass, where it’s probably more around 3 to 1, fully depending on your chosen and available ingredients. Water is added to the mixture with a moisture content of 60 percent being optimal. It is an aerobic fermentation process generated through heat. The pile is stacked in lasagne-style, meaning layer for layer altering between carbons – low nitrogen – carbons – high nitrogen – carbons – low nitrogen – and so on.

Carbon is the building block of life and is mostly found in trees. For the compost you can chose most brown organic material like branches and old leaves. For the quick compost it is important that most material is quite small; huge pieces of wood won’t compost in a month or 18 days. The highest nitrogen source is probably pee, then different kinds of manure. Another source of high nitrogen is freshly cut legumes as they are plants that catch nitrogen from the air. A middle and low nitrogen source is all other freshly cut leaves and greens from the garden and the trees. Kitchen waste is, depending on what it contains, mostly on the more or less right carbon-nitrogen ratio of 30 to 1 and can be added in between the layers.

The layers shouldn’t be higher than10 centimetreseach, keeping layers of cow manure thinner. The pile is optimally between 1.5 and2 metrecube, should never be smaller than1 metrecube, as it won’t get hot enough. After 2 to 4 days the pile mostly reaches a temperature of about 60 degrees Celsius. If the pile is after four days still below 45 degrees, you might not have the right moisture or there isn’t enough nitrogen in the lasagne. If the pile gets too hot, meaning more than 65 degrees and often predominantly covered in some white bacteria, it’s defiantly time to turn it. If it keeps heating up like that you might have to put some more carbon material. The pile should be covered to keep it from drying out in hot climates and keep it from getting too wet in wet climates.

After the first four days, the compost should be turned every other day. This keeps it aerated and gives you the possibility to add some materials, mostly water if necessary. You can check the moisture content in pressing the material in between your hands. If the hands become slightly wet, with not more than one drop of water on your palm, it is perfect moisture. The temperature you can feel with your hands, if digging into the pile and it’s too hot to keep your hands in it must be about 60 degrees. You have to dig in because the outside 10 to20 centimetresdon’t heat up and don’t really compost. Therefore, if you want the composting process to finish in optimal time it is important to turn it right; that means that you bring the outside of pile to the inside and the inside to the outside with every turning.

In the Panya Project, we usually have a pile done in about a month. Through this composting method we can keep planting all year through in the same beds always adding fresh healthy soil to the plants.

In permaculture we look for the multiplication of our functions. Doing this with the compost, we see that one output of the compost that we could use is the heat; probably we could cook eggs on top of it. When we had 20 school kids from Bangkok visiting the Panya Project for a week we thought we need more hot water options than our solar collector who holds water for about 4 to 8 showers. So we built them a bucket shower with passiv heating in letting the pipe run through the 60 degree hot compost. See pictures below. For two weeks we managed to have hot water from that pipe, so hot you needed to mix it with cold water.

The illusion of permanence

Traditionally, people that lived in the tropics and in the intact rainforest were nomads and used a shifting cultivation to till their land and grow their food: after using a piece of land for one, two or three years they left it, moved on, burned down another part of the forest and let the earlier one regenerate.

They were nomads in the real sense, took the stuff they needed with themselves and gave everything else back to the forest. They didn’t do that because of any superstitious believes but rather for the simple reason that that’s the best and most sustainable way of using the land and the soil in a tropical ecosystem. Here in this environment plant and animal species find optimal conditions to develop quickly and the number of species competing for a niche and a living space is higher than anywhere else in the world.

Indigenous people are well aware of that, they know the forest and their land. Only privatisation has made this kind of agriculture or even lifestyle impossible. Everybody is playing a game against nature and his/her own natural resources on his/her own territory.

The Lupa Masa Rainforest Camp is probably a little older than a year; the wooden structures start to rod because of moist; insecticides are supposed to keep termites away from building their houses in the huts; here and there reparations are necessary… the search for permanence becomes a battle against impermanence… against the inherit nature of the jungle… the inherit nature of all things in this world.

Lucie and I will try to set up a farming system around this camp… in a permaculture way. We’re basically trying to establish a permanent culture/agriculture in an impermanent environment. Seems like an illusion… However, the fact that we have permaculture principles that incorporate the impermanent nature of this world gives a lot of hope in that regard. The best idea we think is to use, like permaculture suggests, local plants, mostly perennials, to build up a food forest, imitating the natural forest with fruit-giving plants; a system that will feed back to the forest as it takes and hopefully, in due time, reach a state of climax. In accepting the illusion of permanence we might be able to find its true meaning and a way to it through the reality of impermanence.

Wwoofing at Lupa Masa

They want to accommodate more and more guests here at the Lupa Masa Rainforest Camp – up to 25 at a time. To get food from the market it is half an hour walk and a 20 minutes drive, mostly by taxi to a village called Renau. From there the same distance back to the camp – with the shopping bags. This makes the provision of food an energy and time consuming undertaking. The solution is growing food, and that’s Lucie’s and my job here.

When we applied, we didn’t know that there was no garden in place. There are some banana shrubs, oil palms and a few other fruit trees that grow here naturally. There are also a few signs of an earlier attempt to start a garden. Apparently two girls, wwoofing here before have tried to grow some veg of which most was eaten by the hundreds and thousands of ants that live here with us. So basically we’re starting from scratch, which is a challenge but also a great chance for us to do our first land-based permaculture design.
We’ve been here like 10 days, checked out the place and think there is a lot of potential. We’ve started off with planting some corn, pumpking, beans, lettuce, chillies, sunflowers in pots as we were arriving during the first week and started the Survey phase and the observation for the permaculture design. We’ve introduced compost and we’re about to start a test plot for growing out vegetables whilst doing the design.

Charlie has taken us for some treks at night looking for the details and observing the beautiful wildlife while the day treks show the pattern of the forest, the broader picture of ungle, rivers and waterfalls.

Besides building up the garden we’re supposed to take in guests, now that Charlie’s gone for two to three weeks, will do a lot of cooking (which is good), cleaning and we’ll basically look after the place (which is also good and, t think, has already made it more welcoming).

There are quite a few things we would change here but I guess this Rainforest Camp is not the dream that we live. It is called an eco-camp in the Lonely Planet, and yes the have hydroelectric (which is broken at the moment) and most huts and structures are built of bamboo and wood only, however, they use non-biodegradable soap in the river and spray insecticide on the termites and ants coming into the huts. We thought we might be able to have a word and inspire them in some of those things. Do we ask too much from people if we want them to recognise that everything in an ecosystem is interrelated – seeing the world not just as a shared habitat, but rather as our larger body!?

Community Peace Garden in Ilford, London

Community gardening – a concept that connects people of every age and walk of life, to work and learn together, getting their hands muddy, producieng healthy organic food and creating sites of life and blossom in the middle of cities.

Yes, a community garden is a single piece of land gardened collectively. There may be different arrangements for different community gardens, as some have parts of the garden being rented out as allotments. In such a case, a community garden has the advantage that the allotment holders can use the community material to work on their own plot of land and can benefit from the fact that the community is able to share cost in cases they want to get a gardener or a permacultur designer to give them some tips or workshops. The plots are not devided by fences or hedges which enables people to meet more frequently to share ideas and knowledge. And believe is or not, having a group of ten people thinking they don t know anything about gardening, you re sure to find at least ten valuable ideas. Its astonishing, the collective knowledge we possess.

I made use of my time in London in visiting the Forest Farm Peace Garden in London, Ilford. They have Wednesdays and Fridays open for volunteers. On the three days that I spend there I prepared new beds with compost and green manure, did a lot of weeding, some digging, turned the two pit compost, repotted lots of basil, collected a lot of ready vegetables and berries, learned a lot about plants  and met wonderful people. On Wednesday  mornings there is a group of five people with special needs coming to the gardens to do some work while having a chance to socialize, have fun and leaving everyday with a sense of accomplishment. That is what hands-on working in the garden does, it leaves you with a sense of happiness and accomplishment – you know you have worked and when you walk home in the evening with a smile on your face and a bag full of organically grown vegetables, you know what you have worked for.

The ethics of permaculture – Earthcare, Peoplecare and Fairshare – are an integral part of community gardening. These are places of education and nature awareness, places to connect ourselves with the people, the community and with the earth, the source of life.