Natural Building Internship at Panya

The last month at Panya has been spent participating in a Natural Building Internship.  I went into it with a bit of trepidation, having never build or to have wanted to build anything in my life (I don’t even assemble Ikea stuff), and Kelly was intrigued and wondering how natural building could actually work.  The project was to redesign and rebuild the Sala which is the community space where we eat and relax.

What the sala looked like before we started and now

We started with building a proper office where people could set up laptops and which will house the hundreds of books available (I helped make the bookshelves).  We use mud bricks that are made in the dry season.  They are made of a mix of clay, sand, and rice husks.  The we use a fresh mud mix of the same materials as the mortar.  For this mud mix we dug a huge hole in the ground and every day about 5 people get to stomp around in the mud adding clay and rice husks to get the right consistency.  It amazing how fast walls come together, and what’s great is you can shave down the bricks easily so you can make all kinds of interesting shapes.

We also built some arched walls, columns, benches, and stairs.  There is still lots of finishing work to be done.  I really enjoyed doing things like plastering the walls and painting (we use paint made from water, tapioca flour, and natural color), but when it comes to doing things like taking out the support beams without the roof collapsing I tried to stay far away.  A great learning experience overall!

Posted from Ban Pao, Chiang Mai, Thailand
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Grassroot Organic Farm

Over the past week or so Tanya and I have been WWOOFing at Grassroot organic farm in Penang. WWOOFing stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms, or the more updated name of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOFing is great, you spend somewhere between 5-12 hours a day helping out someone on their organic farm. In return for your labour, you get a place to sleep, food to eat and of course, an unforgeable experience. I can hear the skeptics now saying how this is not a great way to travel, but after seeing the sights for the better part of a year, having some meaningful work and local connection to the people and land is very enjoyable.

Cath, Tanya, Sook Hwa, Meishy and Kelly

Grassroots Organic Farm main product is Durian. Durian is a spiky fruit about the size of a cantaloupe. It has the strong smell of rotting organic matter, and has a taste that some people love and others hate. Personally I love it, but a lot of people hate it (some hotels have big signs that say “No Durian Allowed”). If you go to Wikipedia you will find that some people describe the odor as pig shit, or sewage. It isn’t that bad, and if Tanya or I ever smell it again, it will instantly remind us of the last 3 weeks. The texture is similar to that of avocado and the taste is like nothing else.

Cleaning durian before selling it

Smelling durain to see if it is ripe, yummy yummy durian

Apart from the Durian, Grassroots Organic Farm has a lot of Bananas, a few Rambutans, and a handful of other tree producing fruits. Our days were mostly filled with us: cleaning durian, mulching bananas, gathering organic waste from the local market, feeding the chickens rotting durians, planting NFTs (nitrogen fixing trees), watering NFTs, mulching NFTs and building a rainwater capturing system. It was a lot of fun, and we were glad we could help Meishy and Sook Hwa out on their farm.

Picking up the unused organic matter from the market

The goods from the market

Pollarding a tree, with a tiny saw, it took a while

Cath and Kelly Mulching away

Kelly installing the rain water capture system, the supervisors in the foreground

Posted from Bayan Lepas, Penang, Malaysia
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Banana Circle

A Banana Bunch

A banana circle is a great way to grow bananas, or any other tree/herb (bananas are actually a herb) that require a lot of water. So if you don’t like bananas, you could plant papaya or willow (which is great for mulch). At the PDC we learnt how to make one and while working at a farm here on Penang, another one was being constructed, so I took some pictures.

First of all, why would someone want a banana circle? There are many benefits, this is a great way to get rid of kitchen scraps or other organic wastes. In the tropics, it is amazing how fast organic material can break down here. That organic matter will be then utilized by the bananas. Typically there are banana clumps of three or four. In banana clumps, you have to mulch each clump, but with a banana circle you can essentially cut you mulching work in half (a banana circle will have 7 or 8 bananas).

The way the banana circle is designed will cause the organic matter to be leached into the soil and not across the soil (as with clumps). In clumps you may have too many banana plants and as a result your bananas will be small and spread across to many banana plants, thereby creating more work for you.

A banana circle creates edge, edge is important, ask a forester where the greatest amount of diversity of plants are in a forest, and they will tell you it is on the side of the road right of way, near a stream bank or near the shore of a lake. All of these places have edge and edge create a more diverse site which can support a greater amount of diversity. The same is with a banana circle, and as such, you can grow more then just bananas.

Start by digging a hole

The first step is to dig a hole (~2m in diameter and ~1m deep). In the end the hole should look like a mini crater, the hole should be fairly concave and the sides shouldn’t be too steep.

About 2m wide and about 1m deep

The next step is to pull the dirt around the edge of the hole and make a brim or a mound around the hole.

This is a banana cutting

Now it is time to plant. Plant what you want to grow there, whether it is a banana, papaya, willow or something else.

Plant the banana in the ground, that grass looking thing to the right of the banana is lemon grass

This is where permaculture really shines. Now plant some other species, and really you can plant anything you can think of. Near the inside of the hole it will be wetter, this is where you plant something that likes the water, like taro, yam, or ginger. On the crest (where you planted the banana), plant some sweet potato and some lemon grass. Near the bottom of the slope plant some beans (which will climb up the banana trees). To add an extra benefit, place a grate in the middle of the circle and have a shower in the middle of the banana circle and all grey water from the shower will be captured and used for banana growth.

Cover the bare ground with mulch and throw anything into the middle, if you look closely you can see some sweet potato, and there is some ginger planted on the inside of the circle as well.

With the use of a banana circle, there is no need to make compost (which is a lot of work), and there is no need to burn any organic matter. It is unfortunate here, so many people will rake up leaves, twigs, kitchen waste and coconut husks into a pile an burn it. Why would someone do this when they can use this great organic matter to make food? There just isn’t any reason why someone should burn waste in the tropics (or temperate regions for that matter).

Posted from Bayan Lepas, Penang, Malaysia
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PDC (permaculture design course)

We’ve just finished our PDC at Embun Pagi and we both learned alot.  The course was two weeks long and we went from 8:30 in the morning until around 9:30 pm most nights, it was a really busy schedule!!  (note: all the pictures on this post were not taken by Kelly or Tanya, their were taken by Ruyu, who was helping to run the PDC).

To describe Permaculture in a quick sentance is somewhat difficult, but it is basically a “system of design for creating sustainable human environments”.  It is organic agriculure combined with design and ecology.  (I can almost hear my parents laughing now because as a child when we used to visit my grandparents farms I would always say how I could never live or work on a farm!).  The course is a combination of lecture, hands-on expereience, and a big design projects.  There were about 15 students in the class, from either Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Canada (us!), and the instructors who we met in India are from USA/France.  We’ve met some great people in the course!

Here are some of the topics that were covered in the course:  site design, design methods, pattern understanding, climate factors, water (ie. greywater systmes, water catchment/harvesting), trees, soils, natural building, earthworks, aquaculture, transition towns, urban permaculture, etc.  We did some interesting hands-on, such as building a vermicompost (yes, worms!).  We are looking forward to using some of the info we learned when we are volunteering in Thailand.

Posted from Rawang, Selangor, Malaysia
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Divine Nectar

Over the last weekend, Tanya and I went to a small village on the boarder of Kerala in the Western Ghats (near Coorg). There is a small village there that is starting to produce a biodynamic farm producing aromatic crops for essential oils. The activities ranged from getting to the village to making compost. This is how to make Amret Pany (Divine Nectar), an organic seed bank and soil that is packed full of great micro-organisms.

All the seeds (will the future seedbank)

This divine nectar is used to introduce micro-organisms into the soil which will increase the quality of the soil. A seedbank is important thing to have (as most farmers will tell you). A seedbank will reduce dependency on corporations to provide your seeds. Over time and a process of selection, a seedbank will have plants that have been selected for that climate and area and is a great resource. Micro-organisms in the soil are very important, if you think of the farm (or forest) as one big organism, the small part of the farm/forest/ecosystem (like the plants, insects, soil) are like the organs. If you remove some of the organs, the organism doesn’t do to well.This is the main arguement against using chemicals to fertilize and control pests, the are simplified methods that use one or two components to fix a problem. It is like take a multivitiam to fix a problem in the body, although it may work the best option is to eat right in the first place. Continue reading

Posted from Madikeri, Karnataka, India
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Biodynamic Compost

Over the last weekend, Tanya and I went to a small village on the boarder of Kerala in the Western Ghats (near Coorg). There is a small village there that is starting to produce a biodynamic farm producing aromatic crops for essential oils. The activities ranged from getting to the village to making compost. Here is how you make biodynamic compost.

You need a bunch of mulch: sticks (to provide air flow), dry leafy matter, green matter, cow dung, rock phosphate, lime powder, and some plant extracts.

Tanya Gathering Leaves

We went to collect what we could locally, and everyone helped out, it was great to see the villagers (and westerners) all working as a team. Raking dried bamboo leaves, chopping fresh green leaves and picking sticks, everyone helped out. With the piles collected we could start the compost. Continue reading

Posted from Madikeri, Karnataka, India
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Biodynamic Times

Over the last weekend, Tanya and I went to a small village on the boarder of Kerala in the Western Ghats (near Coorg). There is a small village there that is starting to produce a biodynamic farm producing aromatic crops for essential oils. The activities ranged from getting to the village to making compost. Here is the story of how the trip went.

Early morning roads (notice the Aum on the left side of the windshield)

I thought the alarm clock was set for 3:43am, however I mixed up the am and the pm. There was knocking at our door at 4:15. It was Kristen, a nice person who loves to help people, woke us up. Our ride was supposed to come at 4:30, which isn’t a lot time to get ready, especially when there is only one bathroom in the house. Our ride was late however, so we were rushed, and then we waited, for over an hour. We are picked up by a Tata Sumo, a diesel powered SUV, although there is enough to seat 8, you often 15 or more jammed into these things. There are no seat belts, and on the windshield OM is painted blocking the view of the passenger. Continue reading

Posted from Madikeri, Karnataka, India
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New plans

As I write this e-mail I am reminded of the summer. Mainly because of the beer I am drinking (I have only had 3 beers in the last 1.5months) and The Black Keys playing on my ipod (those who know of the past summer will understand why this is essiantial summer music). The temp here is some around +30 which makes it feel like summer.

The real reason why I am writing this post is tell you guys about something new. We have changed Plans, it is official now. We have purchased a ticket to Singapore and we will being going to Malaysia to take a PDC (Permaculture Design Course). Which is a two week course in which you learn all about permaculture and become certified. Then in the middle of July we will head to Thailand (near Chang Mang) to volunteer on a permaculture farm/garden.  From the time we take our PDC (until the end of April) to the time we are to spend at the permaculture course we will tour around SE Asia, or do some volunteering.

It is pretty neat, changing our plans like this, but it isn’t without it sacrifices. We will have to send out bicycles home. We also won’t be able to see Petra, Egypt, Israel (a new addition to our plans thanks to the friends we met at Sadhana) and Europe. However we will see SE Asia and we will save money (I hear that it is good to have money in a recession). The last couple of months have been a growth period for us both. We have realized that traveling can be rewarding (in more then just pictures) and that a chance to learn something is better then a chance not to learn something. As we head to the unknown, we look forward to the new experiences in the future.

So far Mysore has been a lot of fun and been great. We have been slack at posting lately but that is mainly due to a really slow internet connection and the fact we have not been doing a lot. This is an update and there is some more post comming in the next few days that provide you with some good reading (I hope).

Posted from Mysore, Karnataka, India
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Sadhana Forest – Tanya’s Perspective

I thought I’d write another post about our time at Sadhana Forest. Kelly, as you’ve read, was busy everyday working on a specialized project because of his mad Forestry skills.  I, on the other hand, got to learn and do a wide variety of different tasks:

  • Developing an irrigation system in preparation for the upcoming monsoon (aka – digging trenches!)
  • Working on the creation of new garden beds and plots (aka – digging dirt from one location and moving it to another)
  • Helping to create organic, vegan meals in the kitchen (aka – peeling and chopping 100 cloves of garlic or de-seeding 30 or so pomegranates at any given time)
  • Maintaining the composting toilet system (aka – poop scooping)
  • Processing mulch (aka – breaking branches and twigs)
  • And more….!


It has been so much fun though doing this work and I’ve learned a lot!
Our day basically went like this:
Wake up call at 6:00 am
First work is at 6:30-8:30
Breakfast from 8:30-9:30 which is usually porridge with fruit salad
Second work from 9:30-11:30
After that it’s time for a nice bucket of cold water to wash up, then its lunch, which is typically Brown rice, Dal (lentil stew) and one or two salads.
After lunch is mostly free time (unless you’re helping to cook dinner), in which there are often activities you can do if you want to.  A few times a week we’d go into town on our bicycles to use the computer or get additional food.  Dinner is at 5:30 which varies, but is usually something like a soup, a grain, and a salad, sometimes a desert!

After dinner there is always something going on, often there will be a movie or even an open-mic night which is really fun.

Alternative Power


Washing Station

The Kitchen

We’ve met so many great people and had a fantistic time at Sadhana Forest!

Posted from Pattanur, Tamil Nadu, India
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Making a Map

In forestry, I couldn’t imagine working without a map. For the past five years, Sadhana forest has had no detailed map, it has all been pretty much all in Aviram’s head. Which is amazing, and it really shows you don’t need a map if you know the land really well. That however didn’t stop me from making a map. Using free aeral photos, and open source software, I was able to create a map for Sadhana forest that they can post on web, print off on very large scale, or to give to some one who is interested in the project.  Click Here for more informatrion

On top of that, I was also showed a few of the long term volunteers how to do a very simple PSP (permanent sample plot). Although the plots were not randomly or systematically chosen (not enough time for that), they were set up in the areas that were planted in the past couple of years. The plots were done with a 5.65m plot cord (made from some rope that I had), a steal steak and a measuring tape. There were over 150 different species planted in the past, and there is no realistic way to identify them all, so we did a very rough species ID (Planted, Natural or Acacia). We also took some more photo points (N, E, S, W, Up and Down). The idea is to visit these site once every 1-5 years and gather some data on planted survival rates, growth rates, success of different planting techniques and to update the photo points. In 20 years, there should be a very complete and interesting collection of data that will paint a neat picture of this ecosystem. Too add to this, a handful of these volunteers will also be headed to Senegal to start up a similar project from the ground up, being able to start sampling at year zero would also be great, and part of the reason why I trained 6 volunteers how to do this. It is pretty neat when you can show a group of people who are interested in this sort of thing. My stay at Sadhana Forest has been very enjoyable, and I would recommend it to everyone (a chance to see that you can live on $3 a day and have a great time being part of a community).

Posted from Pattanur, Tamil Nadu, India
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