This farm outside of Guangzhou turned out exactly to be what I was hoping; a place to garden, to write and to relax. Kat Chang, the manager of the farm, was a great host. She was relaxed, interesting to talk to, and respected my personal time. There was also an expectation that I would work for a few hours a day. Best of all, she was familiar with permaculture and intended to incorporate a lot of principles and techniques on her farm. I liked her humility and openness most. She admitted that her farm does not have much of a permaculture design yet and then asked me to suggest ways to make the farm more efficient in expending energy and materials during my time there. And a great time it was!
The first day, we toured the whole farm, taking pictures and figuring out what and how much is grown where. The answer is: quite a bit. After a full inventory of the farm, I compiled a lengthy and impressive list of food items the farm produces:
fish, guava, hairy melon, sweet potato, mulberry, mint, sage, parsley, zucchini, button melon, rosemary, cilantro, onion, lemongrass, passionfruit, tea leaves (black, oolong and Chrysanthemum), mosquito repelling plants, lemon, dragon fruit, papaya, mango, star fruit, ‘spring grass’ for fish food, beets, turnips, salad greens, strawberries, pumpkins, green beans, sweet corn, tomato, and chili.
Most of all, there were several rows and many plots of comfrey, a fantastic source of nitrogen and a natural fertilizer. After the tour, Kat went to finish up some work and I picked some vegetables to cook a hearty late lunch and rest after a hard sleeper train the night before.
The second day, I tried to observe and interact as much as I could. I walked over the farm reinforcing vine starts in sacks, putting more straw over exposed soil, and reapplying compost to some beds. I tried to think of general tasks that help to maintain the farm that any WWOOFer could do without asking Kat for instructions because she’s a pretty busy lady. In the afternoon, I wrote down a small list of instructions for future WWOOFers in the hope of making things smoother.
The next day was my favorite. Having been reading Toby Hemenway ‘s Gaia’s Garden I was able to put a lot of his permaculture prescriptions to practice. There was a small fallow garden bed where I chose to demonstrate sheet mulching. The farm didn’t have every ingredient that Hemenway recommends for the perfect sheet mulch, but I did the best I could with the materials that were around. I first laid down some soil amendments (lime and rock dust), followed by a thin layer of comfrey leaves and other green compost. After that was newspaper. As this was my first time at sheet mulching by myself I was surprised how difficult it was to keep the newspapers from blowing away. Make sure they are nice and wet after you lay them down. After the newspaper layer (¼ inch thick) was finished, I pulled more comfrey leaves for another thin layer of nitrogen as an extra incentive for the worms to burst through the newspaper. An important thing that Hemenway stresses is maintaining a healthy ration of carbon (found in brown compost) and nitrogen (found in green compost). As a general rule, he recommends a C:N ratio between 100:1 and 30:1 and I tried to adhere to this the best I could. I did not have manure to work with but felt that the comfrey was a good substitute. Next, I put about eight inches of straw on top of the bed. For this layer I made sure to soak pretty well with recycled irrigation water. Finally, I put a light layer of soil on top to stabilize the straw and prevent much of it blowing away.
Hemenway points out that he’s less than meticulous when he’s planning long term but more careful if he plans to use the bed within a month or two. I really enjoyed getting some practice and realizing that it isn’t so simple. I told Kat that the sheet mulched bed should be ready after two months. I think that should be enough time. She’ll let me know how it turns out.
My hope is that not only the small assistance I gave will give a lasting impact but that the use of compost and sheet mulching will be demonstrative for the other farm workers. Kat admitted to me that one of her biggest challenges on the farm is that her four farm workers are from the ‘green revolution’ generation where artificial fertilizer and pesticides are used without question. Little by little, I hope, the farm workers will realize and appreciate the benefits of ecological gardening. That evening I wrote a short list of ‘permacultural goals’ for the farm to work towards.
Short term goals
Invest and encourage companion planting of flowers and other herbs to distract pests from your vegetables. Also to encourage more pollination.
- list of companion planting
- list of plants that repel harmful insects
- list of beneficial bugs
- list of plants that attract beneficial bugs
Start a couple more vegetable beds that need more attention closer to the farm house. I saw a nice area near the chicken cage that has space enough for a few small raised beds. Eventually moving all of your more energy/nutrient intensive vegetables closer to the farm houses will be a good thing because it allows farmers to take better notice of vegetables when passing by.
Be aware of your mint and other herbs! These plants are very dominant and grow like weeds. In fact, I think they are technically weeds. The mint already looks like it is taking over its neighboring beds. Tomorrow I’ll do some more pruning of the mint.
Try to encourage the use of compost piles and sheet mulching. Contrary to common belief, sheet mulching is very effective because it promotes microbial life in the soil. When soil beds are disturbed regularly by plowing this adversely affects microbial life.
Let’s get the farm registered on www.permacultureglobal.com. This will be a great way to attract further visitors to the farm that are interested and knowledgeable about permaculture. Their visits or internet advice could be very helpful.
Long Term goals
Eventually seek to construct a culvert to connect the two ponds with the irrigation ditches. This will allow the fish to find food and move beneficial materials around, such as chicken poop and grass. This will further prevent flooding of the ponds. Take advantage of any opportunity to have an animal do work for your farm that it would do normally anyway. Some permaculturists have their chickens occasionally roam their green house or garden to provide natural fertilizer and to consume pests.
I really enjoyed this farming experience because it was exactly what I was hoping it would be. It was a chance to practice what I so often preach and suggest ways to improve upon what is already a wonderful farm. Best of all, I made a friend who understands the importance of permaculture and working towards a resilient future.