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KawDang

De-mulched, denuded but still determined

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I'm about 4 months into developing a small organic garden and after this morning I just need to stop for a breather.

By way of back story, during the last Son Kran I started developing a food forest on a barren, over-sugar caned 1.5 rai field in a Kalasin village. As well as providing a self sufficiency of food this will also be the outlook from the house we are going to build here one day.

First up I spent 15k on some preliminary earthworks. A man with a digger put in 2 ponds, one at each end of the field, roughly 70m apart with about a half metre fall between them. I was told that when the rains do come (they started late this year) there is a torrent that rips down the field and I wanted to capture this water and keep it in our field as long as possible.

So in between the ponds (which are almost totally rain fed) the digger also built two large interlocking swales about half a metre high. And then built up each side of the field with raised strips a couple of meters wide, into which each swale connects. The idea being once the top pond overflowed the water would meander around the swales down to the bottom pond.

The bulk of these raised areas was provided by trucking in a lot of logs from a nearby field, belonging to mama-in-law. These logs came from mature trees she had had felled on our 1.5 rai organic garden field a year or so earlier - I comprehend the Laos language enough to recognise 'crazy falang' when I hear it.

Along this intended re-route of the water I had the digger scoop out 7 banana circles (which are turning out to be the most unsuccessful banana circles in South East Asia - another topic).

The rains eventually came and the water routing strategy has pretty much worked. Early on I did have to get out in a lightning storm to hack a relief drain through the bottom of the lower pond. And then the top one. No-one could have prepared me for the overwhelming volume of water coming down. But now with these overflow channels in and a couple of secondary swales also in place the big wet is pretty much behaving as gravity tells it to.

When it comes to the gardening itself I need to point out I work in Bangkok and only make it up here every fortnight for a weekend. After this morning I've decided to up the frequency to every weekend.

Also, since Son Kran my better half has opened a shop in the village, allowing none of the gardening time she initially had.

I've tried to be smart with the planting strategy and follow what I'm picking up from permaculture reading. So lots of pioneer nitrogen fixers like Don Khae & Macaam (incidentally, the same species as the foundation logs of the raised beds - mama used those Laos words on me again). Banana circles with banana, papaya and coconut as primary plants and with man keao (sweet potato) as ground cover. In between in the low-lying areas I planted a lot of peanut as a nitrogen fixing ground cover, and more man keao.

On the raised areas I've also planted a few citrus, pomegranate, mango, sadao (neem) as well as Thai olives (we'll see). In hindsight putting these feature trees in was probably a bit premature. The heat, the late rain as well as generally pretty lousy soil have resulted in a slow start for most (or worse).

But I think my main mistake, so far, was not saturating every bit of dirt with ground cover.

So four months on, after a healthy eight weeks of rainy season, after fortnightly stints of planting & mulching, what I've got is 1.5 rai of waist-height grasses and half a dozen thriving 2 metre tall macaam, don khae and Thai olive trees. And some barely visible feature seedlings. At least the peanuts and man keao have taken off.

I have to be philosophical. I know my intermittent visits mean compromise. In the long term picture, as long as my pioneer & feature trees get established and the topsoil gradually gets improved with chopping & dropping the ground cover, I'm ok with that. I was intending when the peanuts & man keao are harvested in a couple of months time to sheet mulch these areas with cardboard. The shop has a restaurant attached which produces a lot of compost (more compost than dishes sold by my calcs...). So as soon as I can get a functional compost area this will also contribute to improving the topsoil in the long term.

Last weekend I brought my kiwi nephew up to visit the village. And like me, he totally fell for the 5kph pace of the place. We took advantage of the soft ground brought about by some rain and threw ourselves into a bit of weeding. Just pulling up the interloper, shaking the roots and laying them between the good plants to decompose. We got a lot done, if nothing else rescuing the seedling feature trees from being overgrown, but still 60% of the field remained a thriving weed plantation. I resolved to just let the pioneers grow up (maybe even add some more) to get some shade provided, figure out what's going on with my failing banana circles, build a decent composting area, chop & drop my ground cover, sheet mulch the area of weeds remaining. Yes, I thought - these are realistic objectives that will allow me to learn as I go in the years ahead without getting stressed out by things like crop failure.

Then this morning there was an Isaan moment. I arrived late last night and at 6am went out for my usual review of the battlefield. In the intervening week my better half has taken it upon herself to surprise me by paying some locals to tidy up the garden. There it lay before me, denuded of every weed. Between each clump of man keao and peanut lies an expanse of bare, over-sugar caned pink dirt. The raised berms of the banana circles are now gleaming terracotta, better exposing the half-hearted banana, papaya and coconuts. Between each thriving macaam and spindly som-o lies a perfectly manicured patch of microbe-depleted soil.

I'm overwhelmed, struck dumb and I can't determine which clamour in my head is the loudest - erode me or overrun me with new weeds.

Bless her - I know she means well. Her attention must have been distracted that time I was reading aloud from Sepp Holzer's chapter on green manure. I thought she was as blown away by it as I was.

Similarly, when I was blah-ring on about us doing it different from the neighbours - we'll plant 5 species where they plant 1 - we'll never see the colour of our dirt again - blah blah blah - something else must have stolen her attention.

Hence me sitting here in front of our 5kph restaurant taking a breather. I've suddenly got a clean slate I kinda didn't want. And I'm not sure which way to turn now.

Nearly all setbacks are opportunities and I would appreciate any advice from the wiser ones out there what to do at this juncture.

The options I'm contemplating this morning are:

1. Get ground cover in ASAP - more tua lisong and man keao (or other options worth looking at?)

2. Getting a whole lot of mulch down - I can get as much kratin (leucaena) and rice husks as I want

3. Learn to speak Isaan

4. Bring in some good topsoil - I felt this was being a permaculture cheat initially. I've since found it's pretty cheap to get it by the truckload so...

If it's not obvious by now I'm new to gardening. And new to living in this part of the world. Saying that I know I'm into both for the long term. The lower pond now has a few thousand fingerling bpla nin (talapia) in it - 3 weeks ago I thought I'd already killed the original 5 adults we put in there originally. So I look forward to any advice received and in the meantime I'm heading back to the battlefield this afternoon. I've got grapes to plant...

Sent from my iPhone using Thaivisa Connect Thailand

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It is hard to visualize exactly what is going on, but here are some thoughts. I am a big fan of permaculture, but have found over the last 22 years that you have to modify some of the guidelines. I think it would work better if we did not live in a monsoonal climate. Here goes: I think that 1.5 rai is too small for 2 ponds, you would have been better with a large one at the upper end if you can get it to fill when it rains. In either case you need to make sure that the water can escape without knocking out your dam. You will need this water to take care of your desirable trees and plants in the dry season so they can get established. Place 4 bamboo stakes around your trees and have someone with a backpack mower come through every 2 weeks and cut down all the undesirable growth( or do it yourself). I don't understand how the land was logged a few years ago and was over sugar canned, you may just be looking at the soil that is normal for that area. You are finding out that some trees will do better than others and you can either double up on these or try know ones if something doesn't take. If you plan on living there, then get the dirt in for your foundation and let it settle. Figure out where your drive and outbuildings will be and start landscaping around those places. I hope you put the Neem in on the borders, they do well and you can use them when you build. Make sure your fruit trees are planted properly. I like 40cm x 40 cm x 40 cm hole with dry cow manure in the bottom and a layer of dirt and rice straw then your tree. Try to buy trees that have 3 root bundles as they will grow much quicker. Manila Tamarind will grow quicker than almost any tree I know of and it is a nitrogen fixer. They grow great around ponds and can help prevent erosion I have found that citrus trees take a lot of care to get established. You might put some bamboo in as you can always use some bamboo. bananas like really wet areas as does the bamboo. I don't get the logs and swales at all, it sounds like a great idea that will end up causing you trouble.

Well, 1.5 rai is small enough you can stay on top of things without going broke and you will learn a lot as you go. If you survive the rainy season and are still interested, PM me and come for a visit.

Good luck,

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Isaan folks regard composting and to a certain degree mulching, as a sin against nature . I mulch with rice straw and can walk around even when the garden is soaking wet, much less problems with weeds. Took me two years until I had the feeling that things were working . A never ending story .

Sent from my GT-S7500 using Thaivisa Connect Thailand mobile app

Edited by cooked
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With luck, depending on how they "tidied up" , the sweet potato may regrow.

It may be an idea to sow some sun hemp in areas where you may not have time to do much. It grows quickly and will improve the soil. In Thai, it is bpaw tuewung (ปอเทือง) and you can sometimes get the seed free from your local Land Development Department office.

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Thanks Loong - another Thai translation I can add to my planting list. Sounds ideal

Sent from my iPhone using Thaivisa Connect Thailand

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Hi Jotham - thanks for your words. I like the 4 bamboo stakes concept.

What do you mean about finding seedlings with 3 root bundles?

Sent from my iPhone using Thaivisa Connect Thailand

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Hi Jotham - thanks for your words. I like the 4 bamboo stakes concept.

What do you mean about finding seedlings with 3 root bundles?

Sent from my iPhone using Thaivisa Connect Thailand

When they make clones from grafts they graft root stock to a small branch. If they use 3 individual root stocks the small tree will grow much quicker because it has more roots. Of course it is more expensive.

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Thanks Loong - another Thai translation I can add to my planting list. Sounds ideal

Sent from my iPhone using Thaivisa Connect Thailand

I should have added that if you have the local free roaming chickens in the area, don't bother sowing sun hemp unless the area is fenced/netted. They will eat all the leaves once it is about 6 inches tall and tell all their friends about it as well.

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I would add a double truck of cow manure plowed in now when your land is clear, top up every six month for a couple of years.

It will make a world of difference especially for fruit trees and vegetables.

It will allow your land to develop beneficial microbes, absorb and keep moisture evenly.

Do not use chicken manure.

Don't worry about the small stuff, it grows back fast & easy with good soil; you will have after plowing in the manure.

It reminds me of my own garden, also about 1.5 rai around the house.

Started with bare filled up dirt; absolutely nothing growing on it not even weeds.

Now years later it is wonderful to be surrounded by super lush year round fruit & vegetables, not to mention all kind of exotic trees from an African Baobab to a wild fig tree from India.

Good luck

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