For the next two weeks, I’m enrolled in my first farming course. It’s more like a course in creating forests rather than farming, but the point is to harvest from rich biodiversity rather than destroy it in the name of food production. The goal “is to be a forager in one’s own ecosystem”.
This approach is known as permaculture, and its basically agriculture founded on observation of forests, and their ability to be self-sustaining. How do forests provide so many plant options without chemicals, what makes them able to conserve rivers and create rain? How can our backyards become micro forests, producing profusely, more than we ever suspected possible?
I first heard about permaculture in 2013 when I watched Erle Rahaman-Noronha’s inspiring TEDx Port of Spain talk, titled ‘Bringing Nature Home’. In one of the last slides, he showed the land he began to work on eighteen years ago, which had been handed over almost bare, down to grass. The next slide showed layers of trees, from the ground up and densely filling different areas of his land.
I knew then that this was something we should all know more about given the increasing rate of tree cover loss in our communities, the unsustainability of conventional agriculture, and the need to feed ourselves as well as the other life forms with whom we share the planet.
I’m taking the lessons from the course back to the garden where I live in the hope of making it less dependent on anything from outside, whether in relation to excess water-use, especially in dry season, or artificial fertilizer, because now I better understand how to make well-balanced compost. It’s such a simple idea, forests recycle everything in a loop, with tree roots and even migratory birds involved. What can they teach us about how to use what we have to both reduce waste and reap more?
I’ve learned that it’s not necessary to till your land, particularly in the tropics where topsoil is thin. Forests don’t till; we don’t have to either. What we can do, like forests, is layer green and brown plant material, recognizing that both nitrogen and carbon are necessary to soil rejuvenation. Just add water to your mulch, aerate and watch soil emerge.
Stripping soil bare is unnecessary and harmful. All you will do is dry out your topsoil from too much sun or allow it to be washed away by plenty rain, kill thousands of organisms which exist in that top layer and off the grasses and plants, and lead to an obvious need for chemicals to jump start crops. Everything that looks like ‘bush’ has some value that can be reused for mulching. Don’t burn the bush you do cut or watch your future topsoil go up in smoke.
See your garden in three dimensions from the ground up. Something like tumeric or yam is growing in the ground, something like peas can be trailed higher. Banana trees then fill the space under larger trees, like tamarind or flamboyant, which are known as nitrogen fixers. The idea is to create continuous yields, at different times and with different returns, including for the insects, animals, plants, water, air and land around you. At one point yam, at another point bananas, then, perhaps timber.
Save water and slow the flow of water across the land so that it can be absorbed into the ground along the way, rather than washing everything away with it. Whole hillsides are currently planted without any ‘swales’ or little indents and dams, and channels to direct water across rather than straight down slopes. All land naturally has points for water storage, ringed by some trees to hold up the soil. The natural course of water is to meander along uneven topography and to be in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots which promote absorption. We should observe if our agricultural methods reflect just this.
These lessons seem so obvious because, I guess, they were the old people’s way or the old forests’ way, before plantation-economy monocropping and modern, chemical-based agribusiness.
Watch Erle’s TEDx Talk. Grow food that doesn’t require cutting down forests. Instead choose farming invested in creating whole forests with sources of food.