Our Land’s History
The land we live on used to be half giant bamboo monoculture, half conventional lychee/mangosteen/durian orchard until about 15 years ago, when the new owner stopped using any agricultural poisons, and planted a greater diversity of fruit trees.
He did not have much time to take care of the land – he lived elsewhere and had a lot of other things to do – so the place was in disuse ever since, with the owner visiting a few times per year to cut back the grass and plant a few more fruit trees.
He would have loved someone to help him take care of the land, or at least to sell it to somebody who would continue in the direction he took – many people from the village were interested (partly because of the water rights that come with the land), but they would have bulldozed the whole place with disregard of rare fruit trees from other continents and wild durian varieties, and planted it with the durian cultivar “Monthong” as monoculture, with the full package of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizer. This would have been a real pity and a major setback for the ecosystem, so the owner decided to wait for a good opportunity.
The land was basically just waiting for someone to consciously inhabit and steward it.
Our Personal History
Dave moved to Thailand in the beginning of 2014 to work on a small, peri-urban permaculture farm in the South of Thailand (Krabi province). At first a volunteer, then a regular community member, he finally began running the place when the owner moved to another province in 2016.
In early 2017, Karn moved to Krabi, too, where we stayed together for two years, until we decided that we had to start our own farm – we had to pay rent every month in Krabi, and the owner planned to sell the land for much more than we could afford.
The farm in Krabi used to be half a hectare of oil palm monoculture just 7 years ago, and when we left there were only 3 oil palms left – the rest was replaced by a big and diverse pond, a large variety of fruit trees, vegetable beds with dark, fertile soil, and adobe/bamboo houses. We saw the land recover, the trees grow higher than the houses, we watched bird and insect species return and take up permanent residence, and we were deeply satisfied with the progress we made.
We really loved the place and our life there, so we were saddened accordingly when it became clear that we couldn’t stay there.
We found this place with the help of a friend in Krabi who knew of someone with an ideal place for us to settle down. We took the opportunity, and just a month after the previous owner of our current garden contacted us to tell us that he might have just the right thing for us, we packed our things and moved.
It was a decision that we would never regret.
Even while staying in Krabi, we moved into a direction considered “more radical” than most other permaculture projects. We took inspiration from indigenous people, and experimented with “going back” to a much more simple life. Yet this proved difficult at times, especially concerning the wider environment, since the farm in Krabi was located right at the main road, where traffic increased steadily due to urban sprawl and a palm oil refinery being completed on the other side of the village, and the airport being a mere 20 km away. At night we would hear the airplanes flying in overhead, the rumbling noise of the factory in the distance, the heavy trucks bringing load after load of oil palm fruit, and the annoyingly loud motorbikes of the local teenagers.
Here in Chanthaburi, we live far off the main road, and there are no noises at night but the cicadas and crickets singing. We live without electricity and cook over an open fire. There are a few scattered neighbors here and there (who usually leave us alone and mind their own business), but the population density is much lower on the mountain we inhabit now.
The Food Jungle’s History
The upper half of our garden will slowly be transformed into what we’ve termed a Food Jungle (and extend downwards into the bottom half, where we practice regular permaculture). We will add to Our History every four months, and record what we did and how it’s going.
Phew!! The last three months have been quite some work! So, this is the upper half of our land, until very recently still a monotonous giant bamboo plantation! Since we will never need that much bamboo, and we’re keen to plant more fruit and jungle trees, we decided to get rid of the bamboo in the middle of the territory, leaving only the bamboo on the steep right side (to hold the earth with its roots and prevent erosion) and the left side (the border to the Nature Reserve) – which will be more than enough for construction, food (we can’t wait for bamboo shoot season!), and charcoal for making biochar (some of the dead trunks and the leftovers from consturction).
This is the blank canvas for painting our dream – a Rainforest-like Food Jungle!!
We will help Mother Nature to establish a level of diversity that will hopefully match – if not surpass – the number of species that were here before early farmers first cleared the land. We let the jungle around us be our inspiration, and carefully introduce non-native species of fruit trees and other useful (or beautiful) plants as well.
First we cleared the underbrush in between the piles of giant bamboo, so that felling the bamboo we intended to take out would be easier – and so that the place looks like “somebody lives here” (the Forest Rangers requested that, to clearly demarcated our land from the Nature Reserve).
Then, with the help of a diligent Cambodian family, we took out all of the bamboo in the middle of the land (they will sell the trunks to fishing villages in Chanthaburi, who use them to farm mussels), started digging out the clumps (without any help), and made some footpaths to make it easier to walk on the steep parts. We left the bamboo branches to decompose naturally (despite all neighbors suggesting we “just burn them” so the land looks “nice and clean”), and they simultaneously act as mulch to catch humidity for the remaining trees, and create habitat for all sorts of small animals, from rodents, over frogs, lizards and snakes, to various insects.
We left the largest trees standing (a few of them are wild mangos!), as well as all species of palm (rattan, fishtail palm, wild salak, wild betel nut and sago – all for food). The smaller trees were chopped down at the base and will resprout as soon as the rainy season arrives.
It is dry season, so we won’t do any planting for now – carrying water up there would be too much, considering that we have to water all the trees we brought from Krabi in the bottom half of our garden!
Let’s see how the place develops!!!
Succession in progress! About month after the rain started everything is green & growing!
We kept the hardy pioneer trees that grew among the giant bamboo (as seen in the bottom picture) to spend shadow, protect the soil from rain, produce biomass, supply food for birds, bats, and bees, and sequester carbon. The bamboo clumps, trunks and branches were not burned (apart from a small quantity used to make charcoal) but piled up for composting, slowly releasing nutrients and biomass to the soil and feeding the new jungle.
Since the last update (February), we’ve…
….added three layers of swales against soil erosion which we planted with legumes (barely visible in the picture)
….dug out almost all bamboo piles in the middle section (by hand – machines are for the weak!)
…. excavated a pit for making bamboo charcoal for biochar (bottom left corner)
…. carried a 2000-liter water tank for collecting rainwater (for drinking) to the top
…. and planted the area with two kinds of durian, three kinds of mango, breadfruit, Indian gooseberry, two kinds of jackfruit, avocado, rollinia, cacao, noni, cashew, petai, passion fruit, several abiu trees, a few bananas, cassava, moringa, taro, climbing wattle, rattan, teak, achiote, coffee, and a few other local fruits, herbs, and jungle vegetables.
In between we planted over a dozen carefully selected jungle trees chosen from an inventory of threatened hardwood species of large native forest trees supplied for free by the public tree nursery of the Forest Rangers. The trees we chose will form the top canopy layer of our food jungle. They actively enrichen the soil, are suited for intercropping with fruit trees, will in time become up to 45 m high, and are all well-known to go into mycorrhizal associations with several species of edible fungi.
We already have plants for food, fuel, fiber, medicine, timber, thatch, cloth, dye, lacquer, glue, arrow- and fish poisons in our species selection, so I guess we’re safe – whatever the future holds!
Another 4 months have passed, so here’s our update of how the upper half of our garden after an intense rainy season looks like. It is absolutely amazing to see how fast a moderately disturbed tropical ecosystem recovers with a little help from two diligent gardeners!
One of our goals is full canopy closure in 10 years, but so far it looks like we will achieve this in 5!
Since the last update we’ve planted all the trees we had in mind/in the nursery, and then a few more. We now have safou (butter fruit), peach palm, 3 new kinds of wild durian, mulberry, more banana cultivars, some more hardwood trees and other jungle giants, a few shade-tolerant plants like melinjo, cardamom, turmeric, ginger, and galangal, and in the upper left corner we started making vegetable beds among the giant bamboo piles (not visible in the picture).
Bamboo shoot season is almost over, but therefore we get to eat the inside of the pseudostem (the heart) of the wild banana trees that magically sprout up everywhere on a regular basis. Apart from that we harvest a number of (semi-)wild herbs and leafy greens, like chaya, climbing wattle, siamese cassia, holy basil, fireweed, moringa, jenkol leaves, and some more that don’t have English names.
We even started harvesting the first fruit, a kind of slightly sweet wild fig that grows everywhere on small bushes – thanks to the birds and their invaluable efforts as seed dispersers!
Good to see everything grow and thrive – this must be the only truly sustainable form of Growth!!
Our Pond’s History
One of the biggest transformations our land has experienced during the past year has been our pond. It was excavated about 20 years ago with the help of a small excavator, and has not been taken care of ever since. It is technically located inside the Nature Reserve, but the Forest Rangers don’t make us any trouble for using it – everyone needs access to water. It sits at the bottom of a small valley formed by rain runoff from the jungle and marks the lowest spot of our garden.
We are very lucky, since it recharges year round from an underground aquifer (it was dug right above a fresh water source bubbling up) and is fed by chemical-free rainwater from the forest during rainy season. The water level never really falls a lot (at the high of dry season it might be a mere 30 cm lower), but, as the previous owner told us, even if you would pump out 10,000 liters in one day, the next morning it would be at the same level again.
When we first visited this place, the pond was almost not discernible as a body of water – it looked more like a swamp. The water was dark, and smelled sour and like decay. It was completely covered in dense vegetation, full of rotting wood, bamboo, and other debris, and it was impossible to make out its borders. It was teeming with snakes and leeches, and no sunlight reached the surface.
After moving here in November 2017, we immediately got to work. The pond was one of our top priorities and simultaneously one of our greatest sorrows, since we did not know how much time it would take to recover – and we urgently needed the water: to water all the trees we brought from our last project, to bathe, cook, and to do laundry.
After about two months (during which we of course also did other things), we finished clearing the vegetation around the pond (and got bitten by dozens of leeches in the process), pulled out large rotting tree trunks, excavated bucket after bucket of clay (which we dumped around the base of nearby fruit trees), and finally the outline became visible.
The water was murkier than ever before (because of us digging into and pulling things out of the clay), but the smell became better soon (not foul anymore, but more like wet clay). There were already a few stands of a wild cousin of the salak palm (with unbelievably sour fruit), some wild bananas, plenty of patidoi (a plant used for making mats, baskets, and other containers), and even more wild bamboo.
The first attempts to introduce water hyacinth, morning glory, and edible lotus failed, probably because of a hungry turtle who could finally eat a more diverse diet.
Since the beginning of this year, we successfully introduced several species of (semi-)aquatic plants that are either edible (water mimosa, morning glory, watercress, pandanus, Vietnamese coriander, rice paddy herb, centella), help increase water quality and clarity (water hyacinth), or both. The water is now clear and has a wonderful deep blue color on most days (if we don’t dig out more clay for a few days, at least). In dry season, we still excavate the nutrient-rich clay weekly to add as fertilizer for our fruit trees – which has the positive side effect of deepening the pond and making use of the topsoil/silt being washed down from the forest each rainy season.
The water has almost no discernible smell, and we’ve been using it for cooking coffee, tea, rice, and other food, as well as for bathing and laundry for over a year now – without any complications.
We introduced three species of fish (catfish, tilapia, and the iridescent shark – despite the misleading name of course not a true shark, but a relative of the catfish with a fin that makes them look like tiny sharks), two edible species of water snails, one species of rice paddy crab, and we found out that Asian swamp eels are abundant enough that we can catch some every month. There is at least one turtle living in the pond, and a large monitor lizard the size of a small crocodile visits the pond occasionally.
The number of bird species increased noticeably, and there are pit vipers, cobras, and keelbacks to marvel at.
Around the pond there are more and more edible wild plants as well, such as wild bananas, turkey berries, fireweed, and a variety of bamboo we introduced that gives shoots throughout the year. Additionally, we planted Jamaican cherry (mainly for the birds), lady finger banana (of which the squirrels and monkeys will probably get the larger part), and a few coconut palms to stabilize the soil. We still need to fight back the wild bamboo once a year, but it’s easy work from now on.
There are still quite a few (non-venomous) water snakes, but hopefully soon we will be able to take a swim in there, too!