CompostSoil CompositionSoil Rehabilitation

Phayao Permaculture Center – Soil Building Strategies (Thailand)

The Phayao Permaculture Center (PPC) is a two acre permaculture design implemented to be the retirement farm for myself and my Thai family. It is located in the wet/dry tropics at 19 degrees north latitude in Northern Thailand.

Having taken the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course with Bill Mollison on Maui, Hawaii in 1982, it has been my vision to retire on my own permaculture designed land. This came about in 2012 when I purchased land for my Thai family.

The design was formulated and implementation began. Of the many elements designed in permaculture fashion, soil enhancement was a major priority from the beginning as the tropical soil on this property was very deficient of nutrients as is typical of some tropical soils.

We consulted with the local Phayao Province government soil office, explained we were developing an organic farm and had soil strategies to make soil alive and healthy in lieu of chemical fertilization. We took soil samples for them to analyze and they came back with the recommendation to add 20-20-20 fertilizer.

O.K. So they didn’t get it.

Chemical fertilization history

In the 1890s an American scientist discovered that with three major chemicals (NPK) and 10 trace elements plants would grow. He later said he was sorry for discovering this and making it public and advised that chemicals could be the ruination of agriculture.

As a result chemicals replaced animal manures and green manures as a source of nutrients for plant growth. Chemicals make the soil dead and the earth is then used simply as a foundational structure to support the plant(s). Permaculture replaces chemical fertilizers with animal manures which provide a much richer source of nutrition for the plants and therefore the plants are more nutritious, as you know.

Permaculture fertilization at the PPC

The permaculture principle is to have a natural, alive and healthy soil. There are only 3 things necessary for an alive and healthy soil and those are the proper proportions of:

  1. air
  2. water
  3. organic matter.

Microorganisms and minerals are already in the soil to activate and bring to life nutrients for plant health. Soil pH is balanced by a living, healthy soil.

Compost tea

Soil origins

Soil comes from the tree and biomass litter in forests. It normally builds at the rate of 1 inch every hundred years. Applying PC principles, mulching, watering, manures, compost teas, etc. we can accelerate the process and build an inch in 3-5 years.

Wood chips


As Bill taught, we use composting in place at each plant as the major strategy. His slant was that there was no need to create separate compost piles when you can compost in situ. This is simply done by adding elements to the planting area and mulching heavily. This is the process we use here. Elements added include bio-char, wood chips, animal manures, shredded coconut husks with heavy rice straw mulch. In the future we will probably introduce composting to our operation but at this time we are too busy with everything else.

Soil amendments

Also, the property was a 4-5 year old rubber tree plantation and one strategy I am implementing is to have the rubber trees replaced by the food forest over time. We are doing this by pollarding the rubber trees and spreading their leaves as mulch and chipping the smaller branches to use as a soil amendment.

Soil building is a major activity in Permaculture and needs to be addressed continually until it has stabilized in the natural process. We here at the Phayao Permaculture Center look forward to increasing soil viability and increasing alive and healthy soils.


  1. I’m at the early stage of doing what you are talking about. We are located near Pon Phi Sai. I’d love to come for a visit!

  2. I am doing the same in Surin,earth like cement.I will be up your way in early December,any chance of a qiick visit.

  3. Bruce Bebe! I haven’t seen you since you and Lama Karma Rinchen stayed the night at my house in Hana, a VERRRY long time ago! So, now I’m studying permaculture, too. I’m bookmarking your article! Namaste!!

  4. Bringing windrow turner technology to Fiji. In tropical zones a sustained release finished (no bugs, eggs, larvae) compost mulch is the bomb. 100mm blanket suppresses weeds, builds top soil and if you can get electric netting around some ducks, your sitting pretty with any bugs hanging out in the lower meter of growth.

  5. Instead of insecticides or herbicides we use “wood vinagre” on our permaculture farm “Heartsong” in Costa Rica: make a whole in the earth, 2m long, 1 m wide, 1.5 m deep. Start filling 30% with dry wood below, then top the rest with humid wood. Cover everything with banana leaves and then earth. On one side you leave a space to start the fire. Once it is really going you close it also with banana leaves and earth. It is a charcoal furnace. On the other side you stick a metal tube (15 cm diameter) in as a chimney, but it has to make a “U” upside down and 10 m long. Like this you force the dense smoke to slow down and condensate. From one burning you get about 60 – 70 liters of wood vinagre. 100% pure is like Roundup, applying it 2 or 3 times as herbicide. Add water and you can use it on vegetables, flowers, fruits etc. as fungicide and insecticide, totally organic. On top of it you get charcoal to enrich the soil. Take care Tom

  6. Hi,
    we are in Phon, 80km south of Khon Kaen. 6.5 acre. best sucess is with ducks ( kai) and fish ( Tilapia ) with Bananas. Duck manure doubles the growth of bananas. We ferment banana stalks to feed the pigs. Finally getting good vegitable results. Have raised beds, net shading and mulch with rice straw. Good compost helps and have started with compost tea this summer. Early results with soil bacteria are encouraging. Leucaena is good for hedges and wood. It also increases insect populations leading to a growth in bird populations. We are in a second year with this and will expand on it. Getting good results from coconuts that give oil and fibre but its a lot of work.
    Our dry season could be 7 months long and local soils are poor. Very interested to hear of others experiences

  7. Great stuff. We’re located in A.Phrao, just NE of Chiang Mai. Engaged in a similar project, but also very heavily involved in biochar and biochar-based fertilizer production. Happy to share all, including a couple of really cheap and efficient biochar kiln designs. I really need a chipper for making sillage out of fresh corn stalks, where’d you get yours?

  8. I use a nimut shredder and hammer mill. runs off pto on 14 hp Kabota tractor. they manufacture in Bangkok and deliver to where you are
    very well designed and built. I looked at others a bit cheaper but needed 20hp and less versatile. we chip up all coconut fronds and husks for different grades of material as well as all tree clippings. run through the hammer mill we can make soil and compost grades to mix for potting/ seeds etc.
    our machine has run perfectly for 5 years, a great asset.
    essential to buy the blade sharpening machine that Nimut supply.

    good luck , pete

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