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A grass roots story

As the house makes good progress attention turns to getting the land ready.

We’re coming to the peak of hot season when daily temperatures typically hit between 35-40c, wind drops, and you feel like you are spending every minute of the day inside an oven.

In Bangkok we have the luxury of air-con, but in our up-coming trip later this week the best we’ll have is a fan. It’s going to be a hot week.

And this is the reason we need to give the land some protection.

While the hot sun doesn’t do the land any favours, what follows can be equally as damaging as that’s when the rains start. And when I say rains, I mean serious amounts of water, and all this does to dry dusty land is wash the top soil away, and with that any nutrients that is has left so we need to do something to hold it all together a bit better.

From speaking to some people in the area they have taken 2-3 years to repair the soil, and we start with a very sandy top layer which covers a fairly heavy clay soil. It’s going to be quite a task but looking on the bright side it gives us an excellent chance to learn, and likely experiment with a few different ways of fixing the soil.

There’s been no rain of note since November and the last crop, sugar cane, was cut in mid-December. Some sugar cane roots remain in the majority of the land, but we will focus on the 1 rai immediately surrounding the house. This means investing less time and money while being able to learn how we use the rest of the land.

Thai land measurements are a little different to western methods, and 1 rai is 1600 sq m. Our first area of land is around 8 rai, and we have another of about 7 rai, making it around 6 acres in total. Starting small makes more sense!

During April the rains will start, and they’ll build to their peak around Jul-Sept, then by around November they’ll start to tail off again.

Our land has been used for crops like cassava and sugar cane, two local staples. But from what I can understand yields deteriorate every year, due to over-farming and no crop rotation, and that affects prices and any return farmers receive. This often leads to more chemicals needing to be used on the land as farmers try to squeeze every bit of life out of it, and ultimately that’s what happens - the land becomes lifeless.

Our plan is to try and find some crops that can provide a better return, and hopefully food crops that we can grow without resorting to chemicals.

So our first step into repair the land, and that means protecting our soil.

We want to stop soil being washed away, retain some of the water that drops on our land, and get some nutrient building plants sown to start rebuilding the soil.

First up is using Vetiver, a grass that grows quickly, has dense and long roots, and is used to prevent soil erosion, stabilise soil, and hold water. In the right conditions it can grow upwards of 150 cm (5 feet) and form roots 2 m (7 foot) deep. It also protects from pests and weeds, can be used as animal feed, and oils can extracted and used for cosmetics, aromatherapy, herbal skincare and soap. It’s a pretty versatile and useful grass, all said and done.

The great thing we’ve found out is that the Thai government Department of Land will provide vetiver free to farmers to protect against soil erosion and we’ve already been able to get some which we’ll start planting next week. We’ll mainly use this to around the house and in the 1 rai area we’ll farm first.

A few posts ago we showed a video from an NGO in the US that helps farmers improve their land and yield by promoting good permaculture practice. The NGO is called Echo and they have an office in Thailand which has its own seed bank. After contacting them and explaining what we are planning to do we were able to get a bunch of green manure or cover crop seeds that will play a similar kind of role as vetiver. We’ll most likely get these ready to plant in May, as rain will have started and this will help reduce our management of the crops.

We were able to get quite a variety of seeds including mung bean, cowpea, rice bean, pigeon pea, sunn hemp, horse gram and a few more. They come in one pack that have been chosen because they are ‘rapidly growing crops that cover and protect the soil. They are left on the soil surface as mulch or plowed under to enrich soil organic matter content. Legumes are prioritised for their ability to source atmospheric nitrogen through symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria.”

As a side note, as new to this game we realised we need to keep a note of things to both remember what all these new plants do, and also track when we plant them and see what different behaviours they have in different areas. I’m not a fan of excel, but we found this farm planner which looks really useful.

We hope we’ll be pretty well-covered when all of the grasses are planted.

On our trip home later this week we’ll also take a detour to the tree nurseries we visited last month, and while we are there we’ll pick up a bunch of fruit trees. We’re deciding exactly what we’ll choose later today but there’s plenty of choice - mango, lime, durian, rose apple, rambutan, pineapple, mangosteen, jackfruit, papaya, coconut, guava, avocado, custard apple, dragonfruit, lychee, roselle, orange, passion fruit, to name a few - but the plan is to take a bit of everything, give it a chance to grow and learn from what happens.

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