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John in the newly planted food forest
Tropical Food Forest
The most significant detail of this project is the fact that it was created in a floodplain. It actually functions a bit like a chinampa system.
This land served as an education site for poor villagers in India, so demonstrating how to create a food forest in a floodplain proved very useful. It showed these men how to get valuable production from the otherwise 'useless' parts of their land - through the use of a simple Permaculture strategy.
Village farmers taking a course at the demonstration site in Kerala, India
The Wet Tropics cycle nutrient faster than any other climate on the planet. This means that organic material, which comes in contact with the ground, is broken down and used as food for the soil very quickly. So if you want the nutrient to stay, you'll need to adapt a strategy.
To see the project in its entirety, click on this video
(Note: in India John went by the name of Jagannath...)
The soil structure of this site, located just 2 km from the sea, was comprised almost entirely of sand. This signifies that it was not suitable for supporting the types of fruit trees we wished to grow.
When we dug this pond onsite, it became clear just how much sand we had to contend with...
Hügelkultur, meaning 'hill' or 'mound' culture in the German language, is a technique that uses buried material, often times wood, as a means of boosting and stretching soil fertility, as well as conserving water. It's ideal for growing trees, especially in areas where soil quality is poor.
Coconut logs such as these are readily available in the Tropics
But in the Wet Tropics, we knew that hügelkultur, by itself, would be no match for the army of decomposers present in even the sandiest of soils. It would break down far too quickly to be of adequate support for the trees we wished to plant.
Biochar, originally known as Terra preta (literally black soil in Portugese) is the strategy of transforming wood into charcoal via pyrolysis - ie the burning of wood in the absence of oxygen - and then adding it to depleted soils. When applied, this technique greatly boosts soil carbon, which in turn conserves water. It also provides protection for precious soil nutrient, which would typically be leached, or washed away, by the nearly three meters of rainfall that this area receives each year.
The same technique was used by pre-Columbian civilizations in many parts of South America.
Measuring contour with a bunyip (or water) level
So we measured the contour of the land in order to ensure proper rainwater harvesting distribution...
Charring the logs placed on contour
Then we placed the wood on contour and burned it, just long enough to char the exterior, prior to burying it. This strategy helped to slow the breakdown of the material once buried in this fast-cycling Tropical soil. In doing so we adapted Hügelkultur to the Wet Tropics, by combining it with a simplified form of Biochar.
Charcoal on the surface, wood in the center
Finally we buried the charred logs and planted the mounds with leguminous cover crop, fruit trees and leguminous trees and bushes.
Burying the logs and creating the water harvesting trench
As mentioned above, this site floods every year. It's located in a floodplain. So we built the mounds of the food forest high in order to keep the trees out of the water during the monsoon months. This allowed us to grow food in an area previously unfit for anything other than rice and coconuts trees.
Elevated mounds - ensuring that fruit trees grow safely in a floodplain
After a nice rain. The contour trenches distribute water evenly across the length of the food forest
Food forest two years after planting
In just two years the trees grew considerably, and now everyone enjoys eating the fruit. This is one of the major benefits of farming in the Tropics - everything grows very quickly.
Trees included in this planting were jackfruit, banana, papaya, guava, mango, chicu, rudraksha, and star fruit.
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Or contact John for a design consultation and he'll be happy to create something special for you.
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