People are often surprised how different, simple and affordable natural farming practices are. But this makes sense when you consider that the guiding premise of natural farming is to mimic the growing style of plants in their natural environment. As humans, we just promote the land to do this more efficiently and through more selective processes.
This past week, I was honored to instruct students in natural farming methods at a local college north of Maesot, Thailand. This school, Huai Kalok Bible Institute, offers post-high school education for Burmese refugees. Aside from Bible and typical scholastic classes, instruction focuses on job skill acquisition. In theory, once students have graduated, they will be able to support themselves while also sharing spiritual teachings. Some of the job skills currently focused on are shirt-printing, basket-weaving and cooking. Gardening is taught to everyone as it becomes a feasible way to help supplement income through the production of food.
As I usually do when preparing to talk about organic and natural farming practices, I took a short tour of their garden the day before. This gives me an idea of what gardening practices they are currently using (both beneficial and harmful) and it also allows me to think of solutions that would benefit them. What follows are some of the key points that I stressed to the students based on that initial tour.
The first thing I noticed when entering their garden was that there was dirt everywhere! The ground was clean, dirt was open to air. In terms of aesthetics, this is very desirable. However, in terms of soil health and nutrient re-uptake, this is harmful. If you think about what weeds (plants that you didn’t plant in your garden) are doing, they accomplish many beneficial activities.
- They capture sunlight and store that energy in their bodies. This is stored energy, like a solar panel. When the weed is “harvested” it’s energy can be returned to the soil to further enrich it and your vegetables.
- The weeds deter water loss from the ground. Catching sunlight also means less light hitting the soil. Think about soil as your dermis and ground covers (like weeds) as your epidermis. The epidermis forms a barrier between the atmosphere and your body. If the epidermis was not there, you would lose large amounts of water and become dehydrated rapidly. It is the same with weeds and soil. If the soil is exposed to the sun, nutrients and water escape into the atmosphere leading to soil death.
- Weeds also have a knack at cultivating nutrients in the soil that your vegetable plant cannot. After processing those nutrients into themselves and then decomposing, those nutrients will become available to your vegetables to use in producing food for you.
The students were very happy when I told them that they no longer had to spend their Thursday mornings scouring the garden for weeds. I left them with a basic instruction that weeds should be cut if they are blocking sunlight from the plants you want to grow. More work than this is useless and harmful.
As mentioned on some of our other posts, legumes are perhaps the most significant plants in nature. Their ability to respire atmospheric nitrogen and deposit it in the soil and their bodies is what leads to healthy soil and the promotion of forests. Following on the tails of the teaching about weeds, if you’re going to have a plant grow on the ground, why not get as much out of it as you can?
I encouraged the students to begin planting small legumes, like soy bean and mung bean, around their crops once they reach a height of about 1 foot (30cm). This practice will serve their plants by offering nutritional support (atmospheric nitrogen sequestration in soil) and also a small amount of structural support. These small bushes will grow around and under their vegetables, adding support to the body of the vegetable plants. Beyond these needs though, the production of legumes create additional harvest (in the form of beans) and organic matter (in the form of the plant body) which can be used as a mulch or compost. Nothing goes to waste in natural farming.
This last technique is probably more of an economic strategy, but I felt this would offer a large benefit to their garden. When touring the garden, I noticed that, in a very small piece of land, their garden was devoting a large amount of space to only one or two crops. This showed me that they likely planted all their crops at one time. Doing this is great if you plan to sell a large crop at market. You make a large sum of money in a small space of time. For this garden however, the results of this planting method results in spoiled food. They will invariably produce more than they can eat in a small space of time and then be left without food for the rest of the growing season.
In response to this need, I recommended leaving most of their land fallow at first and only planting a few of each kind of plant at a time, separated by a period of 2 weeks. Assuming all goes as planned, they will have a slow consistent crop production that will feed their entire school for the next five months. When the first crops which were planted in this staging process stop producing, another crop will take their place while the younger crops are still producing.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the school. The students were warm and welcoming. After speaking in class for some time, I gave them a tour of their garden and shared with them my perspective. The Charis Teaching Farm will continue to follow-up with this garden and evaluate their progress. We look forward to seeing how they do and learning more as we work together.