Editor’s Note: David Perkins recently sat his PDC with Geoff Lawton and Darren Doherty, and has been very busy since….
Recent developments at Kailash-Akhara, Adi Yoga Retreat Center, Phu Rua, Loei, Thailand.
By David Perkins (Dharmadeva) – Farm Manager and resident permaculture designer and educator at Kailash-Akhara.
This report provides an overview of many aspects of creating a retreat center and living sustainably using the principles of permaculture. Short monthly updates will be given to keep our wider community informed.
Training Hall & Papaya
The location for the main vegetable garden has been chosen; an area of about 1/3 of an acre, near the kitchen and Bodhi tree. The first series of vegetable beds have been defined and sheet-mulched. In the center is a small pond and mandala of 6 circular beds, with a dome which houses chickens. There will be an ornamental garden south of the training hall for students to relax, study and meditate. A garden nursery for seedlings and young trees has been established.
We are making compost with locally sourced materials. Improvements have been made to the water infrastructure including underground tanks, pipelines, a new well, and water harvesting by roof catchment. A new facility for vermiculture, and a new access road are under construction. New purchases of more efficient equipment and some imported tools have enhanced our daily work on the land.
A thorough analysis and design of the core area of the community helped us identify the prime location for a new main food garden. An overall area 50 x 25 meters (about a third of an acre) has been chosen to supply the community with fresh vegetables, watched over by the majestic sacred Bodhi Tree (Ficus religiosa, a member of the fig family).
Starting new gardens
Initial evaluation of the existing topsoil of this area shows good potential for vegetable production. The bulk of the garden will consist of linear beds, laid out on contour, thereby maximizing water infiltration and soil conservation. The first of these beds have been established and the initial preparation made by sheet-mulching: a very easy and effective technique to feed the soil, retain moisture and prevent weeds, using layers of cardboard, food scraps, and straw.
In the center of the new garden is a feature we are calling the Chicken Mandala. Surrounding a small pond is a ring of 6 circular garden beds, with a large moveable dome which houses chickens. The birds consume bugs and weeds, while tilling the earth with the scratching action of their feet. They deposit their manure in this limited area, making these beds low-maintenance and highly fertile. After a few weeks in one spot, the chicken ‘tractor’ is moved to the next circle, and our plants go into the freshly prepared bed. In the course of a year, the dome will rotate twice around the mandala, with an abundance of food coming out of this innovative design.
A garden was previously created near the training hall, but the soil in that area would require more years of improvement before being healthy enough to sustain quality vegetable production. It will now be redefined and established as a beautiful ornamental garden where students can relax, study and meditate.
New garden beds
Pigeon Pea ready for planting
At the heart of any productive garden is the nursery. This month we improved the existing nursery with the addition of 2 new hand-built tables. We have found the locally available potting mix to be less than ideal, and therefore created our own custom blend of soil, coconut fiber, rice hulls, sand, and compost which has already shown an improvement in germination and the health of seedlings.
January is the coldest and driest month of the year, with the overnight low temperature dropping to near freezing on a few nights. Our newborns were challenged to survive their first few weeks, but we have been able to keep a full house of about 20 kinds of vegetables and herbs going strong in preparation for transplanting to the garden next month. 15 species of fruit trees were bought from a local supplier, ranging from 1 to 3 years old, these have been repotted and will be cared for in the nursery until planting at the beginning of the rainy season.
The raw materials for our compost are sourced locally, including waste vegetables from the daily market in Phu Rua, kitchen scraps from several local restaurants, cow manure and rice straw from local farms.
The New Year holidays are a time for a major influx of tourists, primarily visiting the local National Park. The population of the town seems to triple during this time when all hotels and resorts and campsites are full. The increase in business leads to extra waste, which we gladly received, enabling us to build more compost piles and sheet mulch a much larger area with the extra materials.
In January we expanded composting operations and now have 12 active piles, each beginning at about 1 cubic meter in size. Monitoring the temperature and turning compost piles is a vital daily task in our quest to build and sustain quality topsoil in our gardens.
Future worm compost factory
Vermiculture is the process of turning waste organic matter into high quality fertilizer with the use of worms. A small-scale system was established last year and has been continually operated on a trial basis with great success. This will now be expanded to large-scale production in a new facility at Kailash Akhara. This project is being conducted in collaboration with Maejo University, the leading school of natural agriculture in Thailand.
Construction of the new facility for vermiculture was begun at the end of January. Our operation will result in commercially viable products, thereby providing a source of income for the center, as well as valuable soil amendments for our own use.
The existing system of pumps pipes and tanks was designed over 20 years ago, for irrigation of the orchard. It is now showing its age, and we have suffered repeated leaks and breakdowns of this old infrastructure. Therefore the decision was made to overhaul and upgrade the water distribution system around the property. After several quick fixes in urgent situations it became clear that the diesel motor was on it’s last legs, and could not be relied on. It needs to be replaced with a Japanese 2 year-old diesel motor, which will provide many years of reliable service. This will run the pump sending water from the lower ponds to the main storage tanks at the top of the property about 500 meters away and 30 meters uphill. A pipeline was laid on a new route from the pump to the main tanks, and from there to the vermiculture buildings and the garden.
Swale 2 under construction
A new well has been drilled, which found water at a depth of 45 meters.
Roof catchment of rainwater is a great means of harvesting water, and wherever roofs exist, it is an easy and cost effective way to meet a community’s water needs. The core area has 4 buildings, the Training Hall, Dormitory, Kitchen/Dining room, and Bathhouse. An annual rainfall of 1650mm (65 inches) gives us a potential roof catchment of about 1.6 million liters (352,000 US gallons). The question then becomes how to store a useful proportion of all this water? We have begun construction of an interconnected system of tanks for drinking, cooking and bathing, including a 55,000 liter underground tank and a water tower with a capacity of 6,000 liters. Overflow from roof catchment, and rainwater in general, will be directed to ponds and swales designed to reduce runoff, infiltrate the soil and recharge the groundwater. Much work remains to be done before the beginning of the rainy season in April.
More steps in the right direction…
We have recently purchased 2 new items of machinery: a woodchipper and a generator for producing electricity as needed. The generator in particular is a very efficient motor, and will pay for itself in one year due to fuel savings over the previous model.
Finding our line through the Lychee trees
Existing fruit trees are plentiful on the land, including jackfruit, papaya, pomegranate and citrus, but by far the most numerous are the lychees (Litchi chinensis), most of which have not been pruned or thinned for years, with plenty of dead branches and crowded new growth in evidence. We have begun the task of better management of the lychee trees through judicious use of pruning saws. The removed branches will not only meet our needs for firewood, but will provide a homegrown supply of woodchips for pathways and mulching around trees.
A new road has been designed to enter the property at the south-west corner from the public road, providing easy access to the gardens and the vermiculture buildings, thereby minimizing vehicle trips into the central area of the property. Work is in progress on this road, which will eventually be extended to run along the southern boundary to the area designated for future Kula housing.
A shipment from the United States arrived mid-month, which included some high quality gardening tools. The quality of most tools we have been able to buy in Thailand leaves a lot to be desired. The closest thing we could find to do the job of a pitchfork was a kind of rake made out of welded re-bar! Many Thai tools tend to bend or break easily, or are simply multipurpose tools which are used for each and every task. We have already gone through several tools of poor design and manufacture, so the arrival of the correct tools for the job is good news for the gardeners. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to use a real pitchfork for turning compost!