Part One: Regenerative Permacultural Methods
There are many ways to help Nature come back to her old strength. Besides from the typical composting of food and garden waste, we built a compost toilet, planted native forest trees, started producing large quantities of biochar from waste bamboo, and started cultivating water hyacinth in our pond – an invasive species from the Amazon rainforest, which grows rapidly and can be used to feed chicken and ducks or to mulch trees (it composts into nice, dark soil and the earthworms love it). Our ultimate goal is to help our Great Mother Nature to create what we’ve termed a Food Jungle.
“Food Jungle” is the term we use for the food forest ecosystem we help to create through Primitive Permaculture – more common terms that describe the methods we use are silviculture and agroforestry.
We usually don’t use those terms to describe what we’re doing, because we don’t exclusively plant trees and silviculture is, as is agroforestry, often associated with industrial-scale plantations, often not mono- but “duo-” or “triocultures“.
We have been inspired by Bill Mollison’s ‘Permaculture – A Designer’s Manual‘ (Tagaeri Publications, 1988), which already stated that to have any long-term success with growing food in the tropics, it is best to imitate the Rainforest. Mechanized
monocultural systems (not even sustainable in temperate moist areas) have proven disastrous on fragile tropical soils prone to erosion during the rainy season and sterilizing heat in the dry season. The ground always has to be covered and protected from direct sunlight, as in the forest – otherwise irreplaceable and invaluable topsoil washes away with heavy monsoon showers, and UV radiation and heat kills all life (mycorrhizal fungi, worms, beetles, microorganisms, bacteria) in the topsoil layer.
Mollison was a good basis to start with, but we saw that in any Rainforest, most species don’t have a direct benefit to humans as a food source – which is why we decided to go one step further, and include many species that are found in pristine forest ecosystems, but which don’t produce food for humans. Many of those non-food trees still yield valuable products, such as resin, latex, bark, fiber, medicine, firewood or timber, or provide habitat or food for other animals.
Charles M. Peters, professor of tropical ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, wrote in his book ‘Managing the Wild’ (2018, Yale University Press)*:
“The Kenya [an indigenous, horticultural (swiddening) people in Malaysia] are simultaneously managing 125 tree species per hectare in a forest orchard— an unprecedented feat of silvicultural prowess.
In my opinion, based on what I have seen, studied, and measured over the past thirty years, these villagers are the most gifted foresters in the world.”
This and other stories from out bioregion were truly inspiring for us.
In the chapter about the Dayak (another indigenous group of Malaysia), he talks about how he visited the forest behind an old Dayak man’s house, just to discover that what he took to be a beautiful, relatively undisturbed piece of mixed Dipterocarp forest, was actually a fruit orchard, tended for centuries (if not longer) by the local Dayak community.
“The forest was relatively open, yet multistoried, with numerous palms and climbers. Many of the canopy trees were heavily buttressed and over a meter in diameter.”
When he realized that this was not pristine forest, but a large, naturalized jungle garden, he asked the old man about some of the trees, and was surprised that the man not only knew all trees, but also when they produced fruit and how many baskets they yield, how old the trees were – and the name of the person who had planted each individual tree.
The old man showed him around that day, and Peters
“was shown five species of mango trees, seven species of breadfruit, six species of rambutan, eleven species of rattan, and three beehives. [He] counted forty-six [!!] large durian trees, sixteen sugar palms (Arenga pinnata), and several dozen canopy trees that produce milky latex or other exudates of value.”
It seems like it is definitely possible to create a forest-like permaculture, that is almost indistinguishable to the layperson’s eye. Many forest trees, we learned, can easily be grown together with fruit trees, since they – in time – grow so high that the fruit trees below still have enough sunlight during the morning and afternoon hours, and are keen to go into symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi, which in turn benefits every plant around. Further, they actively improve the soil conditions, and NPK levels are higher in the soil around a forest tree.
If our garden is diverse and beautiful enough to fool a trained forester, we will know that we have reached our goal.
(If you want to check out how it’s going with our Food Jungle, click here)
Even though we view the practice of animal domestication rather critically, we do keep earthworms. They are called “red wigglers”, a foreign species especially adapted to decay organic matter (apparently the native Thai earthworms are much lazier) and were given to us by a friend who produces worm fertilizer on a commercial basis. The process is simple and the result astonishing.
What you need is dry cow shit which you soak in water for a few days (change the water 3 times and soak for about 3 days each time; the waste water can be used to soak charcoal in, so that the charcoal absorbs the nutrients, or diluted with water 1/4 and used to water fruit trees) and then mix it with any organic waste or compost you have. We use one bag of cow shit, mixed with one bag of finely chopped water hyacinth from our pond, one wild banana tree (also finely chopped), one bowl of charcoal powder, and half a cup of crushed seashells (for the calcium and to stabilize the pH on a level that vegetables like).
You add one handful of worms and wait for some weeks, then you separate the finished fertilizer from the worms (they will reproduce rapidly) by sieving and the fertilizer is ready to use!
Just one handful added to any vegetable that you put into the ground will have the same short-term effect as chemical fertilizer, but without the negative long-term side effects. It will improve the soil in the long term by making it more attractive for insects that help you further improving the soil and softening it.
Biochar is what you call charcoal when you add it to the soil. It is a way of sequestering carbon (the capturing and long-term storage of atmospheric CO2). Other benefits of biochar are that it makes the soil softer, increases soil fertility (especially acidic soil) and water storing capacity, and therefore agricultural productivity, and protects plants against some foliar and soil-borne diseases. It acts as a sort of “coral reef” for soil microorganisms, as a “sponge” for nutrients, and can stay in the soil for thousands of years.
The multitude of benefits of biochar was known to the pre-Columbian Amazonians as well, who produced charcoal and used it to create a very fertile soil known as terra preta (del Indio). Terra preta is the only soil know to regenerate itself, requiring no further input of nutrients to grow crop after crop.
We produce our charcoal mainly from leftover bamboo that we don’t use for construction anymore. Usually we dig a pit to burn the bamboo, so that there is not enough oxygen in it for the bamboo to turn into ashes, and after the bamboo is all black, we simply close it with earth and wait for one day. The result is now crushed to small pieces and mixed with the soil or used in our compost toilet.
We use a compost toilet, so that the precious fertilizer we produce every day doesn’t go to waste. Human excrement is, if treated right, much better fertilizer than cow or even bat shit, because we eat a more diverse diet. Our compost toilet is a simple bamboo construction over a hole in the ground, and we use powdered charcoal (mixed with crushed sea shells) as a cover after every use, because it eliminates the smell and soaks up nutrients. The result can be “harvested” every four to five months (after a month of letting it decompose), and the result is basically proto-terra preta. The resulting mixture should smell like compost (not like shit – that means it isn’t finished!) and we use it for our fruit and forest trees (dig a hole, fill it in, close it), and experimentally in some vegetable beds (excavate the soil, fill in a layer of throughout composted (!!) proto-terra preta, and fill the soil back in).
While most people in our society are terribly ashamed of themselves shitting, and do it only behind closed doors, flush it away so that the bathroom looks like nothing ever happened, occasionally even use air freshener to eliminate every possible evidence (and never, ever talk about the disgraceful act you just committed!), it is the most natural thing, and every animal does it – so why be ashamed of it?
We have a theory that the reason is our deep-seated culturally imposed denial of our own animality (we treat human animal smell – sweat – in a similar manner) but this is not the place to elaborate. Fact is, millions of tons of valuable potential fertilizer are flushed away, mixed with drugs, waste and chemicals, and ends up as highly toxic sewage sludge.
The nutrients contained in all those humans’ shit are now missing on the fields, and have to be replaced by chemical fertilizer. We modern humans broke the most ancient Cyle of Nature, the constant recycling of nutrients. It is time to change that.
Terracing – A Mandatory Technique for Growing Vegetables on Hillsides
If we can learn one thing about farming from the failure of previous civilizations, it is that destructive agricultural techniques (like plowing, deforestation to clear new fields, cultivation of hillsides, and monocropping) combined with changes in the climate (such as a wet decade followed by a much drier one) played a crucial role during the collapse of most ancient civilizations.
It follows that agricultural techniques should be discarded altogether (and replaced with horticultural/permacultural ones) and even during the best years one should never forget that the next drought might be right around the corner (which is especially true today, where Climate Breakdown intensifies droughts and the periods inbetween get shorter – heavy droughts in Thailand were in the years 1979, 1995, 2015/16, and 2018/19)
The pattern of collapse often follows a similar trend: during wetter decades, and often exacerbated and reinforced by population growth due to larger food surpluses, the area under agricultural cultivation expands upwards the slopes of hills to more marginal agricultural lands. The cultivation of sloping land (which initially needs to be deforested and plowed to be planted) inadvertently leads to massive top soil erosion and concomitantly a rapid decline in agricultural productivity, leading to food scarcity and therefore political instability and social unrest as soon as the next drought hits.
Some ancient Greek as well as Phoenician farmers learned from their early mistakes and started the labor-intensive process of terracing hillsides (at least in a few areas). A small minority of Maya farmers on the Yucatan Peninsula also terraced hillsides, although the practice was never generalized. As a result, rates of soil erosion peaked right before Mayan civilization unraveled about 1100 BP. Today, where Mayan terraces remain intact, they hold three to four times more soil than the surrounding slopes that were cleared for cultivation but not terraced.
Renowned soil expert Walter Lowdermilk, who surveyed the effects of land use on erosion in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe for the US Department of Agriculture, found a few well-maintained stone terraces in the Judean highlands of Israel that still held the soil after several thousand years of cultivation.
On a similar note, modern farmers in Peru’s Colca Valley still use ancient terraces cultivated for more than fifteen centuries, without a notable drop in soil fertility (which is in this case also attributed to techniques like intercropping, crop rotations including legumes, fallowing, and the use of manure and ash as soil amendments). Further, they practiced no-till farming where seeds are inserted into the ground with a chisel-like device that minimally disturbs the soil – as opposed to ripping up the entire area with a plow.
Only in agricultural areas where stone terraces were build to level the planting area did the soil quality not decline, and the land remained productive – often until today. Terracing steep fields can reduce soil erosion by 80-90 percent (which makes it a sustainable practice, since the remaining 10-20 percent are balanced out by natural soil formation processes and through adding compost, manure and other soil amendments) by turning slopes into a series of relatively flat surfaces sperated by reinforced steps. Another benefit of building terraces from stones is that the soil covered by stones retains moisture for much longer than bare soil.
Using stones to aid farming in drier areas – to build rock gardens and make lithic mulches – was a common method on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Maori New Zealand, and dry parts of Roman Italy, Peru, North America, and China. Rocks help maintaining soil moisture by sheltering the soil from sun and wind (hence reducing evaporative water loss), and from rain (hence preventing soil erosion and runoff). Soil temperatures are more stable as well, with lower maximum temperatures during the day and higher minimum temperatures during the night, which helps not only the plants themselves, but also many soil organisms that help maintaining fertility and soil structure, and decaying organic matter.
We at Feun Foo do a minimalist form of terracing our vegetable beds, informed by the mistakes and successes of thousands of years of hillside farming by people all over the world. Listening to the land, we decided to virtually confine the cultivation of annual vegetables to the lower third of the garden (where the slopes are the gentlest) and leave the steeper slopes in the upper part forested for minimal disturbance of the soil.
Although we confine vegetable beds to areas with an almost negligible slope, we still build terraces from stones (carried up by hand, of course) found around our pond. This way we are not only safe in terms of topsoil erosion, but simultaneously create a planting space less prone to drought due to the use of relatively large sandstones (which, as described above, help maintaining soil moisture and stabilizing soil temperatures).
Together with a heavy mulch of bamboo leaves, it suffices to water our vegetables every two days, which translates to using less than half the water compared to conventional agriculture. Since all our vegetable beds are in the immediate vicinity of fruit trees, we eliminate the need to both water and fertilize those trees as well.
Climate Smart Farming
With the global climate spinning out of control, and extreme weather events, prolonged droughts and intense rainfall looming, we try our best to adapt to and prepare for the coming insecurity and unreliability of the weather. The other day we went to a community meeting in the village, where an official informed farmers that, from now on, each year can expected to be drier, with longer dry seasons and less overall rainfall during the monsoon (basing this prediction on trends observed in the recent past and projections of climate models on the future).
This is a pretty bold statement, and we were surprised that no solutions were offered afterwards, no plans to deal with the water scarcity, and no proposals on how to best adapt.
A large part of the farming techniques we use are informed by the fact that we will experience severe climatic instability in our lifetime. We know that it might prove to be futile to think we can adapt to what’s coming, but it is undoubtedly at the very least worth trying – better than to change nothing and continue with farming-as-usual until the tipping point is breached that makes farming impossible.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) has coined the term Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) as a way to deal with what the climate will throw at us over the next few decades. Their website states that “CSA aims to tackle three main objectives: sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes; adapting and building resilience to climate change; and reducing and/or removing greenhouse gas emissions, where possible.”
As always with the UN, we have plenty to object – although we acknowledge that the basic framework is well-intentioned. Like with all other UN publications, the aims are not nearly as radical as they would have to be to have an impact in the real world.
Agriculture itself is the culprit and the reason we are in this precarious situation. If anything, we should do away with agriculture and adopt permacultural/horticultural techniques that mimic natural ecosystems and therefore show similar levels of resilience and productivity.
Instead of increasing the productivity (which, by the way, would happen automatically with permacultural/horticultural methods – see below), the goal should be to increase the number of people who do farming. Less people to feed in the cities would take pressure of farmers, and since city people have an unproportionally larger ecological footprint when compared to subsistence farmers, it would be good from all perspectives if more people would make this shift.
If any larger disruption paralyzes cities for even a few days, chaos would ensue because the food stored within the cities lasts for a few days at most.
The larger the population of self-sufficient subsistence farmers in the countryside, the less human suffering during times of crisis
In our opinion, Climate Smart Agriculture would first have to be called Climate Smart Farming/Gardening/Planting (to distance it from the devastating practice of monocrop agriculture), and should be defined as “method to tackle three main objectives: increasing the number of farmers and using permacultural polycultures to naturally increase yields; adapting and building resilience to climate change; and actively removing greenhouse gas emissions through planting large amounts of trees.”
The Footprint Network has calculated that our planet only has enough resources for each of us to consume 1.8 “global hectares” (gha) annually – a standardised unit that measures resource use and waste. For comparison, this is what the average person in Ghana or Guatemala consumes. North Americans, on the other hand, consume about 8 hectares per person (and Europeans 4.7 hectares) – many times their fair share. Nedless to say, the material standard of industrialized countries has to be reduced drastically to reach sustainable levels. The excessive use of technology is a leading factor that drives the gha average up – each individual is ascribed a certain acreage of mines and factories.
Further, if the world population continues to increase, the available land per capita will decrease accordingly. Curbing population growth is imperative to sustainability.
With permacultural methods, it is possible to feed a whole family on two hectares in most ecosystems, which would mean that if everyone would live like this, theoretically each person would use roughly half a hectare – which would mean enough space in between for other species to thrive!
We here at Feun Foo use a number of techniques to help us cope with what’s coming our way climate-wise. In the following, we will use examples of our techniques compared to conventional fruit farming in the area – without the intention to shame our fellow villagers, but simply to show that an alternative would be possible and not difficult. The farmers around here often simply don’t know better, they are heavily influenced by advertising and lobbying of agrochemical manufacturers, and are under pressure from all sides to maximize production and therefore profits.
As soon as the rain stops for two days, fruit farmers in Chanthaburi Province start watering each tree, even fully grown ones. Extensive networks of PVC pipes and sprinklers are used, as well as gasoline-powered water pumps. This practice serves to ensure that maximum growth is achieved in the shortest possible time, but is concerningly wasteful in terms of water usage. If you water fruit trees every day, they will never develop deep roots and water-saving capabilities of their own, making them reliant on daily watering.
We water our fruit trees only when necessary – which means once or twice a month for the small trees (0-2 years) and virtually never for larger trees. This way the trees experience water stress from a young age on and develop effective natural mechanisms to cope with drought. Species with a taproot will drill this root deep into the soil to reach layers where water is still available, but all species will develop root systems that are generally deeper and cover a larger area than those watered daily around their base.
Timing of planting
Planting is generally done throughout the rainy season, to the extend that even in the last month trees are planted that would die immediately without daily watering. Needless to say, if anything were to happen to fossil fuel supply chains or water availability, those trees would not make it.
We plant only in the first half of rainy season, to make sure that the trees have a few months to develop roots that penetrate the soft soil. The beginning phase of the life cycle is fundamental to the overall health of an adult tree.
Young trees are planted into small holes dug into red soil (and afterwards heavily fertilized with nitrogen salts applied topically, much of which will be washed away with the first strong rain), without further enrichening the soil. Red clay (the standart soil type throughout the tropics) has very little capability to store water over longer periods and is generally not very porous and absorbs water only slowly.
We dig a large hole for each tree, and mix the soil with compost, humanure, cow dung, powdered charcoal, crushed sea shells, sand, sawdust, or whatever else is available. Charcoal and sawdust soak up water and therefore ensure that any water entering the soil will stay put for longer. Crushed seashells and sand make the soil structure more porous, allowing water to enter easily. Compost and manure feed not only the plants but also the “Soil Food Web”, thousands of small soil organisms that dig tunnels and burrows that aerate the soil and create paths for rainwater to enter.
Mulching and weeding
Usually only the fewest people mulch their trees, for reasons we can’t quite comprehend – some are afraid of snakes who might nest in the mulch, others are afraid that fungi or bacteria that pose a threat to the trees might develop as the mulch decomposes, or that the grasses – if left standing – would compete with their fruit trees for water and nutrients (chemical fertilizer can’t easily be applied as well when the trees are mulched). Further, the grass in fruit orchards is cut regularly to a height of a few centimeters, and in some instances sprayed with herbicides afterwards. Bare soil bakes in the sun, killing all beneficial microorganisms and drying out the soil.
As advised by all permaculturalists, we heavily mulch freshly planted trees (and even older ones and vegetables), with anything available: dry grass, cuttings from other trees, leaves, twigs, wood pieces, wood shavings, water hyacinth, etc. This has the effect that water evaporates much slower, even under direct sunlight. If we water a mulched tree in the morning, the soil surface under the mulch will stay moist throughout the day and even well into the next day. The deeper levels of soil will stay moist for even longer, so that watering once per week (or less) suffices for small trees. Apart from this obvious benefit, mulch creates habitat for insects, worms and other soil-dwelling organisms that soften the soil with their burrows and tunnels and therefore make it easier for water to penetrate deep into the soil. As the mulch decomposes, nutrients are slowly released and provide a constant input of organic fertilizer for the trees.
We do only the necessary weeding (which is limited to footpaths, vegetable beds, and around the base of trees, where we use the cut vegetation as mulch immediately afterwards). Bare soil is an injury that Nature covers up as fast as possible with plants most people call “weeds”, so that the roots of those “pioneer plants” (our more appropriate term) hold the soil together and protect it from direct rain. We don’t interfere with this natural process, but leave the grass wherever we can.
While people take care to plant durian trees on a small earth mound (dug by an excavator), no further work is done on the land concerning rainwater collection and/or drainage. People see this as a waste of time and resources, since their focus is exclusively on the fruit crop. This has the effect that rainwater simply rushes downhill, taking topsoil and excess fertilizer with it.
Lately there has been a trend of digging earthen “terraces” into mountainsides using large excavators, which simply discard any remaining topsoil and bury it under meters of red clay, compact the soil with their weight of many tons, and severely cripple even the most basic healing abilities of the ecosystem. Such thing has happened on a hillside visible from our garden, which has been so severely degraded that after one whole year (meaning also one whole rainy season!) has still not recovered complete plant cover of the soil, and probably tons of soil were washed away during heavy rain showers. The purpose of this exercise is not to minimize runoff, but to make cutting grass, spraying chemicals and harvesting easier, and because of the (completely irrational) reason that “it looks nice and clean”(!!), according to the owner.
We dug several levels of swales (by hand, of course) – 30 cm-wide drains that run parallel to the contour of the land and that catch runoff rainwater and the soil it carries, slow down the downward water flow, and have the effect that more rainwater penetrates deep into the soil, recharging groundwater and aquifers instead of just feeding rivers that carry the water back into the ocean. Silt and mud can be obtained from the swales after rainy season and is an excellent, nutrient-rich soil to apply around trees or use in vegetable beds.
We do basic terracing (as described above) with our vegetable beds and fruit trees, to eliminate soil erosion, ensure their roots don’t get waterlogged during periods of intense rainfall, and to further slow down water rushing downhill.
For all earthworks, we use the only truly sustainable form of energy: calories (human muscle power). Heavy machinery burns fossil fuels (and therefore further exacerbates Climate Breakdown), compacts the soil, scares away wildlife and destroys more than it repairs.
In regular fruit orchards, either a single crop or a maximum of three fruit species are grown together, in neat rows and with much spacing in between.
We plant trees that are known for saving water in rainy season and slowly releasing it into the ground during dry season, such as banana, kapok, or several other native forest trees.
Dirt – The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery, University of California Press (2007)
Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond, Penguin Books, 2005