Permaculture in Java

photo 3

Indonesia is an astonishing archipelago of around 17, 000 islands, consisting of a range of ecosystems from rainforests to tropical beaches, highland and lowland mountain areas, and even grasslands, all of which contribute to making it the second greatest biodiversity on the planet. The number of endemic species of both plants and animals far exceeds that of most other countries, but it is also being destroyed at a truly alarming rate. The incredible fertility of the soil is proving to be a double edged sword for the country, with their ability to produce a wide array of crops now being exploited by the global market, and vast swathes of the country being given over to destructive mono-cultures.

I visited Bali last year, and was dazzled by the variety of flora there, and I was curious to return to explore some of the less touristy islands, to see for myself more of the problems this stunning array of wildlife is facing. And hopefully, learn a little more about the solutions being implemented. I therefore organise to go and live and work with a permaculture garden near Salatiga, in the East of Java, the most densely populated of Java’s islands.



After landing in Jakarta, I take an 8 hour train to Yogyakarta, and through the window I am immediately introduced to the extraordinary, lush greenness of the country. Acres and acres of vibrant forests and hills blanketed in greenery, pass us by in a blur. Once in the city, it seems the concrete is barely able to contain the earth’s overflowing vitality, and life sprouts from the paving stones, creeping ferns reclaim walls and even the roads are starting to be softly overtaken by green. But the issues are also clear. Every city is strangled by 4 land motorways, clogging the air with pollution so thick you can taste it. Development is fast, unsympathetic and unstoppable. The population is booming, and it needs to be housed. And fed.

I arrive in Salatiga and find a mid-sized town with all of Indonesia’s usual charms and problems. Houses painted in candy-bright colours and ringed by banana trees, all of which is dulled by the grey dust pouring off the traffic speeding past day and night. The permaculture garden is set back, a little walk through some rice fields and heading into the hills. Suddenly, the air becomes clean and sweet, and the traffic roar is replaced the rustlings and chatterings of the forest.

photo 1

The land looks wild and uncultivated, but it it is in fact, a garden, as the young men running the place are quick to tell me. They are all from Jakarta, passionate, well-educated, and saddened and inflamed by what is happening to their country. They decided that they would take action by showing that another way of living that is beneficial to the planet is not only possible, it’s preferable. So they have set up here, to live a life that is kind to the earth and enjoyable for them. It’s an idyllic prospect.

The basic premise of permaculture is a method of farming that mimics the patterns of nature, meaning it is sustainable, and through continued use, benefits the environment rather than depleting it. Mono-culture, the practice of intensively farming only one crop, destroys the natural ecosystem, as there is not a variety of food available to sustain a broad spectrum of insects and bacteria in the earth. This leads to a gradual depletion of the nutrients in the soil, and a breakdown of it’s structure, meaning it becomes necessary to maintain plant health through chemical means, further exasperating the issue. Mono-culture in Indonesia is mainly rice and palm oil, crops which are causing devastation across the country.


The boys in Salatiga are enthused by their visions of a permaculture future, as they explain their ‘food forest’ to me. It is based on a strictly ‘no-dig’ system, as leaving the soil alone is something they are evangelical about. The soil is left to improve it’s own structure and become rich in nutrients, through the breakdown of fallen leaves and dead insects etc, on its surface. They aid it by planting many nitrogen fixers, legumes such as Calliandra calothyrsus, with its beautiful, pink silken flowers, or pinto beans. The ground is already thick with spiky Mimosa pudica, another member of the Fabaceaea family, with it’s tiny, shimmering pom-pom flowers and peculiar, sensitive leaves.

photo 3

They plant their forest to include as much height and variety of genus as possible, maximising food for animals and humans, ensuring a year-round canopy for wildlife shelter and a range of nutrients to rot down into the soil. It creates a virtuous cycle of production and once established, minimizes work for the farmers. As the boys continuously tell me, a real forest doesn’t need anyone to look after it, and it supports a much wider range of life than any field of rice or oil palm trees.

The forest is in early stages, so there is still some planting to do. We go out in the blazing heat and I help out with planting Bananas, Jack Fruit, Papayas and Mangos. There are endless Cassava plants, which is being touted as the eco-friendly carbohydrate alternative to rice, as it grows so quickly and is much more energy efficient. The forest is pulsing and throbbing with tangible life, as it should be. The boys live harmoniously with all the surrounding nature, in a simple wooden hut, all their energy provided by solar panels.

photo 2

Ducklings enjoying the permaculture dream

The whole experience is affecting beyond measure, really giving me a huge amount to ponder about where I want my horticultural career to take me. If I am going to work with plants, it has to be in a way that is beneficial to the planet, which unfortunately, large sections of the horticultural industry is not. There is an overuse of chemicals in the industry, heated greenhouses which waste huge amounts of energy simply so we can grow plants out of season, and we are becoming increasingly out of touch with the natural patterns. My 2 weeks in Salatiga has taught me how much I want to be a positive force in protecting the planet that produces all these beautiful plants that we admire so much.



Student Internship at Logan Botanic Garden


Logan Botanic Garden in Dumfries and Galloway, one of the four Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh, offers internships for students of horticulture and related subjects. In March this year, I was lucky enough to be given a 5 week internship and the experience was absolutely excellent; rich in learning opportunities and incredibly enjoyable.

The garden is famed for its tropical atmosphere and the fact that it is full of exotic Southern Hemisphere plants, all growing outside despite the fact that it is in Scotland. This is due to the fact that the peninsula it is located on is warmed by the Gulf Breeze, creating a climate that is much milder than other parts of Great Britain, with few extreme temperature fluctuations. The area also very rarely reaches freezing, meaning that tender plants can be grown outside throughout the year. Throughout the entirety of my internship, the weather was incredibly mild, particularly considering it was March in Scotland, and there were many days of clean, bright sunshine.

Students are provided with free accommodation as part of the internship; a clean, comfortable bungalow conveniently located right inside the gardens, meaning waking up for work in the morning is a breeze and there are plenty of opportunities for peaceful, after-hours strolls around the grounds. They are also driven into town twice a week to do grocery shopping as there are no shops in the surrounding area. The closest large town is Stranraer, (about 12 miles away) and though there are a few villages dotted along the nearby coast, none have anything beyond a single post office. Whilst I was there, I borrowed a bike, which I found to be the best way of getting around, as the local bus is a little erratic.

We worked the same hours as regular staff, which are 8.30am-3.30pm during the winter, and a 4.30pm finish in the summer months. The team at Logan is small, so each member of staff is involved with several different aspects of running the garden.

The garden itself is stunning, and completely unexpected. Coming in from the gorse speckled hills and muted palette of grey’s and sea green of the surrounding countryside, to suddenly find yourself in a bright, tropical paradise is pleasingly surreal. The long, winding driveway up to the garden is lined with hundreds of Cordylline australis, giving you a taste of what is to come. Inside, you are immediately surrounded by spiked heads of Trachycarpus fortunei, hot pink Fuschia majellanica, beds laid with a geometrically patterned carpet of purple, matt forming Aeoniums and bright blue Ceanothus creeping over the whitewashed office building. An extravagance of jewel-bright colours that makes an energizing introduction to the garden.

logan pond

The garden is full of whimsical touches, curved paths and secret doors. Based in the center of the garden, there is a large Victorian style glasshouse, glittering in the sun and overflowing with rare tree heathers and a Pelargonium collection. Inside the walled garden, there is an immaculate stretch of velvet smooth lawn, dotted with a number of stout Dicksonia antartica. A shady walkway leading off to a secluded seating area, is lined with a mixture of Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua, the brick floor littered with the crimson and blush pink petals of the showy blooms. A large rectangular pond is filled with carp, lazily drifting along in metallic flashes of gold and silver, the mirror sheen of the water reflecting the slender arched trunks of the surrounding Cordyllines.


Working there everyday was honestly a joy, and tasks as simple as weeding was totally absorbing, when working in beds filled with rare ferns and one-of-a-kind Rhodedendrons. The internship allows you to get involved with the work straight away, and the staff ensure you try a variety of tasks each day, broadening your learning. It’s hard to overstate just how giving Richard Baines (the curator) is with his time, especially considering how many different projects he has on and all the students coming through the program.

It’s such a cliche to say, but the 5 weeks honestly went by much too fast and I left feeling I had learned a huge amount, but also only really skimmed the surface of all the knowledge that Richard and his team have to share. I felt it really consolidated all my past horticultural experiences, as well as teaching me a huge number of new skills. Anyone looking to further their horticultural learning, I would recommend it absolutely.

Logan Botanic Garden Internship

Check the website to download an application form, and send to the curator Richard Baines. Applications can be made throughout the year, and tend to be with 1-4 months. Accommodation is provided for free, but students must buy their own food.

Port Logan,

North Stranraer



Logan House and Garden

logan houseOriginally all one property, Logan House was split up into Logan Botanic Garden and Logan House and Garden in the 60s. The botanic garden is now the more famous, but if in the area, Logan House and Garden is most definitely also worth a visit.
The place has a truly epic scale, with no beds of massed, mixed perennials, but only stunningly huge shrubs and towering trees, which gives the whole place a lovely, strange slightly Alice in Wonderland feeling, as if you’ve wandered into the garden of a giant. Araucaria araucana with ruler straight trunks, taller than houses, holding out their long, arrow spiked arms, miles above. Rhododendrons with frilled heads of flowers as big as your hand, and wide lawns presenting an immaculate sweep of spotless green. The whole place is, astonishingly, managed by just one gardener. The size of his task is pretty mind boggling. 


The garden is split between the formal, and a much larger woodland area. One it’s most impressive aspects is it’s collection of huge, rare Rhodedendrons, one of which, the ‘Rhodedendron fortunei discolor‘ is actually a UK champion for size. 
The grouped heads of the Rhodedendron trees around the lawn make beautiful, cloudy heaps of cherry, cerise and mauve in the sky, punctuated by the spiked leaves of elegant Cordylline australis and lower down, golden swathes of Miscanthus sinensis


 But it is in the woodland area where the gardens charm really lies. Wandering through on a spring afternoon of warm gold, the syrupy light falling through the lush canopy made dappled shadows and there was a deep, resonant peace about the place.
Butter yellow heads of daffodils provided bright touches amongst the myriad greens of feathered fronds of ferns, and laid throughout the woodland was a moss carpet, velvety soft and vibrantly intense.
Here and there, I came upon an old crumbled wall, forgotten amidst the trees and beginning to be reclaimed by the woods, overtaken by the curling tongues of Asplenium scolopendrium and the soft, tumbling mounds of Soleirolia soleirolii.
 It is a fairytale woodland, filled with trembling shadows, glittering spots of light, the whisper of rustling leaves and the occasional glimpse of a rainbow headed pheasant, bossily strutting after a mate.
A secluded spot, well off the beaten track, it is certainly worth a visit when in Dumfries and Galloway.
Logan House Details
Adults £4, children free
Open Monday-Sunday
Mar-Sept, 9am-5pm.

Logan House Gardens are 14 miles south of Stranraer, adjacent to Logan Botanic Garden
Port Logan, Stranraer DG9 9ND
 You can reach it by local bus from Stranraer, or any of the smaller villages along the way to the coast.

Tree Ferns


Dicksonia antarctica at Logan Botanical Garden

Tree ferns capture the imagination in a way no other plant does. They are jurassic, tropical and strikingly beautiful. With their hairy, gnarled trunks and elegant feathery fronds, they add a wild, primal feel to any landscape, transporting us to prehistoric times.

They can definitely be enjoyed in a British garden, but some care needs to be taken. Throughout the winter it is best to wrap the trunks in fleece or bubble wrap to protect them, and ensure the plant is never allowed to dry out. They do not like exposed spots, and prolonged periods of bright sunlight is not ideal.

I’m currently carrying out an internship at Logan Botanical Garden, and so have had the chance to see a truly unusual mixture of tree ferns, all possible due to the mild micro climate that the area enjoys.

Cyathea dealbata (below) is one example, a stunning, silvery, feathery thing, the national symbol of New Zealand and a deeply significant plant in their culture and politics. The top is the usual rich, mid-green, but when flipped over, the pure moonlit, colouring of the underside reveals itself.


Cyathea dealbata

One of the most fascinating thing about tree ferns is the fact that their trunks are not actually trunks in the sense of most perennial plants, in that they are not stems that undergo secondary thickening. They are a slim central stem, surrounded by the dead mass of old plant growth, through which adventitious roots grow. So the roots are all entangled up the length of the trunk, instead of buried underground.


Cyathea medullaris

Tree ferns generally belong to either the Dicksoniaceae and Cyatheaceae families. The Dicksonia’s tend to have a hairier looking trunk, which is the mass of roots growing around the base of old fronds. The Cyathea’s have a rougher, spikier trunk, as the old broken fronds are not softened down. Cyathea’s are also considered to be a little more cold hardy than Dicksonia’s.

The photo above is of the unusual Cyathea medullaris, commonly known as the ‘Black tree fern’ due to it’s stunning coal black stems, which contrast so strikingly with its rich, emerald foliage.



Above is a photo of the Cyathea’s strange and beautiful fiddlehead, tentatively preparing to unfurl, a peculiarly speckled alien claw.

Like buds, fiddleheads are a gratifying and uplifting sight, the sign of new life preparing to open out into something incredible.

Tree ferns can be both richly lush and reminiscent of dark, damp, steaming rainforests, or when viewed alone and simply admired for their quirky shape, can add a whimsical, slightly outlandish element to the garden.

They are a plant that makes us think of the ancient, of a time when no humans marred the planet, but only dinosaurs stalked its surface.



Sanzen-in moss garden

I always think that we don’t love moss enough in this country. Some people do appreciate it’s magical emerald touch scattered across a green space, but in Japan, they’re crazy about it and cultivating it is an admired art form. They recognize it’s ability to add an established feeling, as well as a sense of calm and tranquility to a garden.

There’s a moss garden in Ohara near Kyoto, in the Sanzenin temple and it is undoubtedly one of the most charming and ethereal places, once seen never forgotten. The monks there have cultivated 100’s of different types of moss. It’s an otherworldly spot, tucked away on a mountain, the garden dotted with strange little stone statues poking their heads through the rich, velvet moss carpet, the place hushed under the canopy of trees, the only sound the rhythmic drop of a raindrop sliding down a leaf and into the still ponds. It awoke in me an absolute devotion to moss, and all the mysterious, shadowy and green places it inhabits.


Patchwork of Moss and Lichen on a tree trunk

On a recent visit to the Cotswold, on a glum November weekend, I was happy to encounter plenty of moss, looking particularly enticing and vibrant in the rain.

Moss is a Bryophyte, which means it is the most basic form of plant life. It does not have a vascular system,  which means it lacks xylem (for water transport) and phloem (for sugar and mineral transport) tissues. They mainly absorb water and nutrients from their tiny leaves, which are only one cell thick. They do not have proper roots, but tiny hair-like rhizoids which help them anchor themselves to their growing surface. moss-1Moss also has no seeds or flowers, and reproduces by spores, which means they can spread quickly and with ease. This is part of what makes them a pioneer species, the first plants to start colonising an area after the eco-system has been damaged.

That’s why I love moss; it seems to encompass a lot of what it is that I love about plants. Their tenacity, their determination to return; even after we have absolutely ravaged an area and left it ugly and broken, they’ll come creeping back in without our help, bringing back the life and the greenery. Moss provides more carbon offset than trees, yet we insist on trying to scrape it out of our gardens.

When you put your face close to moss, it’s like looking into a tiny world. You could imagine people a few centimeters high sitting on the furry hummocks. When you take the longer view, and see an ancient building or devastated ruin with a velveteen covering, you can see nature reclaiming her land with silent, creeping fingers.


Mossy monkey in the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest



Autumn is coming to a close and we’re moving slowly into winter. But it has been a stunning season. We’ve had the usual junk weather that England likes to throw around, but we’ve also had crisp, mild days with diamond bright shards of sunshine, and clear, azure skies.hyde-park-4

These low temperatures and bright sun have given us gorgeous autumn color; trees dripping with bronze, gold and ruby reds and that sweet, slightly melancholy, nostalgic scent of cold, of damp leaves and rich, wet earth. Breathing it in, we know the year is older, sadder, full of memories and ready to turn in for the night.

Autumn is characterized by it’s burning bright colors. It’s a result of the chlorophyll in the leaves being reduced in response to the shorter days, and the other chemicals such as anthocyanin (red) and carotene (orange), become more dominant.

Like these Japanese maple leaves above. Acer palmatum var.dissectum ‘Garnet’ (left) and Acer palmatum (right). Blood red stars, like holding a flame in your hand, they are rich with colour for a few more days, then will drift off on the breeze for another year.

At the base of the petiole of each leaf, the pectins start breaking down. Soon all that is securing the leaf to the stem is the xylem strands, and a strong wind is enough to tear these apart, leaving the leaf free to float away. The torn off xylem leaves bundle scars on the stem, and the tree is bare until the budding spring the next year.

prunusMany plants really come into their own in the Autumn, and it a season with nearly as many decorative merits, horticulturally speaking, as spring and summer.

Robinia psudoacacia (left); a common street tree of vibrant, lime green leaves through the warmer months, as the weather turns, it’s branches are drooping with festoons of golden coins that are pure butter yellow and soft to touch.


Or Cotinus’Grace’ (above). It’s a deciduous shrub, with simple, obvate leaves that turn from deep plum to crimson as the year comes to a close. Throughout the spring it has an iridescent sheen on its leaves, and in the summer, the same cloud like plumes as the Cotinus coggryggia.

Autumn suits London particularly well, a final chance for it to gleam in the crisp sunlight before the real darkness begins.


I never, ever use the word ‘magical’ to express myself, as it’s generally an unnecessary hyperbole with no relation to what it’s describing….BUT……..I might have to use it for my recent trip to Sissinghurst. In this instance, it’s entirely apt.

On a dreamy, hazy, sunny day, the place had a hush upon it that worked its way effortlessly into you, and as you wondered through wide stone arches, or slipped through tiny secret doors, it seemed that everything was trapped in one sublime moment of an eternal summer.


In the honey gold, late summer light, the flowers seemed somehow extra alive and the planting was so thoughtful, so sympathetic, vivid and vital, showing the art that only generations of care and toil can create.

The famous White Garden was absolutely everything I wanted to be. I had high expectations (of course) and they were absolutely surmounted, which is hardly a common experience in life.

There were the tall heads of white Agapanthus africanus, silky petalled Cosmos bipinnatus nodding above it’s frothy foliage, the punctuating spires of white Veronicastrum virginicum and the opulently frilled globes of Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabel’. Glimmering in shades of moonlight, pearl and snow, with the soft drone of bees and a slight breeze ribboning its way through the leaves, it was an ethereal spot.


I found the whole place impossible to photograph, as it’s tricky getting enough distance and detail at the same time, but suffice to say it had a charm over it that compelled us to linger, sitting in dappled shadows on a bench actually built into a Buxus hedge! (the place evidently called for very intense discussions too, as can be seen by the photo above.)

The garden had countless discoveries breathlessly waiting to reveal themselves to you, secret spots beckoning as you turned a little corner; the lush, deep mounds of rich green ferns in the Nuttery, the cool calm of the Lime Walk.

orange-gardenThe Cottage Garden was overflowing with exuberance and burning with bright colour in the sun. Deep crimson Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ adding spiky, insect like detail, butter yellow spires of Verbascum olympicum, rising above oyster grey leaves of softest velvet. Banks of  Dahlias in reds and oranges as brash and tempting as boiled sweets.

I would unreservedly recommend it.


Adults are £13.30, Children are £6.85

The garden is closed from 1st November to December 31st