Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Kolkata Permaculture Demonstration Garden at the Close of the 2006 Visit by Friends of Kolkata.

This was the banana circle as we left it on January 25 2006. I see the old fellow has gotten on board with the mulching concept (at first he was somewhat sceptical). Check back this time next year to see what happened!

And here is where we left the mulch experiment, again taken 25/1/06. We put brick edges and sunken paths around half of one of the existing vegetable beds. We then added water, a layer of newspaper, a layer of food scraps and azolla, and then a thick layer of water hyacynth (walking on it to fit more in). Then made holes through the mulch, filled them with some compost (which was apparently from food scraps and cow manure but was very old and dry), and then planted in some Eden Early Gem Sweet Corn seeds. We planted the same seeds covered with the same compost in the rest of the bed so we get a direct comparison of any benefit that the mulch gives us.

These pics are as far as we got with the chook tractor based mandala garden. The frame is complete, from bamboo strips drilled and wired together then braced with wire ah la Linda Woodrow. Base diameter is 3.4 meters. Bhaskar has chicken wire netting to cover the whole dome and has started putting it on. He is also researching chickens and hopes to have them at work by the end of February.

We have marked out and dug out the paths for the whole mandala, and Bhaskar is planning to get sawdust for the paths, to plant lemon grass around the perimeter, and to get various legumes growing where ever they will fit. Again, check back in a year to see what happened!

Finally, here is a chilli, corriander, and flower spiral we knocked up just before leaving. Bhaskar (God bless him!) is going to plant it out. Dan only had time to plant one nasturtium seedling right at the base...

How-To Brochures in Bengali

Here are the translated (into Bengali) brochures, respectively explaining the bare basics (what it is, why it can be useful, and how to do it) of banana circles, chook tractors, and hot composts. If these will be of use to anyone in the future, just contact

The Phosphate Company

This is a hard case. In the house at the main demonstration garden, there was a complementary poster from "The Phosphate Company" advertising itself with a picture of an affluent Hindu God. Below was written "Use our granulated fertilizers with much more promise of security & higher yields." As if the gods would condone destroying the planet with chemicals!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Rare Find: An Organic Farm in India!

Well after Kolkata Dan Palmer ended up in Northern Goa below Mumbai on the West Coast for a few days whilst waiting for his plane home. One day while cruising around on a rented scooter, he saw an organic sign out the front of a farm. Turning around he went and said hello before being treated to a wonderful tour of this truly amazing farm. They were doing permaculture in the sense that permaculture is just sensible applied ecology and I recommend this to any permaculture people who happen to get down this way. The name is Parsekar Organic Farm, and their phone number is (0832) 2247281. Contact Dan (darnample - at - for their email. The guy who showed me around was called Mr. Anant M Parsekar. Anyways, here is a little description followed by some photos I took during my time there. It was just so damned refreshing after seeing how reckless agriculture has become in all the parts of India I saw (including this part).

They had developed the farm by trial and error over about 18 years and knew nothing about permaculture by that name, but were doing almost everything: mulch everywhere, all organic matter returned, drip-feed irrigation, food forest (based around mangoes, coconuts, bananas), promoting beneficial insects, compost toileting, and generally just massive polyculture planting something everywhere possible – he called it “harvesting sunlight.” I saw nutmeg, baby mangos, pineapples, tumeric, vanilla, cloves, jackfruit, berries climbing all the coconuts, lemons, and so much more. He showed me the ants and spiders that look after the mango trees – an ant on his skin didn’t bite him – he said they knew he was their friend and then carefully put it back on the tree. Later a few ants got on my neck and bit me. Then they took me inside for a delicious drink and an amazing meal – fish curry, pea and banana flower dish, drumstick curry, and a creamy milky curry...

It was beautiful - a fair dinkum food forest.

Here are the ants the fellow proudly explained protected his mangos, not allowing any other insect to come near. White Ants he called them.

Here's how he took cuttings, actually getting them to produce roots before removing them from the tree - very clever.

Jackfruit which apparently get about three or four times this big when mature.

The drip irrigation system.

They planted ground covers of tumeric everywhere finding it was a great natural insect deterrent. As a by product they make a lot of tumeric powder (root is boiled, chopped, then ground). Note the knife - which the cut item moves relative to - these are everywhere in India.

Drum sticks. Apparently monkeys often come and sway the branches till the drumsticks fall. "It brings them pleasure," I was told.

And this is a perrenial tree leaf and flower which are used like salad greens.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Here are photos of the village chook-tractor team, translating the banana circle brochure into Benglai, and a van loaded up as I'm off to the next site!

Mt Water Hyacinth

Here is one of two piles of water hyacinth we now have on site (all delivered by three-wheel pedal-powered 'vans'!!).

Multi-layer food tree plot...

Here is a mango overstory, plam and banana understory system I found the other day while lost.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Chook tractor is up and running after all!!

Yesterday we returned to the village to find the cutest little chook tractor I ever saw. Things went really well and after asking again whether there were any dogs or other predators to worry about (no no), we moved the tractor up to a very high small plot of land about four meters from their kitchen (I think we'll plant lots of chillies and such like). We then went on a winding walk though the village to eventually find someone who sold us three chickens (for 150 rupees or about $5). After a delicious lunch we put the chickens in the tractor at which point the father asked us what to do about the snakes, giant poisen red millipedes, and an unamed chicken disease that come this time of year and makes the chicken's poo white before keeling over and dying. They asked whether they should just do the normal thing of leaving containers of carbolic acis outside the coo at night. We suggested they attach a removable nesting box to the side. I think I'll have one made out of galvinized tin and take it next time I visit in a week or so. I'm keen to have those chickens live long enough to give the system a fair trial. So my earlier concerns have mostly evaporated! Wonderful! The whole family seems into it, it is above the high-water mark, so let us see what happens. I'm curious as to how much mulch they'll add given their bare-earth style of argriculture. I also learned that each family owns and works a single small plot about 35m by 35m with a single crop on which they reply for their entire income. So there is really ample potential for future development of permaculture techniques here.
One other cool thing was the following nutrient cycle we unwittingly set up. All their (the family's) poo and wee goes straight into trench draining to a pond covered in azolla. They will hopefully continue putting the azolla in the chook tractor (with attached water snails and worms to incidentally provide protein, calcium, and shell grit) which the chickens will eat and turn into manure which will supply nutrient to the plants which the humans will eat and then poo back out to feed the azolla! I'll get pictures of each step of this loop when I make a follow-up visit on January 22nd. Till then I'll be living at the experimental garden site drinking tea and wearing a longi (sari-type thing) and hanging out with that cool old gardener who has been instructed that I'll do all the thinking and he'll do all the work!. We'll see about that.

We now have bananas and pawpaw in our circle!

Here a nice fellow helps me collect some leucaena seeds.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Kang Kong and Banana Circle

I finally spotted kang kong here! It grows rampantly in boggy spots.

Here is our first banana circle in progress...

Sick Coconut Query

Here is a picture of a sick coconut - I would love to know what the disease/deficiency problem is if anyone knows!

A day of surprises

Well, yesterday was one of those points in a project where you think “shivers – maybe it’s time to back up a little bit here.” It had been agreed that I would be going out to the house of a small family in a rural village to help set up a chook tractor-based kitchen garden. Because the women (who I am starting to realise are rather young) had assembled compost materials we put down another hot compost first, and then stopped for lunch before getting on to the chook tractor. The thing was that the family of the young woman at whose house we were based run a rather large farm that produces tons and tons of vegetables. They showed me around and it is all a rather overwhelming monoculture and chemical based system as these photos attest (on what I assume is leased land – yesterday’s translator was very average). I also asked what they add to the ground and they replied:

Red potash
Neem oil (natural pesticide)

Anyways, feeling a bit overwhelmed at out of my depth with this system, I started looking at the bamboo and garden site they had available for me. Because I haven’t worked much with bamboo, and was sort of starting to wonder about the whole thing, I arranged for the brother of one the girls to have a square 2.5 by 2 meter bottomless coop made by Friday when I will return. The site available is apparently knee-deep under water in the wet season. After I left I soon realised that a small chook tractor garden at this site would probably fail. The family is already producing so much food that an additional garden based on strange new concepts that no-one really but the relatively powerless younger sister understands will most likely not be followed through as far as I can tell. Then there is the fact that the whole garden will be drowned and for all I know washed away in June or July.

So I have decided to back up and I think I will discuss with the director of ISW either finding a more suitable family and plot for the chook tractor (i.e., a family who would benefit by growing more of their own food and don’t already work a massive farm) or leaving it to focus my remaining few weeks here on the demonstration/experimental garden which incidentally is at the house of the director. This site has great prospects due to a very switched on and enthusiastic brother of the director (he was already growing lemon grass to border vegetables and knows all about legumes as nitrogen fixers) and a fulltime gardener. We have a hot compost on, a banana circle down, will put in a herb spiral tomorrow, and start preparing a large mandala sheet-mulch garden as soon as I confirm they have something productive to do with all the extra food it will produce on top of their small traditional vegetable garden and rows of bananas.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Random pictures of the project.

This is how they were preparing the ground for a potato crop on one farm we visited. A little room for improvement here!

My mouth almost started watering when I looked out from the roof of our accomodation to see this pond covered in azolla.

The harvest!

Sorting out some seeds with the women.

Here are some local legumes and living fences I would love to have identified.

Proposed site for mandala garden (see p. 274 of designer's manual)

Here is where I was thinking of doing a six-bed mandala garden.

A request for guidance

[This is a copy of an email Dan Palmer sent to the permaculture oceania listserv January 9 2006 - the posts above contain the photos referred to in this post]

Dear all,

I write from a village in rural Kolkata where I have come to run a permaculture project for about five weeks. I only just did my PDC a few months ago with Bill and Geoff in Melbourne so am sort of figuring it all out as I go along. I am working with an organisation called ISW (the Institute of Social Work) which among other things coordinates over 100 self-help groups with a combined membership of around 3000 poor village women and with micro-credit schemes and various other invisible structures and programs ( e.g., vocational training, daycare, a spice grinding and preserve making business) already in place. Many of these women are very keen to learn about and apply permaculture ideas and I will be here for at least another 2-3 weeks helping to establish demonstration gardens at two sites.

Along with an abundance of resources such as food scraps, azolla, shredded sugar cane residue, coconut husks, and used banana leaf plates, there are endless quantities of labour and enthusiasm on the part of the women. It is a very flat landscape, the soil is humus-free grey clay (quite alkaline where we have tested) and the water table is high – even in the middle of the dry season there are ponds and trenches full of water everywhere.

I was lucky to find a fellow able to translate brochures on chicken tractors, banana circles, and fast compost into Bengali, and we have now had a successful day of theory (including Roland Bunches' principles of sustainable tropical agriculture). Practice-wise we have done some mulching and seed-planting (with thanks to Alf from Eden Seeds for the seeds they generously donated), put down a hot compost, dug and mulched a greywater-fed banana circle, and before the week is out we will begin a herb spiral, a bamboo chook-tractor, and a manadala no-dig garden.

Getting some mulching happening here is definitely a priority – the greenest plants around are the azolla clogging up the waterways – best get that nitrogen to work! (I am actually staying at a boy's home and each morning a bunch of boys come down to the pond and we fill about 3 sacks). Now, although I can somewhat tentatively say things appear to be under control (in a very Indian sort of way), I had a few questions and thought I'd fire them off to you lot on the off chance someone can help answer them (privately if you like at so we don't clog up this list-serv):

(1) I am thinking off putting in a mandala garden around a large mango tree along the lines of p. 274 of the designer's manual. The area below the mango still receives some direct light and the canopy is relatively thin. I figure the mango will be a boon in the hot wet monsoon season (where the ground is apparently submerged under about 20cm of water for three months), providing both shade and slowing down the heavy rains a bit. My only concern really is whether the root system of a mature mango will steal all the nutrients that I intend to go to the garden (though I guess those nutrients will be going to a good cause...). I have posted photos of the site to a new blog at, and I would love your input or comments and suggestions for species and layout. I am also wondering how high above the moonsoon high-tide mark I should raise the beds and what to edge those beds with given they will be curved. For the living weed barrier I have sourced lemon grass and hope to have some comfrey (which I haven't yet seen here) seeds sent over.

(2) I haven't seen Kang Kong growing or at the markets in this area but am sure it would grow very well. My only concern in having some seed sent over is that it might become invasive. Does anyone have any thoughts on this? the most common plant here next to coconut and banana, by the way, is something that looks a lot like Taro (in Bengali it's called "Gochu").

(3) I want to introduce the idea of interspersing nitrogen fixing mulch and fodder plants with other crops to improve what is generally bare hard and humus-free clay (some of the women are working large plots of land and I think this could improve their yields). I've seen a number of different tree candidates around but the locals can of course only give me the Bengali name. See for photos. I am hoping some of you familiar with tropical nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs could send me an email with the names of those you recognise. I can't wait to figure out which one is Leucaena. This goes also for a couple of species of living fence options I've seen. I want to select the best one for fencing in a chook-tractor (in Bengali: "Murgi-Tractor") based garden we will build tomorrow. I know that one option is the magical Neem tree (which is of course abundant here) and I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on that or on the relative merits of living vs dead (bamboo) fences.

(4) Does anyone have an email or phone number for the permaculture demonstration site of the Deccan Development Society in Pastapur near Hyderabad (with one Mr Venkat)? I may have a chance to visit and bring ideas and techniques back to this project.

(5) We want to attempt a herb spiral which I don't see listed in the manual's index – can anyone email me details or maybe a digital photo (or scanned or ocr'd page) of an article including specifications and particularly what herbs to put where? Coriander is the local favorite by a long shot (and cauliflower the most popular vegetable along with red onions and I haven't seen a single normal onion!).

(6) A fellow yesterday dragged me over to show me his coconut tree which had some afflication meaning it wasn't producing fruit. He wanted to know what was wrong, saying it was becomoing a widespread problem in West Bengal. I took a photo (see and if anyone knows what deficiency or disease it is and what can be done about it this information would be very well received.

(7) Finally, if anyone has any printed information, books, photos, or seeds they think might be helpful based on what I've said here and are in a position to post over here (ideally to arrive before January 26), myself and up to 3000 Indian women (some of which do speak and read English) would be eternally grateful. I am making a little movie about the project and would be happy to send you a copy by way of a thank you. Here is the address:

Dan Palmer/Permaculture Project

c/o Nupur Sanyal

Institute of Social Work

29B, Chetla Central Road

Kolkata – 700027


Thanks in advance for any guidance you can offer and I was thinking that anyone else doing permaculture stuff in India would be welcome to use the blog - over time it could become a resource for folks coming here in future.

Dan Palmer

ps. Rick – I haven't got sick yet ;-), and David – those permaculture-in-India articles I copied from your back issues have been invaluable!