Permaculture in the Tropics

by Angela Hijjas

from The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 55 no. 1

Permaculture is a name coined and patented by the Australian visionary Bill Mollison. Mollison alerted Australians to the importance of protecting biodiversity and agricultural land. As well as promoting an organic, interlinked and labour saving agricultural approach, he also encourages gardeners to plant indigenous rather than exotic in order to provide sustenance for birds and wild life. He has been outstandingly successful as an arbiter of what is appropriate in Australia, and has, I think, contributed greatly to the sense Australians have of occupying their particular place.

Thanks to him, people recognize not just a genera of Banksias or Grevilleas, but specific species, and gardeners vie with each other to collect and nurture many varieties. To sustain the interest, he started indigenous nurseries to produce the plants that people wanted in their gardens and thus initiated a whole new trend in gardening. Gardens, by the way, sustain a multi-billion dollar industry around the world.

I was surprised to learn that a permaculture garden has been started in a suburb of KL and was delighted to be reacquainted with the methodology. The objective of the garden in KL is to show terrace house residents that they can grow enough to sustain, or at least significantly supplement, a family with home grown vegetables, fruits and herbs. It is organic in the sense that no pesticides are used and the application of natural fertilizers is minimized, but there are no complicated sequences of crops or treatments to protect the tender plants. The whole system works on common sense and labour saving planning, so I will try to paraphrase the principles without sacrificing too much of the content.

Most important is the soil, which should never be left exposed, but covered instead with a constantly maintained layer of mulch (and this can be anything from grass cuttings to leaves) that will protect it from weed growth, excessive heat and drying out. It will also sustain healthy earthworm and micro-organism populations. The concern that everything should be composted first before applying to the ground should be a bit flexible: better to place what you have on bare soil unprocessed than to tip it out. Obviously some mulches are better than others, sawdust is not as good as fallen leaves, for example, but if sawdust is all you have, then put it on but try mixing different sources of nutrients.

One warning about fungal attacks bears repeating: keep the mulch about 2″ from the stems of plants to protect them from fungal attack, especially in the wet season.

Place your vegetables where they will get the morning sun but not the hot afternoon sun. Apparently plants grow most in the mornings and ‘shut down’ when the heat threatens to overwhelm and dry out of the plant. Protection from the afternoon sun is important, either by a wall or other plants that provide shade.

Plant slow maturing vegetables at the back, faster ones at the front. Enhance this by making path loops into the garden bed so that access can be had to all plants but tramping over beds is minimized, because this can damage the soil structure.

Mix your planting, place individual leafy vegetables in amongst the herbs or tomatoes, don’t group them together where a pest can readily destroy the lot. If you lack planting material to create this mix, scatter pre-soaked kacang hijau about. They will readily sprout and will provide the nitrogen fixing that will be advantageous to the neighbouring plants. Mix the legumes with fruit, leaf and root crops all together.

Compost and liquid manure are supplements that are needed in the tropics because of the heavy rainfall that leaches away nutrients so quickly. Where there is space, and you don’t need much, chickens can also be introduced into the equation. Especially in an orchard, they will control weeds and limit pests, as well as provide fertilzer for the garden. In exchange, you can enjoy an occasional rendang ayam and fresh eggs!

The garden in KL has tried to develop a water retention system involving a pond and a water route for run off to be reused before discharging into the drain. A pond increases the biodiversity of the garden and encourages frogs and toads that are beneficial for a pest free environment. In the pond, this particular garden had tillapia, which did not sit too well with the ethics of Permaculture, as Mollison always stresses the importance of using indigenous animals and plants. As table fish they may be easy to grow but once escaped into our rivers they out compete indigenous fish and ultimately reduce the aquatic biodiversity. I would suggest sepat (gouramys) as they are very hardy, can feed of anything available, including mosquito larvae, they don’t eat the aquatic plants and they can be harvested from time to time.

The garden we visited actually had a ‘grey water’ area, where kitchen water is discharged into a depression in the ground. Kangkong, bananas and ubi could thrive here and make use of the waste water and the nutrients in it. Obviously used cooking oil cannot be disposed of this way, nor can it be added to a compost heap, but a sand filled hole in the garden permits micro-organisms to break it down further.

Creating a sustainable system to produce safe food that utilizes nutrients that would otherwise be lost or wasted has always been my preoccupation, and it is intriguing that you can do it on even the smallest plot. It may require a bit of ingenuity to salvage runoff or to save rain water, but I think this is the ultimate challenge for a gardener: creating something that is worth more from your effort and ingenuity than it was before, and to see the benefits to other creatures, plant and animal. Keeping in touch with these natural processes and learning how to manipulate them for our advantage without harming other things is a great achievement, and it is so rewarding to eat your own kangkong or cucumber that you have nurtured through the hazards of pests and floods.

The word permaculture is a combination of ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’. The objective is to create a mixed garden of fast and slow maturing plants that will gradually develop into a forest garden. Taller trees will bear fruit and provide nesting sites for birds that will help maintain the balance, and protect the more tender plants below. The immaculately laid out KL garden is designed to minimize labour input, and once established it will be a joy, but gardens will always need a degree of personal care and observation. By checking on plants regularly, you get to understand what they are likely to need, and the challenge is to transform these needs and our own into a compatible garden that supports us and wildlife on a sustainable basis.