During my relatively short time in the Permaculture movement I have only heard Vetiver mentioned a few times. Could it be that this profoundly important pioneer is not getting the attention it deserves? Although commonly and extensively used in permaculture sites in some parts of the world, its uptake in Australia in particular seems to be slow. Why would this be happening? How could a plant with such beneficial qualities be so disregarded? My stay with John Champagne of the Bega Valley, NSW, ingrained the great importance of this plant and introduced me to a few of many possible applications of the grass.
John is a passionate Vetiver user who got his first sprigs about 10 years ago. Currently on his property he is using it as a hardware runoff silt trap, kykuyu grass barrier, erosion control, and fruit tree berms (demonstrated in the accompanying video). He also explains that Vetiver makes an excellent long lasting mulch.
John first saw Vetiver being used in Bali on road works as an anti-erosion measure. Then on the same trip saw it being extensively used at IDEP’s Bali Poverty Project, where it was being planted on contour as an erosion control that would build up soil during the rains, creating terraces without the hard manual labour. During his recent tour around Africa, following the International Permaculture Convergence in Malawi, he witnessed an extensive use of the grass, especially in the Permaculture village, Chikukwa, Zimbabwe. He describes how the 8000+ population of perhaps one of the largest and relatively unknown Permaculture sites in the world has integrated Vetiver extensively into their system. Similar to the Bali Poverty Project, they planted it along contours where in time, debris, organic matter and soils back-fill behind it to build terraces that they could then plant trees into.
It’s easy to find plenty of information on Vetiver. The Vetiver Network International (TVNI) is a great group dedicated to promoting vetivers use worldwide. As I read about the grass, all I can seem to find is positive attribute after positive attribute. From its tolerance to extreme climatic variation "such as prolonged drought, flood, submergence and extreme temperature from -14ºC to +55ºC", to its ability to withstand a soil pH from 3.3 to 12.5, and toxins from contaminated waste water and soil. Vetiver is also tolerant to all heavy metals, salinity, pests, chemicals and fire. It has a deep strong root system that can "penetrate weathering rock, hard pan, and other hostile growing media" making it ideal for erosion control. It is non-competitive and non-invasive, dying back once shaded out, therefore a great pioneer species for converting eroded land back to fertile forest systems. Not to mention can be used as a stock fodder.
Vetivers could be up there with bamboo as one of the most beneficial plants ever, especially in relation to a low fossil fuel future. The days of bulldozers, excavators, and even the trusty tractor could well be over soon. Therefore it is imperative that we start thinking of replacement technologies for a world with limited access to heavy duty machinery. Could one of the alternatives be a simple grass? Imagine keyline designs with rows of Vetiver rather then diversion drains and deep ripping, and contour swales/terraces formed behind hedgerows of the grass.
I’d love this article to stimulate some discussion on the issue of the future of water harvesting. And I encourage others to share any creative applications of Vetiver they have seen or thought of. This is what Permaculture is about, this is what we do, creative solutions for a sustainable future.
Here’s a brief video clip I made where John demonstrates one of Vetiver’s many applications: