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Permaculture in Kerala - My Quest to create an Edible Forest Garden

 
Posts: 12
Location: Kerala, India
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Greetings to all the wonderful Permies in this forum. This is my first post.

I am a recent convert to Permaculture. 3 months back I hadn't even heard of this word. Since September 2019, I have been gradually drawn into gardening and subsequently into farming. I started with a single rose plant purchased from a local nursery. When the rose plant didn't do well, I used the internet and YouTube to gather information on rose plant care. One thing led to another and before long I got to know about container gardening, no-till farming, permaculture, and natural farming.

My family consisted of farmers till about 2 generations back. My father was a government employee and dabbled in Farming post his retirement. I worked for 10 years in a bank and the next 15 years in an IT firm. I live and work in Kochi in a small home in 3.4 cents of land.

I have 1.1 acres of farmland in Narakathany, Pathanamthitta, Kerala, India. This plot is about 100 km from Kochi, which is a major city in the southern state of Kerala. The climate is tropical and it's hot and humid most of the time. The annual highlight related to climate is the monsoon for 3 months when it is cool and wet.

I plan to create an edible forest garden on the farm, using permaculture principles.  The farm is terraced along contour lines. As far backward in time, that I can remember, we had rubber trees on our farm and rubber latex tapping was the prime income. That must be at least 50 years of rubber as a crop. Since rubber prices were unremunerative for the past few years, we hadn't been actively harvesting the latex. We haven't applied fertilizers of any sort for the past 10 years or so. In March 2019 we harvested all the rubber trees and haven't replanted anything. Over the last 10 months, weeds and brush have taken over the farm and stand at a height of 8 to 10 feet.

I have started out clearing the brush in 3 terraces. I haven't measured the area, but I estimate this to be about 0.15 acres. I have spread the cleared brush as mulch. It will be hot with intermittent showers till the end of May. In June the glorious monsoon will arrive. I plan to plant pigeon pea as a pioneer crop around June. My constraint is that I will be able to visit the far only twice in a month. The other constraint is money. I am tightfisted and do not like the idea of spending too much money as an initial investment.

My objective is to build up the soil over the next 2 years by continuous mulching, using nitrogen-fixing legumes as a cover crop. I do not intend to set up irrigation systems. By adding organic material over a period of time and by digging ponds, I aim to increase the water-retentive capacity of the farm.

My objectives in joining this forum are:

1. Use the incredible experience of all the permies in this forum as a great learning resource.
2. I will appreciate any guidance customized for the climate of Kerala.
3. To log and record my experiments, so that others can learn from my successes and failures.
4. To connect with a wonderful set of people and be a part of this exciting movement


 
gardener
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Welcome to Permies, Biju.
Do you have any interesting weeds that are already growing that could be used? And what kind of nitrogen fixers do you have access to?
 
Biju Bhaskar
Posts: 12
Location: Kerala, India
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Tereza Okava wrote:Welcome to Permies, Biju.
Do you have any interesting weeds that are already growing that could be used? And what kind of nitrogen fixers do you have access to?



Thanks, Tereza for the warm welcome!

I have used weeds that are growing in situ. The weeds I have used in chop and drop manner are Soapbush / Koster's curse (Clidemia hirta), Siam weed (Chromolaena odorata) and other assorted small plants that I haven't cataloged yet. Siam weed is known as "Communist Pacha" in Malayalam which is the language used in Kerala. "Pacha" means green in malayalam.

Commonly growing nitrogen fixing trees that would be easy to propogate in my locale are Gliricidia sepium and Erythrina indica. However these are not food growing trees. For edible purposes, I plan to use pigeon pea and other beans.
 
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Hello Biju,

There is not much I know about permaculture in your climate, but two years ago I visited a permaculture farm in Mandrem Goa, with Vijay, a friend from Kerala. An old Goan man showed us around, he was very friendly and kind, like so many people in your wonderful country. It was a nice experience to walk into that food forest, and be suddenly away from all the people and noise. The forest canopy was mostly coconut palm, there were a lot of casew trees, with pepper plants as climbers, ananas, turmeric and many other things as herb layer. For sure there were many other species, they also have some animals.

After the walk, the man invited us into his house, and offered us some sweet rice. There is a little shop where they sell some of their produce. I bought a kg dried black pepper, nutmeg and turmeric, all for very reasonable prices. I am still enjoying those spices daily in my kitchen.

I really hope permaculture will be discovered by many more people in India. It would make such a difference. The very bad air quality in Delhi recently, according to the newspapers it was the farmers to blame, because they use to burn the fields after harvest. Like that there is no mulch left! Everywhere bare dry soil.. Or well, plastic mulch (rubbish).. I had the impression the awareness about environmental issues is growing in India, but maybe the amount of organic shops is an reflection of the growing middle class, in India, I dont know.

 
Biju Bhaskar
Posts: 12
Location: Kerala, India
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I don't think awareness about permaculture is growing fast enough in India. Every year farmers in Punjab and Haryana burn their stubble after harvesting, leading to heavy pollution in Delhi. Reading the discourse in the media it seems there is no solution to this.

I wasn't aware about no-till farming or mulching the soil with organic matter till about 2 months ago, and that too because I was actively hunting for information. Agriculture has moved away from mainstream discourse in the print, visual or social media and the only time the mainstream pays attention is when pollution peaks in Delhi or when the count of suicides by farmers breaches a new record.

It seems we need to see the bottom of the trough, before better sense prevails and we return to sustainable forms of living.

Thanks for your mention of Goa. Goa crops up in my search for Permaculture in India.

However, I am sure there are many farmers in Kerala who practice natural farming without even being aware of Permaculture as a practice. I will keep my eyes open and as and when I locate them, I will try to incorporate their experiences and learnings here.


 
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Hi Biju,

Welcome to permies. I don't know if that would be of any use to you, but the founder of the website (see the link below) has been campaigning against Monsanto and trying to teach Indian farmers to grow organically.  She's established 112 seed banks in 18 states of India and I think one of those is in Kerala.  At any rate, it makes for interesting reading.


http://www.navdanya.org/news/180-vandana-shiva-on-seed-saving
 
Biju Bhaskar
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Location: Kerala, India
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Thanks for the welcome Olga. Let me check out your suggestion
 
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Hey brother, nice idea!

Maybe I can help too in your endeavour! Check out our videos and let me know your thoughts,

Nikhil Bose

 
Biju Bhaskar
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Location: Kerala, India
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Nikhil Bose wrote:Hey brother, nice idea!

Maybe I can help too in your endeavour! Check out our videos and let me know your thoughts,

Nikhil Bose



Nice video, Nikhil. Where is this farm?
 
Biju Bhaskar
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Location: Kerala, India
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Ever since the rubber trees were chopped off in March 2019, the land has gradually been taken over by weeds and tall brush, to the extent that it resembles a forest. Wild pigs have visited the plot couple of times and uprooted one of the Jamun saplings.

My plan was to clear off the 1.5 acres of the brush and to plant about 50 coconut and nutmeg trees before the advent of monsoon in 2020. To this purpose, I had my hired help, Regi clear out one plot of about 100 square metres of the brush. All the cleared brush was heaped in the center of the plot on 10th Nov 2019. The problem was on tilling the land of about 300 sq. m. Doing it manually would take days and days of labor. Regi suggested using machinery to get it done in a single day.

Then as I traversed through multiple youtube videos and the web, I discovered Masanabo Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolution, Charles Dowding’s No-Dig Gardening, Subhash Palekar’s Zero Budget Natural Farming.

No-Dig Gardening appealed to me immediately and I realized that if I could farm my land without tilling, I could save lots of input costs. The current problem of the brush growing up and taking over the land now has become a solution as it gives much-needed mulch that would enrich the soil. By using the brush as mulch, I can prevent the weeds from coming up. After 3 -4 layers of mulch spread over a year, the soil would become enriched and I can plan for bringing up vegetables and fruit trees. The missing component is Jeevamrutam as I need to find out from where I can get the required cow dung and urine of a native cow species. I see an option to buy it online from Amazon, but not sure how effective that would be, because the guidelines say that the stuff should be used up in 7 days.

Six months seems a very long time to come back to this site. I visited the farm every alternate weekend in January and February and kept cutting the brush and spreading it as mulch. It was very dry and hot and I didn’t have the stamina to work for more than an hour in a day. Even with such a limited exertion, I would have a splitting headache by evening. But it was lovely to sit on the grass after work, surrounded by thousands of buzzing bees sucking nectar out of wildflowers. Given the scale of the undergrowth in 3.5 acres, my attempts were only scratching the surface of the wild bush.

I had planned to have a fair bit of land mulched and ready for planting after the summer showers in April or May. This year, we had great summer showers and the climate was ready for my plans. But coronavirus shut us all down. I had to stay off the farm for 2.5 months. This was a trying time for my patience and I had to console myself with tending to my tiny terrace garden. All this time, I kept up on my reading of books by Joel Salatin, Toby Hemenway, Sepp Holzer and David Montgomery.

The week after the Kerala Government relaxed the norms for inter-district travel, I think it was on 10th May 2020,  we went to my in-laws place in Pampady Kottayam and thereafter to the farm. The brush had grown more densely and I could see small trees emerging, as per the pattern of succession mentioned in Permaculture. But I was happy to see the tiny plot that I had mulched was still clear of brush, there were only a handful of weeds that cropped up. 30 minutes of hand weeding took care of that.

I realized that spending 2-3 hours every week to clear the brush and mulch the farm would mean that I would need many years to complete the task. I decided to entrust the work to my neighbor Reji who works as hired help.

I called Reji over and explained the concepts to him. I didn’t want to till the land, just mulch it in a pattern that would permit keyhole paths. I asked him to scrape off the soil from the paths and spread it over the mulched beds, creating a semi-raised bed. I provided these instructions during my visit on 24th May 2020.

Now, it was time to plan for what to plant. I visited the Krishi Business Kendra by Village and Fruit Promotion Council of Kerala at Kakkanad to buy seeds. This is an establishment set up by the Government of Kerala. They sell seeds, seedlings, organic fertilisers, mycorrhizal bacteria / fungi and other aids to farming. The prices are very reasonable. I purchased multiple seed packets of okra, chillies, ash gourd, pumpkin, bitter gourd, amaranth, snake gourd and cowpeas.

I had moderate success with okra in my Terrace garden at Thevekkal. I used some of the seeds from my plants and had sprouted some okra seedlings. I transplanted these on 6th June 2020 on one of the raised beds.

I have asked Reji to plant all the seeds and start clearing off more of the brush. I plan to keep extending the cultivated zone slowly with a long term plan of having the entire 3.5 acres up and running with vegetables and myriad flower and fruit trees in the next 4 years.

I tried to improve on the beds that Reji had created. He created them in parallel rows with space for pathways in between. I tried to dig the path a bit deeper so as to create a trench.  This will help in draining excess water from the bed to the trench and the rainwater gets more time to infiltrate into the ground. I hope this helps to retain moisture in the soil as I intend to farm with only rainfed water and no additional irrigation.

I also tried to shape 2 keyholes in the bed to minimize the waste of bed space.

 
Biju Bhaskar
Posts: 12
Location: Kerala, India
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After reading many books and watching countless videos on YouTube, I finally created my first compost heap into a 4 X 4 X 4 square pile, sprinkled with 10 kilos of dried cow dung and moistened with em solution. Had to lug up the manure and water up a steep slope. I was too exhausted to fetch my mobile and take a snap.

Will visit my farm next week to inspect the pile.

I had created some raised beds, could see hoof marks of wild boar on them. Looks like the boar inspects my handiwork every now and then. Will he knock the compost pile down? Will update you all next week.
 
Nikhil Bose
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Hi brother, sorry couldn't keep up with the posts!! Awesome to know that you have started. We are located in Ezhupuuna in Aleppey District. Am working in Infopark in a molecular biology lab. You can find me on ain't @nikzboz. Also, you can see our videos and how we started our Permaculture Garden here in our own Kerala. I have a Youtube Channel to promote sustainable farming & permaculture called - "Back To Earth" from which I shared the video. Am not on Permies often so you can message me on Insta for sharing our ideas and knowledge!!

Spread the word, only a self-sustaining mode of living can save the world! Am dropping the link of our Permaculture Playlist for you and all the Permies to see and let us know things we missed.

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLaoVL522mISRu598JTcgujvKK8uWVnMao

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