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Report on 5-Day Permaculture Workshop for the Etse Fewus Herbalists Association in Fitch, North Soha, Ethiopia: Part 2

Continuing from Part 1.

Sunday 21/09/14: Day 4

The group were very happy with the biole preparations we did on day 3. They were amazed that we could make fertilizer out of basic farmyard trash when they had all been paying though the nose for imported chemicals for the past years. So riding this wave of enthusiasm I hoped we would make good progress in covering the material today. Unfortunately it was a Sunday, so people were kind of half on holiday….

Anyway, now it was time to talk about gardening. One thing we had noticed about the site was the lack of distinct pathways. The important thing I wanted to get across was that if we are going to do all this work making compost to create nice spongy soil we can’t then go and trash that same soil by marching all over it. When we stomp on the soil it gets compacted, goes anaerobic and the humus gets destroyed. We have to have a clear separation between pathways and beds. I explained to them how we can make ‘double reach’ beds 1.5m across so we can reach the whole bed area from the paths on either side without stepping onto the bed — 75cm is about as far as an adult can reach from a standpoint without falling over or stepping forwards. Since we didn’t have pre-prepared compost at the site, or very much organic material to use for making raised beds, I showed them how we can make double dig beds, digging out one shovel depth of the soil, heaping it to one side, then de-compacting the bottom of the excavate area without turning it over. The excavated soil is then mixed with well-decomposed manure (or compost if we have it) and returned to the excavated area. We also don’t want stones in the bed, since they are dead space in the planting medium, so we can remove all the stones as we go and use them to surface the pathway. The project area where they are working has a clay soil but there are small rocks scattered all over the surface of the land.

Talking about differentiating beds and pathways

Next we had a talk about companion planting. We discussed how we can plant species together in different combinations to support each other. Some plant species repel the pests of other species. This was an ideal concept for this trainee group since their site is packed full of strong smelling herbs such as garlic, Artemisia and even some marigolds. Some plant species add organic nutrients to the soil which are needed by other species; classic examples are beans (which fix nitrogen) and comfrey (which is a veracious nutrient miner). We can use these to mulch, make compost and add them to our bio-fertilizer brews. Plants with different growth forms can also be stacked into the same space. The three sisters guild (corn, beans and pumpkin) is the classic example of this.

Other plant species act to attract predators such as wasps, hover flies, which eat or parasitise caterpillars, aphids and other pests. Umbels and composites are very good for this — things like fennel, dill, sunflower and calendula. Many insect predators use pollen as a secondary food source so they like flat open flowers which their short chomping mouth parts can reach into – unlike the deep nectary flowers frequented by bees and butterflies. On the other hand, pollinators help to ensure we get plenty of fruit on fruiting plants like tomatoes or peppers. So we can use a diversity of flowers to get pollinators into the garden too. In fact, the association are interested in keeping bees, so they should have lots of flowers planted around the garden to feed them. We can also attract larger predators, for example we can add rock piles to attract lizards and put ponds in the garden to encourage frogs. A thorny bush or two nearby will act as a refuge for insect eating birds who may also visit the pond to drink. In Konso we once had a little kingfisher stay in a thorn bush when he was in town. Whenever we would have too many grass-hoppers he would show up. Eat them all, and then go off elsewhere. He was one of our regular guests and would usually be in a couple of times a month.

So, these are all forms of companion relationships which we can use in our garden to promote healthy plant growth, make good use of space, get multiple yields and prevent pests from taking over without using tons of chemicals. However some plants do not get along. Runner beans will smother chillies, for example, so we don’t just mix things randomly, we have to design specific guilds of plants which are good companions.

Next we referred to a companion planting chart and came up with some guilds based on the veggie species we had at hand. We can plants 2 or 3 species into a single bed in a guild combination. However before we can begin planting we have to know about the best practice for each species. Some veggies need to be seeded direct since they don’t transplant well. These include most root crops. Large seeded species can also be direct sown, such as Swiss chard. Small seeded, leafy, above-ground vegetables such as salads, chillies or tomatoes for example, can be sown onto a fine seed bed and then transplanted once they are 5 – 10cm tall. This is more efficient for several reasons:

  • The seeds are very small and may get buried on a large mulched bed.
  • We know exactly where the seeds are so we don’t have to water a huge bed area to water a few tiny seeds.
  • We can plant out the seedlings once they are bigger and easy to locate into the exact spot where we want them.

We explained how to prepare a seed bed by sifting top soil and compost to prepare a fine and fertile planting medium, adding some sand (in clay soils) to improve drainage, mixing it all together and raking it out flat, then building a shade frame over the bed to protect the little seedlings from strong midday sun. We seed out in rows onto this bed and label the rows so we know what is where and when it was planted. We should be very careful when watering the seed bed and always use a rosette on the watering can so we do not wash away the little seeds in a flood.

After lunch we went up to the project site with the group and did all this practically, which took the rest of the day. As I said, it was Sunday and normally in Ethiopia most people, especially Christians, don’t work on a Sunday. Our program was a 5-day program, which was supposed to be Monday to Saturday, but then it got delayed since I was sick (nothing serious, just a touch of malaria, typhoid and typhus, but then I caught a cold to top it all off…), so the program ended up starting 3 days late so Thursday to Monday. Anyway….

Sifting soil for the seedbed

The seed-bed area marked out

Completed seed-bed with shade frame and stones for pathway around it

Salad and cabbage seedlings ready for plating

Watering a mulched veggie bed with key-hole

Monday 22/09/14: Day 5

So Monday was the last day and we were well behind on the program. I had really enjoyed the company of these people — they showed us a lot of respect and hospitality. Every morning at around 10am we had a coffee break during which a huge round slab of heavy bread known as “dufo dabbo” would appear out of the kitchen. As the group would chatter excitedly about the things we had been learning and what they were going to do after the course, the job of cutting the bread would go to the elder of the group, Gash Abaye, a tough and feisty old Amhara gentleman of the classic kind. Every day the same process was repeated with religious regularity. He would take a curved dagger-like knife and very slowly, with several strokes, slice the big round slab in half. Then turn each half 90 degrees and cut it into two quarters. The quarters were then cut into strips and these chopped into cubes which were distributed amongst us along with several little cups of freshly roasted coffee. However, at times I did find myself getting frustrated as morning coffee break would drag on past 11am as the group would joke and chatter away apparently somehow oblivious to my protests that time was running out!

Yesterday we had been in sleepy Sunday mode. Now it was the last day and we had a lot left to get through so when the coffee came out I just kept on teaching.

Today we were covering seed saving and we also had to get through how to set up a tree nursery. We talked about how to prepare seed for storage so that they don’t rot or get infested in the seed store. They have to remove the seed from the fruit, remove any pulp or pith and dry the seed completely, ideally in a shaded but well aerated spot, such as under a tin roof. The seed must be completely dry or it will get mouldy in the containers. The containers themselves must be insect and rodent proof, ideally hard plastic or glass. They can also add natural preservatives to the seed containers so that even if some insects or their eggs — grain weevils are particularly pesky little blighters — do get into the seed they will not be able to proliferate and eat out the whole sample. Wood ash is good since it also absorbs moisture. You can also add neem, lantana or the leaves of any other naturally insecticidal plants.

The seed samples should then be stored in a dark storage room, ideally on shelves or in draws where they can be grouped by category. Each sample should be labelled with the species, date of storage and be given a serial number. The information should also be recorded in a seed bank register. The register should record for each sample:

  • Serial number
  • Category
  • Species
  • Variety
  • Date of storage
  • Recommended use by date
  • Additional info on preparation for planting, uses etc.

Talking about seed-saving

Some of their seed samples bottled up in new containers

Labelling and cataloguing their samples

Having explained all this, we then practically catalogued and stored some 34 seed samples taken from our own seed collection which we gave to the association to start theirs with. We got Ato Workalem, the association secretary, to record the seed register. We hope they will expand upon and maintain what we gave them, especially of course adding medicinal plant seeds to the collection. The seeds we gave them were of 7 broad categories, though many of the species are multifunctional:




1) Herbaceous Nutrient Mobilizers Lablab bean   Edible bean, animal fodder, nitrogen fixer, climber
Buckwheat   Edible seed, potassium mobilize
Butter bean   Edible bean, animal fodder, nitrogen fixer, climber
Lupin Local Nitrogen fixer and phosphate mobilize
Phasoleus bean “bajaju" Edible bean, animal fodder, nitrogen fixer, climber
2) Flowers African marigold Konso Pest repellent (add to bio-pesticide mixes)
Sun-flower   Predator attractant (wasps, hover flies)
Monks cress   Edible
Safflower Local Predator attractant
Callendula Kenya Pest repellent (add to bio-pesticide mixes)
3) Vegetables Plum tomato Hybrid Do not use for seed
Cherry tomato Local  
Red pepper Local  
Onion (shallot) Local  
Habesha gomen    
Pumpkin Habesha  
Carrot Hybrid Do not use for seed
4) Fruit trees Sour Sop (“Kishta”) Low land  
Orange   Remove seed husk when seeding
Kazmir (Mexican apple)   Remove seed husk when seeding
5) Legume Trees Acacia siligna   Used in restoration of eroded land, goat forage, nitrogen fixer
Pigeon pea Konso Sort lived perennial shrub, edible pea, foliage as fodder, nitrogen fixer

Having catalogued and labelled their seed collection, we briefly went over the use of nitrogen fixing trees as “nurse trees” for establishing productive fruit trees in bare land using “chop and drop”.

Next we talked about methods of preparing seed for germination. I asked them to consider what a seed is and what are its functions? They are basically two: reproduction and dispersal. Reproduction is obvious, but it is important to note that seeds are a form of sexual reproduction, hence have two parents and produce diverse offspring. This is contrasted to cloning, which takes various forms, all of which produce propagules of the exact same genetic material as the parent plant.

Dispersal, meanwhile is very important, since plants are not mobile. They have to grow where they take root and then they are stuck there. A young plant won’t be very successful growing directly under its own parent and the parent tree is not going to be very happy surrounded by thousands of its own kids which are never going to leave home.

Hence a seed is essentially a “life capsule” containing a tiny plant and a food source, designed to give the little plant at least a realistic chance of finding a reasonable spot to grow. To do this seeds usually use a dispersal and/or dormancy mechanism suited to the ecology of the plant. It helps to know about this if we want to germinate a particular seed, since it may take the seed years to germinate if the dormancy mechanism is not broken by the appropriate pre-treatment, which means we are wasting time, energy and water trying to get it to grow.

The different dispersal and dormancy strategies used by different species tend to suit their ecological roles. For example pioneer species tend to produce huge numbers of very small seed, which often have feathery appendages that catch the wind. These species usually occupy disturbed habitats, which tend to be places where there is a lack of shelter, few animals or insects and exposed, compacted soils. Hence wind dispersal is an ideal strategy for these plants. Many of them also have strong tap roots to break into tough ground. Think of thistles or dandelions. Meanwhile species which proliferate in over-grazed areas tend to have seed which is sticky or with tiny hooks on them to catch onto to the hair of grazing animals. These plants tend to be spiky, noxious or sting to stop the grazers from actually eating them.

Many small seeds need light to germinate. This makes sense since the small seed has not got much energy stored in it to drill a shoot up to the light from deep down in the soil. So the seed just sits and waits till it ends up near the surface. Most weeds use this kind of strategy, hence every time a field is ploughed a new set of seeds is brought to the surface and a new batch of weeds sprouts. But if you are putting down seed of a species that needs light for germination you better not bury it too deep or it just won’t sprout.

Many tree species meanwhile are spread by animals. Fruits are often spread by monkeys or other fruit eating mammals. Often fruit tree seed has a husk, which prevents the animal from actually eating the seed. This husk will also slow down germination of the seed so should be removed before planting it. Citrus and mango are examples of this.

Savannah trees meanwhile often have small seed spread by actually being eaten and passing through the gut of an animal. This ensures the seed ends up in a spot which is likely to have been recently grazed and open for growing into, also with a good supply of nutrients, in the form of manure. Seeds of such species tend to have a very thick seed coat which will prevent the seed from germinating for a long time if it is not softened or broken as it would be by the gut of the animal. To do this we can scarify the seed by cutting away a small section of the seed coat (e.g. with nail clippers). We have to take care not to damage the embryo (which is positioned at the point where the seed was attached to its parent fruit or pod. There will be a scar or mark at this point, just like we have a belly button). We can also soften the seed coat by treating the seed in hot water. Scarification is mostly suitable for legume tree seed, such as Acacias.

Each species has its own recommended best practice treatment. The orientation the seed should be planted in, how deep in the soil to plant it, the type of potting mix to use, if it should be pre-soaked in hot water, or just cold water, or physically scarified by abrasion etc. For some species you can just plant it. This horticultural information is available online for pretty much any species you are likely to ever come across, so a few minutes researching online before you plant will be time well spent to make the best use of your seed.

I had to break all this down and simplify it quite a lot for the group since most of them are not literate and they are not likely to go online to look stuff up. However I was helped in this by Gash Laku, the group mentor. Gash Laku is a very well educated old gentleman with a great deal of knowledge, including not only of medicine and science but also, being a member of the community he has a deep understanding of the culture including the kinds of examples and symbolisms which the group could relate to in explaining these concepts. So I greatly appreciated his input in all this, though he did sometimes get side-tracked and end up spending five minutes chatting about a completely different topic! Still I guess that makes for a more pleasant learning experience….

Anyway, next we considered seedlings. This is the most vulnerable stage in the lifecycle of the plant, Post germination up to around 6 months of age is when most plants die. If we just go out on our site and scatter seed about, most of that seed will not survive (now, we were talking about trees here, since we had already made a vegetable seed nursery the day before). Now, that may not actually be a problem if we have large amounts of seed, we don’t need every single one to survive and we don’t want to invest much energy into every single one. In such a case we can use techniques such as broadcasting (or seed-balls to get a better result).

However if we have only a small amount of seed, or it is seed of high value and we want to get the maximum number of adult plants established from the available seed, then we need to invest in getting the highest possible survival rate. In such a case we need to invest in fulfilling all the needs of each individual seedling to the maximum possible extent. Hence it helps to have all these seedlings gathered together in one place and make sure it is the most ideal microclimate we can arrange for a seedling to grow and survive in. We call this place a tree nursery. Once the seedlings have grown larger, stored up some energy in their root system and developed some decent leaf area for harvesting sun energy, they will be stronger and have a better chance of survival through the full range of environmental conditions at any particular place on our site. So at this point we can plant them out into the field. So what are the conditions we want in a nursery?

We have to analyse the needs of tree seedlings:

  • Shade: most seedlings need shade. Germinating seed should ideally be given full shade. This can be reduced to 60% in the second month. It can then be reduced to 30% after 3 months. Before the seedlings are planted out in the field (usually at 6 months) they should be given a month of full sun (this is called “hardening off”) so that they are not too shocked when they are planted out. It is best to site the nursery with an easterly aspect so it gets morning sun but avoids the afternoon sun.
  • Water: tree seedlings need water. If it has not rained they should be watered at least once a day. If we have a lot of seedlings they will need a lot of water. Since the site this trainee group were using has no running water, the water has to be carried from a tank, which is fed by a small stream at the bottom of the site. Hence we should place the nursery near-by to minimise the distance water has to be carried, since this is going to be the major chore in keeping the tree seedlings alive.
  • Shelter: Wind dries things out and can also have a chilling effect, both of which are can be damaging for a seedling. Seedlings have short roots and can’t pull up deep water like big trees can, so having them in the wind is not good. It means we need to water them more to keep them alive, which is more work. Hence we should choose a sheltered spot for our tree nursery, or engineer one if there is no shelter available.
  • Planting containers: In Ethiopia everything is about availability and cost. Running a tree nursery you also want containers which are convenient to work with, equally sized, with different sizes for different species. Custom made pant pots are not really available here. The cheapest and most available material is polythene tube which comes in different diameters. It can be cut into sections of equal length by wrapping it around a piece of wood of a given circumference a number of times then using a sharp blade to cut through all the coils at once. This can be repeated as many times as required. We had bought 5kg of polythene tube of various diameters for the group to get started with. These containers have no bottom to them, so to prevent the seedling from growing roots down into the ground it is best to put down plastic or any material under them which will stop them taking a hold. The containers should not be filled up with potting mix right to the top. At least 1cm of rim should be left empty. This will hold water when the seedlings are watered and infiltrate it slowly into the planting medium. There may be a lot of seedlings to water so it is important each one catches enough water as the watering can passes over the top.
  • Potting mix: the mix should provide a good combination of drainage and aeration (so that the young plant root does not get rotten), water holding capacity so that the medium stays moist for at least 24 hours after each watering, nutrients for the young seedling to grow well in the early stages and also a healthy soil microbiology so that the young seedling gets planted out into the field along with an inoculant-sample of a healthy soil community — which will grow and surround the tree as it grows in the field. To get all this we mix together sand, local top-soil and compost in a 1:1:1 mix. If it is a heavy clay soil we can reduce the top-soil content and make it 2:1:2. In sandy soils we need not add any sand. We can also make it more sophisticated by using particular compost mixes for particular kinds of trees so that they get the right type of soil community in their potting mix. For legumes we can add the right kind of Rhizobium inoculant into the potting mix, for example.

Going through all this took us up to lunch time. It was a lot to get through, so I am glad we made use of the extended coffee break to keep teaching.

In the afternoon we went to the site. First we turned the compost heap we’d made on day 2. The group were very excited to observe the heat of the fast-hot compost mix and were fully convinced about the effectiveness of the method.

The compost heap — day 3

Turning the compost

We then sifted ingredients for a potting mix and mixed the sifted materials. We showed the students how to pack the potting mix into the polythene tubes. We did not have time to prepare a nursery shade frame or prepare many seedling tubes but the group will be able to continue the work and expand it in their own time with the knowledge they have gained. Luckily one of the ladies had worked for two years in a government nursery so she knew the ropes.

We then returned to the office compound to present certificates to the group and debrief.

Sifting sand for potting mix

Mixing up the ingredients for the potting mix

The feedback from the group was very positive and they seemed really happy about the things they had learned and were resolved to apply them practically both as a group and also on an individual basis. The association is now applying to the government to expand their site so they have more space to make use of the Permaculture knowledge. I recommended them to ask for the land to the north of the current site which is immediately up hill. This will allow them to excavate swales to protect the site from run-off coming from up-hill, which is probably contaminated by chemicals used on the surrounding farm-land.

Unfortunately the pace of the course was slower than had been hoped for. The local cultural norm is not really geared for a solid 8 hours work per day. The association are great people and I didn’t want to be too bossy with them. I mean, if they were my employees I probably would have ended up shouting my head off at times, but I was their guest so… consequently we fell behind and only completed 4 days of the planned 5 day program content. The remaining day would have covered swales, gabions and water harvesting. We did deliver the required materials for these activities and they will be able to use them as they see fit, or we can demonstrate how to install them in the future if we run more programs with them. There was, in any case, insufficient space in the existing project compound to dig swales without disturbing the already planted herbs and trees. Installing gabions in the stream/gulley to the east of the site is workable, though it is a sanitary hazard to work in the gulley since the local community seem to use it as a public toilet. If we were there in the rain time, when flood water would cleanse the local leavings, we could put in some gabions with them.

But overall, I really loved this group. I enjoyed their friendly character and was impressed by their extensive indigenous knowledge on the use of medicinal herbs, their positive work ethic and commitment to their cause. Despite their sometimes casual manner they did seem to really appreciate the importance of the knowledge they gained and be resolved to use it practically. We very much appreciated their kind hospitality and positive working spirit.

Group photo

Myself (centre) with Gash Laku (group mentor — right) and Ato Bayuh (translator – left)

Gash Laku with Bahrudin (assistant trainer/yeamache zemed)

I would also like to mention special thanks to Lizzie D’Avigdor and Tessema Bekele for organising and coordinating this program on behalf of Botanica Ethiopia, as well as the program funders, the Global Development Group, an Australian DFAT-approved Non Government Organisation carrying out humanitarian projects with approved partners and providing aid to relieve poverty.


Editor’s Note: I’m always impressed with Alex’s doggedly persistent efforts in Permaculture aid work. If you would like to share in these experiences — simultaneously learning, teaching, and having the experience of a lifetime, while helping to improve the lives of people in far-away places, then why not take Alex’s next Development Aid course?:

This course starts January 19, 2014. For other dates, stay tuned to

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