There is a great deal of good information available on Permaculture, Natural Farming and related subjects, design, growing techniques, etc. and I don’t presume to add anything new to it.
However, actual practical information that is directly related to the SE Asian climate is harder to find and a lot of it is in local language, often hidden in some obscure document or website.
In the years at Mae Mut we have had many visitors, who were looking for information or inspiration from what we were doing, they had themselves experienced this lack of easily available practical information.
Here we answer some basic questions from our own experience, especially drawing on all the mistakes we made. Mae Mut Garden changed quite radically in six years, when we moved there you could not really have called it a garden…
WHAT INFORMATION DO YOU NEED AT THE START?
The most important information you need to start planning or design your project is not found in a book. It concerns the two most important elements of the project: the actual site and those who will live there.
It is essential to have a very clear idea of what we intend to achieve, how much time we will have to dedicate to the project, who is going to help us and what is around us.
Also, when I first started thinking about a self sufficient life in the tropics, a few things stood out immediately:
- WATER It goes without saying, water access is the most important aspect of any edible garden project, we must plan to store as much water as possible, in the most efficient location and to move it through the site using as little energy as possible.
- SHADE It is a fundamental part of any design, it can make living without aircon quite bearable, even in Thailand, and it creates a more varied food growing environment.
- SLOPE If possible, a site which is not totally flat is preferable, a sloping ground allows us to move water with a reduced need for pumping equipment and can make it easier to stack plants without losing the benefit of direct sunlight.
- TERRACES AND SWALES. Very often in the tropics, a property on a slope will be already terraced on contour, which means more water retention and less run off during the rainy season, in which case swales are not really necessary. A lot of information is available about the basics of swale construction, in the tropics I think it is useful to plant some shade at the edge of swales, which could then be used as composting pits in the dry season.
- GROUND COVER It is essential to plan for ground cover if necessary at the beginning of any project to protect any exposed soil and avoid heavy runoff damage.
- GREEN BIOMASS AND MANURES Fast growing nitrogen fixing plants like pigeon pea and madre de cacao can be designed into the garden as living borders and should be planted as early as possible into the project. Having access to a wood chipper can be useful, to quickly turn any green prunings into mulch or to speed up the composting process. Homemade manure is cheaper and preferable and possibly more organic, but it obviously requires extra effort which not everyone can make, especially at the start.
PLANTS THAT ANY TROPICAL EDIBLE GARDEN SHOULD HAVE
- The Big Four. Rice, Bamboo, Banana, Coconut. Rice needs a dedicated area, which can then be used for peanuts, onion or garlic etc. outside of the rice growing season. The other three can be grown anywhere on the site, but bamboo should be planted far away from other edible species, as it affects the growth of anything that is near it. While transitioning to organic we can expect to produce around 500kg or rice per rai, the yield will increase as the soil becomes more productive and we get more experienced with our timing and crop feeding.
- Fruit Trees. Jackfruit, Papaya, Mulberry, Guava, Passion Fruit, Moringa, Jamaican Cherry. What these have in common is that they don’t need much looking after, and are fast growing. Jamaican cherry is one of the fastest growing trees in the tropics and it gives great shade, jackfruit and papaya can be eaten as fruit when ripe, but can also be used as vegetables when green. Moringa is the miracle tree, say no more.
- Perennial (almost) Vegetables. Asparagus, Sweet Leaf, Malabar Spinach, Water Morning Glory, Chayote, Sesbania, Pigeon Pea, Cassava. All these are pretty much care-free fast growing plants, which contain starch (cassava), protein (pigeon pea) and vitamins and natural sugars. Pumpkin is also very easy to grow, it is recommended in the rainy season, produces edible shoots and flowers in addtion to the actual fruits.
- Herbs. Ginger, Turmeric and Galangal are easy to grow roots with ornamental potential. Mint, Thai Basil, Chilli, Vietnamese Coriander, Edible Fern, Pandan, Lemongrass and Citronella can be used also as ground cover and in a living border to repel insects from a vegetable patch